Distance Education Retention

Exploring Retention Strategies for Distance Learners, by Steven Starks

In our discussion of the differences between distance education (DE) and face-to-face (F2F) instruction and a comparison of the role of the instructor in DE vs. F2F, questions of retention came up.  These questions, along with questions at our college about retention as we move towards a blended learning environment, set me to look for work that discussed how retention compares in DE vs. F2F.  I found it interesting that it was pretty hard to find any work that covered the gamut of instructional options in DE.  There were articles about the poor retention in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and less poor retention of other fully online, instructor led, courses.  Unfortunately, there was little regarding the hybrid or blended learning environment.  What I did find, however, was a good list of low-cost strategies to improve retention in a DE environment (see the bottom of the article in the above link).

Starks is an academic counselor and, not surprisingly, he focused on the issue from the perspective of an academic counseling department.  It’s a great list and one worthy of institutions offering any type of DE to consider.  In addition, I would add to the list, an early warning referral system where instructors get into the act.  This is probably easier implemented in a blended learning environment, but could be used by fully online courses as well.  When students attendance or log-ons start to slow, when grades are poor, or student responses indicate that the student just doesn’t seem to be getting the material, these are good times for individualized contact by the instructor or counseling department.  Is there something that can be done to help the student?  Are there external, personal, factors leading to the poor performance?  Are there technical issues?   Is there an academically related problem?  These seem to be questions that could be assessed early and in an ongoing way to improve retention.

Research and Fraud

How Science Goes Wrong in The Economist

Much of what we do in our class, and what educational researchers do everyday, is based on research that has been done before.  Having worked in the physical sciences, social sciences and now education, I’ve often wondered about the quality of research.  As I transitioned from the physical sciences to the social sciences, I began to see how easy it might be to “fake” results – something that I didn’t consider when in the physical sciences.

I’ve wondered similarly about fraud and educational research in the past several months.  Now stories are popping up in the media about a large percentage of results in Chinese science journals being fraudulent and the attached article as well.  I think it may be a warning shot across the bow of educational research.  Perhaps in the publish or perish environment of academia, there should be more respect given to replicating results.  I can understand that you don’t want researchers who are only capable of mimicking results, but a mix of replication and unique research would seem to be good for the scientific pursuit.  I wonder how many blind alley’s could be averted and resources saved through such a shift in thinking.

OER and Quality

On Quality and OER by David Wiley

There was much discussion in our class lately regarding Open Educational Resources (OER) and their quality or lack thereof.  Tony Bates argued that “the materials available to date are terrible…” in response to OER available at GlobalUni’s site (a free university), though he was arguing about that as but one example of the poor quality of general OER (Bates, 2011, The Bad, para. 4).  David Wiley, in the attached link above, argues for the opposing view – that just because it is OER doesn’t mean that it is poor quality.  In fact, he offers evidence that quality (in terms of accuracy) is little different between an OER like Wikipedia and an encyclopedia produced through traditional means, like the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Further, he questions how quality really should be defined, settling on a definition that refers to whether students learn using the resource and not whether the resource has a lot of glossy photos.

In the quality argument, I think that Wiley is closer to the mark, but that there is room to include a bit of both views in the definition.  It isn’t that I think that glossy pictures are more important than whether the resources are effective learning tools.  Rather, I wonder if more people will persist in the learning process if they are attracted to the resources.  While I suspect that Bates was being deliberately provocative, it is an unfair indictment – as Wiley’s evidence shows,  Ultimately I think it is just important to encourage the OER movement to improve educational access for all.  Market mechanisms, for those who have determined how to make money using OER, and people voting with their clicks, may determine the highest quality materials and provide the drive to improve that quality.


Bates, T., (2011, February 6). OERs: the good, the bad and the ugly. Available from:http://www.tonybates.ca/2011/02/06/oers-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/

Distance Education Defined

3 Must-Knows on Distance Ed by Joel Shapiro

This article was a good summary of the complexities of the distance education experience.  Distance education (DE) spans the spectrum from synchronous to asynchronous, active learning to more passive learning and structured to more open, less organized, approaches.  Contrary to the popular view, DE allows for a variety of teaching and learning styles while generally increasing flexibility and expanding access to education.  In the future the question may be less about whether we will engage in the DE experience and instead be about what type of DE model works best for your learning style.

One of the more interesting statements in the article is: “No serious distance educator would ever suggest that distance education fully supplants the benefits of a live in-person experience. Rather, we argue that the loss of face-to-face benefits in a classroom can be mitigated in a distance learning environment if students achieve the intended learning outcomes while benefiting from convenience and increased access to higher education.”   I do wonder about the importance of the social experience in the educational environment.  In DE it is often just replaced by a different type of social experience, at least among the less passive types.  One of the main questions in considering this issue is whether we are achieving the desired outcomes and is the social experience one of the desired outcomes?  In today’s marketplace, you’d certainly expect a level of social competency that may be lost in a DE environment.  There are things like synchronous and asynchronous video that approximate the social experience – but is it enough or even necessary?  As DE evolves and the marketplace evolves with it, will it be necessary then?

Blogging and the educational process

Educational Blogging by Stephen Downes

This is my first entry in fulfillment of an assignment for our class entitled, “Technology in Distance Education and e-learning.”  I figured a good place to start was to look at the use of blogging to the educational process.  One of my favorite bloggers to follow, educational researcher Stephen Downes, just happened to have the perfect article to start the ball rolling!   One reason he started his blog was an effort to organize his bookmarks of important material.  This was my thinking as well, as someone who often finds articles worthy of saving for another day.  In the attached article, he explains the benefits of educational blogging.  Teachers use it as a class webpage, as a link to material relevant to course material, to organize in-class discussions and readings, and to encourage students to write and think critically.  Downes sums it up by explaining that blogging “…is about engaging with the content and with the authors of what you have read—reflecting, criticizing, questioning, reacting” and doing so in a way that connects with others on the topic – with the outside community.  This is what makes it different from simply keeping a journal.

These are all excellent reasons to blog.  Another good reason is that you can easily map out, in real time, the evolution of your thought on an issue.  It is no longer a question of, “how did I get here?”  Through the blog, you can see how your thoughts progressed.  That is a nice aspect of learning that typically gets lost in our attempts to understand the world.

One more point that I found interesting – in the comments section of Downes’ blog, one poster states that blogging has become another form of spamming. It’s an interesting idea in that I can see how it could be used that way and I am sure it sometimes is. At the same time, I think there is great utility in linking to quality content and critically analyzing the material. I think it is an additive process.