In recent years, the online education industry has witnessed explosive growth. In fact, between 1997 and 2001, student enrollment figures for online education courses increased by a staggering 110% (Waits & Lewis, 2008). Today, it is not uncommon to see traditional educational institutions offering a myriad of ‘distance learning’ courses; often facilitated through the implementation of online pathways. The increase in numbers of students enrolling in these courses provides a testament to their popularity and perceived attractiveness (Waits & Lewis, 2009). However, whilst online courses may appear viable options for students in a fast-paced modern environment, many studies have concluded that students who study courses online are significantly less likely to successfully complete their course, compared with those students who study according to a more traditional educational format (Carr, 2010; Moody, 2008). Specifically, the attrition rate (the rate at which students tend to drop out of a course) (Martinez, 2011) is consistently higher for online, compared to offline, courses. Clearly, such a finding warrants further rigorous research, if educators and students alike are to ever comprehend the most suitable and preferable circumstances for learning.
At the institution under study, attrition rates for students studying online courses have gradually increased over the years. High attrition rates cause huge concern for institutions because generally they are thought to provide a short-hand measure to the public of how reputable, trustworthy and professional an institution is (Moody, 2008; Thomson, 1999).
If online courses attract the highest rates of attrition, it seems absolutely imperative to decipher whether this is because the online course is not currently able to encourage the hope, motivation, willingness or academic knowledge necessary to successfully complete a course.
One must decipher whether the income gained from students enrolling in online courses is really cost-effective, given that high attrition rates for online courses can be so economically damaging in both the short and long term. As Moody (2004, pp. 205) has recognized; “the costs for development, delivery, and assessment, as well as lost tuition revenue, result in wasted expenditures for the institution.” Profits are not only lost in the short term from a dwindling cohort of distance-study students; but also in the long term through a damaged reputation and a gradual lack of enthusiasm for any of the courses run by the institution, online or offline.
It appears somewhat surprising that attrition rates would be so high for online courses, given their brilliant convenience, and also the technological online environment which can facilitate a multifaceted, enriched learning experience. As Rovai explains, online learning is facilitated through “advanced electronic delivery systems” (2009, pp. 1) which can, in some senses, rival real-time learning because these delivery systems can be accessed anytime, anywhere, and through a wide variety of exciting mediums. Clearly, the main difference between online and offline study is the quality and style of communication which is present between the educator and the student. Online courses typically facilitate communication through techniques such as video and audio teleconferencing either live or pre-recorded, asynchronous bulletin boards and synchronous chats (Waits & Lewis, 2008; 2009; NSES). These differences in communication would need to be taken into account when trying to evaluate the attrition, retention and persistence rates for students studying online compared with offline courses. In this context, ‘persistence’ refers to the students’ commitment to completion of their studies (Martinez, 2011), and retention is measured by counting the number of students who successfully complete either their degree course or their personal goals. Clearly, these rates are useful in trying to measure the quality of different types of academic courses, and any study looking into the efficacy of online courses would need to take a measure of these rates into account.
It is impossible to doubt the need to further evaluate and assess online courses, seen as online courses comprise such a large proportion of higher education. As has already been mentioned, between 1997 and 2001, enrollments for online courses increased by 110%, meaning that in 2001 around 2,876,000 students were enrolled on an online course (Lewis at al., 2008). Moreover, between 1997 and 2001, the number of online courses available increased by 138%, reaching an amount of approximately 118,100 which accurately represents the pace at which this industry is growing (Waits & Lewis, 2003).
It must be mentioned that attrition differences may also depend on other factors as well as just method of study, such as; the topic of study and individual differences. For example, Terry (2011) evaluated a series of courses at Western Texas A&M University and found that students studying business-related topics such as accounting, marketing and management displayed very similar attrition rates, regardless of the mode of study (online or traditional classrooms). However, those studying finance or statistics courses displayed very different attrition rates depending upon the method of study; online students displayed attrition rates of between 33% and 48%, whereas traditional method students displayed attrition rates of between 13% and 23% (Terry, 2011). These findings would suggest that certain topics may be more suited to a particular style of teaching, and perhaps students studying specific topics may require higher levels of interpersonal assistance in order to be more likely to successfully complete their course. This could infer that online, distance courses should only be offered for a limited and select number of subject areas.
Nash (2010) found that one of the predominant reasons students were failing to complete an online course was due to issues surrounding time management. Often, online courses are not structured in the same way as traditional courses, and the onus is frequently on the student to work through the material at a pace of their own choosing. It is harder to implement the same type of rigorous structure, progression, and formative assessment in an online course and so this may go some way towards explaining why attrition rates are higher for online courses compared to more traditional ones. Nash (2010) also found that students considered online courses to lack clear direction; another point which is likely related to the higher attrition rates in online courses.
This lack of clear direction in online courses has been recognized by other researchers, some of whom have noted students’ “reported confusion, anxiety, and frustration due to perceived lack of prompt or clear feedback from the instructor, and from ambiguous instructions on the course website and in e-mail messages from the instructor” (Hara & Kling, 2012, pp.68). Therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly; communication between the educator and student emerges as one of the major factors which may determine the student’s ability to successfully complete a course. Undoubtedly, communication can occur meaningfully through online pathways, though the most meaningful types of communication, and experiences of ‘belonging’ (Hara & Kling, 2012) are likely to be nurtured in a traditional academic environment.