Where Did They Go? Online Courses and Completion Rates

Men running in a chariot race at the Piha Surf Club carnival (ca 1938). Unidentified photographer. New Zealand Free Lance Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Men running in a chariot race at the Piha Surf Club carnival (ca 1938). Unidentified photographer. New Zealand Free Lance Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.

I just finished a quick eight-week summer session teaching an online section of College English II, the second course in a two-course first-year college English experience.  This particular course is devoted to research writing.  Along with colleagues Gill Creel, Dominic Saucedo, and Shannon Gibney, we have taught the online version of this course with a focus on Wikipedia.  I’ll write more about that – and you can read about it in great detail when an article we wrote appears in the December 2012 issue of Teaching English in Two-Year Colleges- in future blogs, but that is not where my head is today.  I am wondering where did my students go.  In particular, what happened to C and R?

C and R were both doing well in the course: C was a borderline A/B student, and R was a borderline B/C student.  With two weeks remaining in the session, they both just . . . disappeared.  I sent multiple emails to both of them, but despite my plaintive pleas, they left with nary a trace.

I’ll put this is perspective: by the end of the first week, enrollment in the course stabilized at 16 students.  After the first week, one student withdrew; nine students completed the course (and that includes three earned F grades, students who completed all of the course work, but earned an F); one student took an incomplete; two students (C and R) have Fs on their transcripts, but not because of the quality of their work – they simply stopped doing the work.

If I count the three earned F grades and discount the other two Fs, the W, and the I, then nine of sixteen completed the course: 56%.  Even with the other two Fs, which would be eleven of sixteen, the completion rate is still a pretty tepid 69%.

Tepid, but closer to the national average online completion rate. Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars published a working paper for the Community College Research Center titled “Online and Hybrid Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State Community and Technical Colleges.”  Their findings show me under-performing in terms of creating online environments wherein my students can complete the course.  The Xu and Smith Jaggars study found that 79% of students completed fully online or hybrid courses compared to a 91% completion rate in face-to-face classrooms.  The dropout rates are perhaps even more disheartening; Xu and Smith Jaggars found that 30% of students dropout in the first-term after they have taken an online course, and another 19% dropout within a year of taking an online course.  Yikes!!!

The numbers vary little from study to study.  In a presentation Smith Jaggars draws some general conclusions regarding student success:

  • Online course completion rates lower
  • Among completers, online grades lower
  • Students taking remedial courses online less likely to move on & succeed in next course
  • Students taking online courses first or second semester less likely to return next semester
  • Students taking more online courses less likely to eventually transfer/graduate

Double yikes!!!

This is all to say that I have to do a better job of helping students finish online courses successfully with a grade of C or better.  There’s some great literature out there about online completion “best practices,” driven by the Obama’s commitment to raise higher education completion rates.  We’ll be writing more about this issue in the year to come, but we’d love to hear from others pondering the same question: where did they go?

Author Michael Kuhne