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The Dirty Little Secret of Online Learning

May 9, 2017

 

For all its benefits, online learning often fails for one reason: abandonment. Too many students start courses but don’t finish them. The research varies, and there’s more of it for higher education than for corporate training. But the percentage of students who don’t complete their online courses is generally north of 70%. And for the most part, we tolerate it.

 

Could you imagine if 70% of your workforce didn’t bother to come in today? Or if seven out of 10 cars coming off an assembly line weren’t finished?

 

It’s bad enough that the most common cut rate for testing is 70%, meaning that students don’t need to learn 30% of the material that we thought was important enough to put in the curriculum. But allowing 70% of students to not even complete—let alone, reach—the exam should get corporate training managers kicked out of the CEO's office at budget time.

 

Are high abandonment rates an inherent weakness of online learning? Probably not. The same thing might happen in a learning culture that didn’t require students to show up to instructor-led training classes. But such a culture usually doesn't exist. For the most part we’ve successfully created an expectation that if you are required to attend an ILT class (or if it’s not required but you voluntarily show up), you will be there until the end of the class.

 

So why are online classes different? There are three primary factors at play.

 

  1. Self-directed online learning is less visible and more personal. Nobody knows you’re there or whether you stayed to the end. ILT is the opposite. You’re there with the rest of the class, and the instructor is watching. If you don’t show up, you’re visibly absent; and if you leave halfway through, it’s obvious.

  2. Online learning is more demanding. In most ILT classes, you can be completely passive and disengaged. While your biggest fear may be getting called on to answer a question, in most cases if you don’t know the right answer, any response will get you off the hook and the instructor will answer or move on to someone else. In other words, you can show up but not engage. And for many learners, that’s a benefit. Do you want to work all morning, or go to a class and “veg out”? With self-directed online learning, there’s no place to hide. It’s just you and the training. And while there’s plenty of e-learning that isn’t interactive—letting you sit back and watch, or not to be tested for knowledge transfer—any online course worth its salt requires you to engage with the program to move forward.

  3. With online learning, too often all we’re concerned about is creating the course and getting it up on the LMS so students can take it. Creating an environment that provides rewards for completing (or punishment for not completing) is given little thought. The message to the student is: Here’s a course that would be good for you to take if you want to, but we’re not going to give you a reason—positive or negative—for taking and completing it. And oh, by the way, nobody is watching and you’ll have to work harder to complete it than you would if it were a live class.

 

So what’s the solution? First, give as much thought to what will motivate students to take and complete an online course as you do to what it needs to cover and what the instructional design will be. Is completion a requirement for continued employment? Will not completing result in a downgraded performance review? Is the course one of the factors required for promotion? Determine these "carrots and sticks," and make sure they’re designed to clearly resonate with the student.

 

Second, make sure someone is watching and caring, and that the student knows it. Build in a support system. Whether it’s the student’s supervisor, a training manager, a mentor or a peer, make sure someone is aware that the student is taking the course and is kept appraised of the student’s progress (or lack thereof). Also, they should encourage and hold the student accountable in a positive way. (And, by the way, if you adopt only one suggestion from this post, this is the one to go with: Caring accountability is extremely powerful.)

 

Third, make the learning stimulating. Once you get them to log in, grab them. Make their journey through the course intrinsically motivating. Think less about what you need to teach them and more about what they want to learn and why they want to learn it.

 

In many respects, online learning is vastly superior to ILT—because ILT also has a dirty little secret that’s much more problematic and much more difficult to counteract! And what’s that dirty little secret, you ask? Come back soon, and you’ll find out.

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