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«Minimizing Attrition in Online Degree Courses Eliani Colferai Boton, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia Sue Gregory, ...»

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Minimizing Attrition in Online Degree Courses

Eliani Colferai Boton, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

Sue Gregory, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia


The number of online programs in the higher education sector has increased dramatically in the

last decade, and with it, an increase in attrition has become a recurring problem worldwide.

Literature suggests that elements of culture, motivation, learning management systems and online pedagogy play a major role in attrition rates in the higher education sector. Using an interpretivist paradigm with qualitative case studies from six countries, the researcher explores online lecturers’ successful engagement strategies on these four main thematic areas. Results provide a range of strategies that can be applied by lecturers to increase engagement and minimize online attrition.

Keywords: Online learning, engagement strategies, online pedagogies, online attrition, motivational strategies, diversity in online courses


Online attrition has been one of the drawbacks of online degree programs. A large body of literature has investigated online students’ perceptions of the online environment and their reasons for dropping out of courses, but not lecturers’ views and challenges on the issue. The attrition problem has educational as well as economic implications, and it has also been attributed to the quality of education delivered by universities. This research aimed to examine the successful strategies applied by 18 online lecturers in six countries on their eLearning practices in the higher education sector. Based on an interpretivist paradigm, the researcher used qualitative methods to explore lecturers’ views and challenges with online teaching and the creation of engagement in online environments. This research aimed to find alternatives to enhance the online teaching and learning processes, guiding institutions and lecturers to take measures to help reduce online attrition rates.


The number of online programs in the higher education sector has increased dramatically in the last decade, and with it, an increase in online attrition has become a recurring problem worldwide (Newman, Couturier, & Scurr, 2010). Herbert (2006) argues that in the late 1990s, the number of online courses offered by American institutions tripled, and by 2002, students enrolled in online courses were higher than 57%. A recent market size analysis report on global education expenditure indicates that the online market has a predicted global growth rate of 23%, from 2015 to 2017, which takes the market from US$90 bn to US$166.5 bn in 2015 and $255 bn in 2017 (Edtech Digest Market predictions, 2013). However, there has been an increase in attrition rates in online courses, which can be 10% to 20% higher than their face-to-face counterparts (Bart, 2012). Literature suggests that issues related to culture, motivation, effectiveness of learning management systems (LMSs) and online pedagogies, play a major role in attrition in the higher education sector.

Culture With the increased popularity of online courses, student cohorts have become more diverse, as some undergraduate courses, fully online, started to attract students worldwide. It has been suggested that these courses, mainly when attracting international students, are the ones in need of specialist designers that are knowledgeable about cultural differences, and who can create an inclusive, accessible and flexible learning environment (Gay, 2010). Researchers suggest that most online courses ignore the cultural and sub-cultural differences in learning behavior, and fail to address the diversity of their learners (Adeoye & Wentling, 2007; Mushtaha & Troyer, 2007; Rogers, Graham, & Mayes, 2007; Mercado; Hughes & Bruce, 2006).

Motivation Researchers have claimed motivation to be one of the causes of online attrition (Willging & Johnson, 2004; Tyler-Smith, 2006; Herbert, 2006; Levy, 2007; Clow, 2013). Zaharias (2009) asserts that the affective dimension that affects motivation has been neglected in some eLearning developments, and without it, it is difficult to create a good connection between learners and their online courses, which makes them active and engaged. Visser, Plomp, Amirault and Kuiper (2002) tested the idea of using motivational strategies in a Pilot Test, where lecturers provided constant motivational messages to students in distant learning settings. As a result, there was an improvement on students’ overall satisfaction and an increase in their completion rates.

According to Timmis and Cook (2004), motivation is an essential element and part of good practice in online courses.

Learning Management System (LMS) and Online Pedagogy In the discussion of effectiveness of LMSs, issues of a pedagogical and technological nature arise. LMSs are a suite of software tools that can be used to provide a range of teaching and learning activities and the services that enable their management and facilitation (Naidu, 2003). LMSs have, since early 2000’s, become the technology commonly used by universities for their online programs (Steel, 2009; Rutkowski & Moscinska, 2010). It is argued that some educators are adding content online without applying sound pedagogical principles and LMSs are not used in effective ways (Vrasidas, 2004).

A combination of theories (behaviorist, cognitivist and constructivist) have been used to develop web-based material, as there is no single learning theory to follow (Ally, 2004). Despite the increase in online offerings in the higher education sector, courses are not always tailored to students’ needs (Hughes & Bruce, 2006; Herbert, 2006; Uden, 2007). For eLearning to be successfully implemented, it needs to be rooted in strong pedagogical foundations (Govindasamy, 2001). According to Vrasidas (2000), the use of technology in teaching makes lecturers approach the design and delivery of courses with a constructivist approach, considering online education shifts the focus from knowledge transmission to knowledge construction. With learning that increasingly happens within online environments, researchers are also looking for new terms to describe it. Siemens (2004) introduced the idea of connectivism which, according to Ally (2004), is a more appropriate term to the globalized and networked world we live in today. Al-Sheri (2011) claims that previous learning theories (behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism) focus on learning that happens inside the individual, and do not take into account the use of technology, which allows us to learn through networked knowledge and by processing knowledge through online social interactions. Sahin (2012) clarifies that our digital era includes technology and connection-making as learning activities, and connectivism provides insight into these dynamics, providing greater relevance to learners’ present needs.

Theoretical Framework According to Schultz and Hatch (2012), interpretivism gives an associative model of analysis where researchers can explore the association between meanings, creating concepts that are unique to each context, and expanding cultural analysis. In qualitative studies, the researcher makes claims based primarily on constructivist perspectives, collecting open-ended data to develop themes that can be interpreted to reach to conclusions (Creswell, 2003).

Conceptual Framework According to Smyth (2004), a conceptual framework is a useful tool to scaffold research, and therefore assists in making meanings of subsequent findings. The framework is what helps researchers to develop awareness and a greater perspective of a situation, framing the approach and perspective. Following this principle, this study’s literature review underpinned the investigation through the conceptual framework by providing reference points from which the research questions emerged and analysis of data was conducted.

The four themes, presented by literature as main areas related to attrition are the basis for the construction of a web-based survey and interviews conducted with 18 online lecturers, in six countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Norway, Spain and the States, from February to April, 2014.

All relevant University of New England IRB regulations were precisely followed during recruitment and data collection and Ethics approval from the University of New England was received before any contact was made with prospective participants.

The main research question was: What are the effective engagement strategies used by online lecturers in order to reduce attrition rates? From this question, four sub-questions emerged, as


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• How do lecturers engage culturally diverse cohorts?

• What are the strategies used to keep students motivated?

• How do lecturers make use of LMSs to foster online engagement?

• What pedagogies are used to foster engagement?

Most studies have explored students’ reasons for dropping out of online courses. The literature review highlighted the fact, for students, aspects of culture, motivation, the use of LMS and the online pedagogy chosen were the main reasons for leaving their courses. The importance of culture was highlighted by Andrade (2006), Caruana (2004) and Kim and Bonk (2002), explaining that lay culture is usually the norm and educators end up not providing an inclusive environment to culturally diverse students who end up not fully engaged in the online environment. Motivation and its effect on attrition was presented by Packham, Jones, Miller and Thomas (2004), Herbert (2006), Levy (2007) and Jones (2013) who explained the importance of creating strategies to increase students’ motivation to learn. Other researchers, such as Rutkowski and Moscinska (2010), McGill, Klobas and Renzi (2008) and Christie and Jurado (2009), claimed that the ability to integrate technology using proper pedagogical skills while using LMSs can greatly affect students’ attrition rates. Attrition caused by lack of a sound online pedagogical design was also explored by Tyler-Smith (2006), Levy (2007) and Godwin-Jones (2012), emphasising the need for training lecturers in the use of online pedagogical strategies.

These recurring contexts in literature, considered as main reasons for attrition, led this research to focus on four main thematic areas: culture, motivation to learn, LMS and online pedagogy, as outlined in Figure 1.

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Figure 1: Conceptual Framework - Four Engagement Areas. Copyright 2014 by Eliani Boton Considering most studies presented in the literature review concentrated on students’ reasons for dropping out of courses, this research focused on lecturers’ views on online attrition and the strategies they currently apply in their online courses.


The four themes, presented by the literature as main areas related to attrition, were the basis for the construction of a web-based survey and interviews conducted with 18 online lecturers who teach in six universities, located in different countries, facilitating cross-case analysis and triangulation of data. A qualitative methodology was applied, with case studies used as instruments for the collection of data. Case studies help participants reflect on their perceptions while communicating participants’ point of view of the issue being explored. This research was based on constructivist and connectivist learning theories. The settings for this research were six universities, ranking as some of the most acclaimed online institutions in their respective countries. These universities are located in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Norway, Spain and the United States of America. Considering that online programs attract students from different geographical locations, it seemed more productive to have a holistic analysis of the problem, viewing it from the perspective of lecturers working in different countries and continents. Lecturers were chosen using purposive sampling, as participants needed to be carefully selected on the basis of their experience. For this research, the choice was to select only lecturers who teach core subjects in education, fully online. Bluff and Cluett's (2006) advice that a smaller sample size is more manageable in qualitative studies, hence, the choice of 18 lecturers (three in each university). However, data from multiple sources may be sufficient to collect relevant information and cross-check their consistency in order to increase the sturdiness of findings (Wahyuni, 2012). The aim is not generalisation of results, but the discovery of best practices in terms of the four themes that emerged from the literature review (cultural diversity, motivation, use of LMSs and online pedagogy).

Subjects were all education-related (see Table 1), with 12 undergraduate and six postgraduate courses.

Table 1 Subjects taught (n=18)

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The courses represented in this research had from 54 to 350 enrolled online students.

Lecturers have many years experience in their university careers. The lowest number of years teaching at university level reported was eight, and the highest 30 years. The lowest number of years teaching online reported is four, with 16 being the highest (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Number of years teaching at university level and online Data was collected using a web-based questionnaire and individual interviews and analyzed in a qualitative way.


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Lecturers were asked about their views on strategies required to engage a diverse cohort, with the following question: In your experience, do culturally diverse cohorts need specific strategies to foster student engagement when learning through an online course? Yes ( ) No ( ) If ‘Yes’, please provide brief details.

A total of 16 out of 18 (89%) lecturers affirmed that diverse cohorts do not require specific engagement strategies. Three lecturers (17%) explained that they make use of thoughtprovoking questions or statements that challenge ideas as incentives for students to start a conversation. One lecturer (6%) added that moderation on the part of the lecturer is important to keep ideas flowing within a diverse cohort without criticism. Some interesting comments from

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