One of the biggest challenges facing the field of Distance Education is student retention. Do students drop their courses because of busy schedules? Family and career demands? Or because of an instructor's teaching methods? These are crucial questions for those involved in this field.
Administrators are scrambling to establish procedures that can keep pace with the fast growth in distance learning. There is a need to establish methods that will keep students enrolled in their courses, right through to completion. By helping students develop ways to overcome the obstacles that cause them to give up their educational goals, distance learning administrators are able to create a supportive, staying environment.
A combination of factors have increased the number of non-traditional students pursuing their education. Employers are demanding higher educational requirements for entry-level positions as well, people are living longer and seeking educational experiences later in life for job advancement, self-improvement and general interest.
Non-traditional students defy easy categorization. The characteristics that make up this group are constantly changing: women and men experience different needs, the needs of a single student versus the needs of students with families and older students have different needs than younger students.
The semi-retirement period of the baby-boomer generation has also contributed to increasing the average age of the typical non-traditional student, creating new and distinctive needs to be met. Contrary to what most people believe, these older students are less likely to drop a course than younger students. Older students have more-defined goals and are used to dealing with the independent nature of the work, but may drop courses with poor instruction or technical support.
While distance learning caters to a broad student demographic, the majority of distance education students leave because their lives suddenly become very busy, and they feel overwhelmed. In many cases, education is often the easiest thing to let go, as it only affects the student. Depending on the delivery method of the course, students may also be forced to leave because of a change in job location, the transfer of a spouse, and new family demands.
A strong contribution to student retention appears to be a positive student-faculty relationship. Establishing direct contact with students and making them aware of the requirements of a distance learning course is essential. Successful instructors keep students interested through frequent e-mails, prompt responses, regular hours during which they can be contacted, and adding personal touches such as photos and graphics to lessons. All of these elements contribute to developing a direct bond between distance-learner and instructor.
Distance education administrators are also now requiring instructors to have a plan on how they intend to incorporate retention strategies into their class and encourage more student participation in study groups, collaborative projects, etc. Many instructors are also given the power to make flexible deadlines for students struggling to balance their studies with other commitments. This enables the instructor to lessen some of the burden the students feel, and hopefully keep them enrolled in the class.
Others in the field of distance learning believe that institutions are moving to a point where students may be tested and matched to the delivery method best suited to their learning style, life demands and educational goals, contributing to higher retention rates.
As instructors become accustomed to teaching with the constantly changing technology used for distance education and this learning medium improves, many administrators are optimistic that their retention rates will rise.
Only time and technology will give us the answer, but the battle against student retention in distance education has begun.