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.