In e-learning courses, fully online or blended, the biggest challenge for course providers is to ensure retention, allowing participants to finish their online course. While sign-up rates can look promising, drop-out rates are often high, and completion rates could be improved.
Our blended learning programme in Evidence-Based Policy Research Methods (EPRM), designed for working professionals, is no exception to the rule. The course design includes an opening and closing module, offered face-to-face in Maastricht and three modules of 10 weeks in total of online learning in between.
This set up allows participants to be trained in research methods, while fulfilling their duties in their work environment and at home. It is really a joy to teach our EPRM participants, who come to learn out of choice not necessity. It is our challenge to develop the programme to encourage completion for all participants, resulting in continuous adjustments, mainly to the online components, of the EPRM programme.
Being taught, after often having worked for many years, may not always feel like a joy. In September and January, when the new participants arrive in Maastricht, participants are without exception optimistic about the upcoming course. They are confident about the amount of time they have available to commit to the course, and during the first two weeks dive into the field of research with an enthusiasm and eagerness to learn new skills.
They realise the course workload is heavy, yet they work extremely hard, and get used again to the rhythm of taking class, submitting assignments, reading chapters and managing deadlines. After two weeks of face-to-face classes, all participants admit to having stretched their comfort zones – yet this is the easy part. After two weeks full-time study in Maastricht, our participants go home, full of ideas related to new research plans, and with commitment to their cause to complete the programme. This is where the real struggle starts.
In line with the findings by Salmon (2004), Hrastinski (2008), Nistro et al (2010) there are steps in online course participation that need to be taken in order to complete a course successfully. The first step is to find the motivation to start the course.
The four kinds of e-learners
With participants worldwide, EPRM also hosts what we call ‘ICT-weaker participants’. These participants do well in the face-to-face module, managing interactions and asking for what they need in terms of content and ICT support to complete the first module. However, when back home they are required to use their e-learning tools to collect teaching materials, ask questions and seek feedback on the online discussion boards, and upload assignments on the online learning platform. This can be challenging, due to weaker ICT infrastructure available, or less experienced user skills.
We also host the online silent participant, who struggles with self-motivation for the online components. Often excellent performers in class, we find that when away, they are not using any of our tools, not communicating with the programme management or tutors, and leaving us in the dark on their progress. As programme management, this group is hard to serve well in the online environment, as we simply cannot reach them.
The second and third steps of successful online participation are (2) online socialisation, and (3) information exchange. Participants who struggle with their work/study/life balance are those who find it hard to invest sufficient time to complete the course requirements. They return home, are able to navigate through the course materials, download all materials yet are unable to complete the weekly workload. With an average workload of 10-20 hours (on top of regular work and family obligations) it is not surprising that staying on track is hard. Often this struggle by participants is only visible after a few weeks, when deadlines for uploads are missed. In general, there is enough communication with the EPRM management and tutor team, and individual solutions are found.
The most successful participants are those who manage to use the online material to acquire knowledge (4) and achieve (5) personal development. The successful participants – on average more than half of the group – manage their activities well, stay committed to the online coursework, submit assignments on time and tend to finish the programme within the required time period. With above average frequency in tutor interaction, use of the online discussion facilities and ability to integrate the learning content in their own research plan, knowledge is not only consumed, but actually used for their personal development.
To ensure success for all four groups of participants, we have built-in flexibility for the online programme. For participants who are really short on time, we created a modular approach that allows them to spread the nominal 10-week workload over a period of three years. For participants who have almost finished the online workload, but are not able to complete everything or integrate it in their personal research plans, we created a face-to-face recap week. This allows them to leave their workplace and study for a week in Maastricht, with tutor support, to complete the last assignments and integrate the learning.
For ICT-weaker participants we can adjust timelines and move content to the next round of the course offering, giving them more time to get used to the online environment and/or create a functional ‘home office’ for the online modules. The only participants we fail to reach are the online silent ones. There are many reasons for remaining silent, from health issues to changes in personal situation to disappointments in personal performance and even embarrassment to admit inability to enter the courses. This is our next big challenge is – to help our silent participants find their voices.
APPLY BY 19 DECEMBER
Hrastinski (2008), “What is online learner participation, a literature Review”, Computers and Education, vol 51 (4), 1755-1765
Nicolae Nistor and Katrin Neubacher (2010), “From participation to dropout: Quantitative Participation Patterns in Online University Courses”, Computers and Education, vol 55(2), 663-673
Salmon (2004), “E-moderating, the key to teaching and learning online”, Routledge, Falmer, London
Flickr / ebayink