The Mystery of the Disappearing Student

Among online students who dropped out of their degree or certificate programs, 40 percent failed to seek any help or resources before abandoning their programs, according to a recent EducationDynamics survey. Conducted in November 2008 among about 150 respondents who visited EducationDynamics’ sites eLearners.com and EarnMyDegree.com, the survey was designed to identify students’ motivations for deserting their online degree or certificate programs.

Financial challenges (41 percent) proved to be the main contributor to student attrition, followed by life events (32 percent), health issues (23 percent), lack of personal motivation (21 percent), and lack of faculty interaction (21 percent). Nearly half (47 percent) of students who dropped out did so even before completing one online course.

Survey Reports Many Online Learners Never Seek Help Before Dropping Out, Dian Schaffhauser, 1/09/09

This is one of those studies that seems to confirm the obvious and to deepen a kind of mystery. As an online teacher, I see this phenomena all of the time. Students sign up but don’t show up. They start a class but don’t finish. At one online school, I had classes in which almost half of all students routinely disappeared.

Most often they do this without any notification to me, although in some cases I know they have spoken to advisers or financial aid administrators. I’m certain this has to do with class, both economically and culturally. As the survey notes, money is the most important reason, followed closely by life events.

Almost all of these problems, though, suggest that many online students lack the cultural capital that middle class students take for granted. The one that strikes me as most important is the sense that a professor is someone you can talk to if you have problems. Professors often don’t feel approachable, even when they work at it.

My dad had a college degree, but my mom didn’t; when I first went to college I have never seen a campus before, and certainly never met a professor. Like a lot of people, I had professors who went out of their way to be helpful and friendly. Still, it took years before I felt comfortable enough to talk to them.

I am not sure how we can fix this in an online classroom, although calling students at the start of the session seems to help. Somehow, though, we have to encourage students to see us as allies rather than arbitrary authorities. It’s a particular challenge in a writing class because students are also dealing with criticism, often for the first time.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn’t want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so.

I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com.

I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that ‘at’ symbol] writinginthewild.com

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