Posted by: Gillian | May 23, 2011

Are online failure rates what they seem?

In The Chronicle, Rob Jenkins rightly, in my opinion, claims ‘most’ online courses are harder than their online counterparts. The implicit assumption is that the online courses in question are from reputable institutions, not diploma mills.  ‘Harder’ is open to interpretation and Rob focuses on the extra skills needed (time management, technical) to argue for an online education suitability test.

My view is that answers the wrong question: students are not the problem but “the system” may be. Because online education is more flexible in terms of attendance contexts and (often) entry criteria, all sorts of people are attracted to it.  Some have no wish whatsoever to complete a degree – perhaps because they are already highly qualified and/or industry chiefs, perhaps because they just want to do a course for fun.  That gives a drop-out group that is almost exclusive to the online/distance student.  Some sign up because the apparent flexibility might just give them the chance to fit the course in their diaries and, like their campus colleagues, find that flexibility does not mean shorter hours nor lack of deadlines.  Others sign on for a course for which they are totally unsuited either academically or practically and they exist in both online and campus courses despite the efforts of campus courses to screen candidates (see, for example, UK HE clawback on widening particpation in undergraduate programmes).

Screening to accept people into online courses strikes me as being wrong on two main counts:

  1. It assumes the institution knows why the candidate wants to take the course
  2. It assumes the institutional goal of a good completion rate is more important than education.
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