Professors study how to improve online learning

At Kennesaw State University 15 percent of students dropped one traditional business class, while 29 percent dropped the online version of the course during the spring 2009 semester, said business professor Stacy Campbell. Nationally, dropout rates for online courses are between 15 to 20 percent higher.

"We're all starting to do more online classes and we're all looking at what we can do to get students to stay in the class and enjoy the class," Campbell said.

Online courses cover the same material as traditional classes. The tuition costs are the same and they're are on the same semester system as bricks-and-mortar classes. But some online students struggle because they can't keep with the material, get distracted by work or family or miss interacting with professors and other students.

Faculty use different strategies to combat this problem -- calling students at home, sending e-mails, even asking students to sign contracts pledging to stay on top of assignments. Campbell and five other professors at Kennesaw State's Coles College of Business wondered whether these methods work and tested them during the spring 2009 semester.

They didn't work. Students exposed to the strategies dropped out as often as those who weren't, according to the study that will be published this month.

"We really tried to provide some personal touches that students may miss out on by taking a class online," Campbell said. "The students seemed to like what we did and it helped those who stayed in the class. But it really didn't do anything to keep students from dropping the course."

Online learning provides students with flexibility and enables colleges to increase course offerings without spending millions on new classrooms. More than 4.6 million college students take at least one online class, according to the Sloan Survey of Online Learning. While enrollment in traditional classes grew by about 1 percent last year, online enrollment grew by about 17 percent, according to the national survey.

About 7.5 percent of all credit hours taken by students in the University System of Georgia come from online courses, and the goal is to increase by 1 percent a year, Chancellor Erroll Davis said. KSU offered 330 online sections of courses in 2009; that number is expected to grow by 22 percent by spring 2011, officials said.

Students say people mistakenly assume that online courses are easier.

"If anything, I think it might be harder," said Edward Elie, who takes course online and in-person at KSU.

Online courses have weekly quizzes or assignments, while traditional courses may only require an occasional exam, Elie said. Online courses lack the conversational tone a professor provides a traditional class, requiring students to depend more on the textbook. Also, students must be able to self-assess and determine whether they're learning the material or not.

Students who enroll in online courses have a different agenda, said Matt Elbeck, editor of the Journal of Educators Online. Most people who take online courses live within 50 miles of the college offering the class -- meaning they choose to learn online even though many of them could come to campus, he said.

"Life happens, people get busy and they drop the course but what colleges need to do is stop treating these classes like traditional ones," Elbeck said. "Why must they have a formal start and end date? Some people may want to take a course during a two-week vacation, while others may need nine months to take a course because life is busy. They need to dig deeper and customize efforts to help students."

Elie dropped one online course last spring because it was too much work along with his two other online courses and one traditional class.

"I work full-time so I like the flexibility the online classes give me," Elie said. "But your success is determined by your motivation. You need to be a self-starter."

Andrew Schmidt also works full-time and is enrolled in the Georgia WebMBA program offered at KSU. Some professors post PowerPoint presentations, while others post videos or recordings, Schmidt said. A professor may schedule live video-conferencing with the class, but that requires everyone to be online at the same time, which goes against the flexibility that makes online attractive, he said.

"I do miss the social interaction and if I wasn't so close to finishing I would transfer to an in-person class," said Schmidt, who will finish this spring. "There really isn't anything a professor can do to make me more apt to stay in one of these classes. It just depends on your learning style. This isn't for everyone."

Campbell said reseachers are looking at the students' personality traits and experiences in online courses to determine how to motivate students and what types of students are most likely to succeed.

"Right now students sign up and drop out and it's a waste of time and money for everyone," Campbell said. "We need to find out how to make this successful for everyone. We are just beginning to do this research, but we will find the answers."

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