We are the Program for Online Teaching, a group of volunteer faculty helping other faculty teach better online.

Our focus is on pedagogy as the guiding force for using technologies for teaching.

Many of us are from MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California. MiraCostans may access the Teaching/Technology Innovations Center for technical help, resources, news and more.

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Some big issues in online teaching
Some big issues in online teaching avatar

Jenny Mackness, United Kingdom

Pedagogy is often defined as the method and practice of teaching, but is that all it is? And what do we understand by teaching? What is a teacher’s role? These are questions that have always engaged educators, but with increasing numbers of learners taking online courses in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs), teaching online has come into sharp focus again. In my recent reading of research into MOOCs, I have noted reports that there has not been enough focus on the role of the teacher in MOOCs and open online spaces (Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013).

Years ago when I first started to teach online, I came across a report that suggested that e-learning was the Trojan Horse through which there would be a renewed focus on teaching in Higher Education, as opposed to the then prevailing dominant focus on research. It was thought that teaching online would require a different approach, but what should that approach be? Two familiar and helpful frameworks immediately come to mind.

  1. Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry Model (2000), which focuses on how to establish a social presence, a teaching presence and a cognitive presence in online teaching and learning.

Establishing a presence is obviously important when you are at a distance from your students. Over the years I have thought a lot about how to do this and have ultimately come to the conclusion that my ‘presence’ is not as important as ‘being present’. In other words, I have to ‘be there’ in the space, for and with my students. I have to know them and they me. Clearly MOOCs, with their large numbers of students, have challenged this belief, although some succeed, e.g. the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC, where teaching, social and cognitive presence have all been established by a team of teachers and assistants, who between them are consistently present.

  1. Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage model for teaching and learning online (2000) which takes an e-learning moderator through a staged approach from online access, through online socialization and information exchange, towards knowledge construction and personal development in online learning.

I have worked with this model a lot, on many online courses. Gilly Salmon’s books provide lots of practical advice on how to engage students online. What I particularly like about this model is that it provides a structure in which it is possible for learners and teachers to establish a presence and ‘be present’ in an online space, but again, MOOCs have challenged this approach, although Gilly Salmon has run her own MOOC based on her model.

In both these frameworks the teacher’s role is significant to students’ learning in an online environment, but these frameworks were not designed with ‘massive’ numbers of students in mind. The teaching of large numbers of students in online courses, sometimes numbers in the thousands, has forced me to stop and re-evaluate what I understand by pedagogy and teaching. What is the bottom line? What aspects of teaching and pedagogy cannot be compromised?

The impact of MOOCS

The ‘massive’ numbers of students in some MOOCs has raised questions about whether teaching, as we have known it, is possible in these learning environments. In this technological age we have the means to automate the teaching process, so that we can reach ever-increasing numbers of students. We can provide students with videoed lectures, online readings and resources, discussion forums, automated assessments with automated feedback, and ‘Hey Presto’ the students can teach each other and the qualified teacher is redundant. We qualified teachers can go back to our offices and research this new mechanized approach to teaching and leave the students to manage their own learning and even learn from ‘Teacherbots’ i.e. a robot.

Is there a role for automated teachers?
Recently I listened (online) to Sian Bayne’s very engaging inaugural professorial lecture, which was live streamed from Edinburgh University. Sian is Professor of Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, here in the UK. During this lecture, Sian spent some time talking about the work she and her team have been doing with Twitterbots, i.e. automated responses to students’ tweets. The use of a ‘bot’ in this way focuses the mind on the role of the teacher. The focus of Sian’s talk was on the question of what it means to be a good teacher within the context of digital education. Her argument was that we don’t have to choose between the human and non-human, the material and the social, technology or pedagogy. We should keep both and all in our sights. She pointed us to her University’s Online Teaching Manifesto, where one of the statements is that online teaching should not be downgraded into facilitation. Teaching is more than that.


Sian and her Edinburgh colleagues’ interest in automated teaching resulted from teaching a MOOC (E-Learning and Digital Cultures – EDCMOOC), which enrolled 51000 students. This experience led them to experiment with Twitterbots. They have written that EDCMOOC was designed from a belief that contact is what drives good online education (Ross et al., 2014, p.62). This is the final statement of their Manifesto, but when it came to their MOOC teaching, they recognized how difficult this would be and the complexity of their role, and questioned what might be the limitations of their responsibility. They concluded that ‘All MOOC teachers, and researchers and commentators of the MOOC phenomenon, must seek a rich understanding of who, and what, they are in this new and challenging context’.

Most of us will not be required to teach student groups numbering in the thousands, but in my experience even the teaching of one child or one adult requires us to have a rich understanding of who and what we are as teachers. Even the teaching of one child or one adult can be a complex process, which requires us to carefully consider our responsibilities. For example, how do you teach a child with selective mutism? I have had this experience in my teaching career. It doesn’t take much imagination to relate this scenario to the adult learner who lurks and observes rather than visibly participate in an online course. In these situations teaching is more than ‘delivery’ of the curriculum. It is more than just a practice or a method. We, as teachers, are responsible for these learners and their progress.

The ethical question

Ultimately the Edinburgh team referred to Nel Noddings’ observation (Ross et al., 2014 p.7) that ‘As human beings we want to care and be cared for’ and that ‘The primary aim of all education must be the nurturance of the ethical ideal.’ (p.6). Consideration of this idea takes teaching beyond a definition of pedagogy as being just about the method and practice of teaching.

As Gert Biesta (2013, p.45) states in his paper ‘Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher’

…. for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching

So a question for teachers has to be ‘‘Why do we teach?” and by implication ‘What is our role?’

For Ron Barnett (2007) teaching is a lived pedagogical relationship. He recognizes that students are vulnerable and that the will to learn can be fragile. As teachers we know that our students may go through transformational changes as a result of their learning on our courses. Barnett (2007) writes that the teacher’s role is to support the student in hauling himself out of himself to come into a new space that he himself creates (p.36). This is a pedagogy of risk, which I have blogged about in the past.

As the Edinburgh team realized, we have responsibilities that involve caring for our students and we need to develop personal qualities such as respect and integrity in both us and them. This may be more difficult online when our students may be invisible to us and we to them. We need to ensure that everyone, including ourselves, can establish a presence online that leads to authentic learning and overcomes the fragility of the will to learn.

Gert Biesta (2013) has written that teaching is a gift. ‘….it is not within the power of the teacher to give this gift, but depends on the fragile interplay between the teacher and the student. (p.42). This confirms Barnett’s view, with which I agree, that teaching is a lived pedagogical relationship. Teachers should use all available tools to support learners as effectively as possible. Pedagogy is more than the method and practice of teaching and I doubt that teaching can ever be fully automated. As teachers, our professional ethics and duty of care should not be compromised.



Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn. Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Open University Press

Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35–49. Retrieved from https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/pandpr/article/download/19860/15386

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A., & Williams, S. A. (2013). MOOCs: a systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. IRRODL, 14 (3), 202-227. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1455

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring. A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. California: University of California Press.

Ross, J., Bayne, S., Macleod, H., & O’Shea, C. (2011). Manifesto for teaching online: The text. Retrieved from http://onlineteachingmanifesto.wordpress.com/the-text/

Ross, J., Sinclair, C., Knox, J., Bayne, S., & Macleod, H. (2014). Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 57–69.

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.



The tyranny and comfort of “best practices”
The tyranny and comfort of “best practices” avatar

Lisa M. Lane, MiraCosta College

According to Wikipedia, a “best practice” is one that “has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark”. The page also notes that it is considered by some to be a business buzzword “used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things”.

Without knowing this, I became hostile to the term “best practices” about online teaching early on, for a number of reasons. It hadn’t been around that long, and I couldn’t help but notice that most of the people touting “best practices” were not, themselves, practitioners. And yet, the literature abides:

And that’s just the first few entries in Google.

So what’s wrong with all this?

Such lists, which vary from each other, can easily become prescriptive.

Taking the Penn State list as an example, everything sounds, at first, quite reasonable. Everyone would appreciate the need for the teacher to monitor submissions, but it is apparently a “best practice” to “remind them of missed and/or upcoming deadlines”. The professor is thus responsible for providing reminders, even if the course is already set up with clearly established deadlines. Perhaps I would be expected to send out text messages every week to remind them of every quiz, even if my pedagogy were designed to encourage them to monitor their own workload.6675224737_e680a2e684_m

“Provide meaningful feedback on student work”, it says, and tells us not to say “good job”. This could be interpreted in a number of ways. With my weekly assignments, it could require me to provide full textual feedback to every student every week, which would be impossible. Instead, I use a qualitative scale.

I notice that the Penn State list includes matters of college policy rather than pedagogy, all mixed in to “best practices”.

Or there’s this example:

Here the best practices are all put together into a template used by all teachers in the system, in order to reduce “the cognitive stress students report in navigating educational materials”. And yet many students want similar systems as a convenience, regardless of the learning experience the professor is trying to create. We are heading toward the “canned” course model, where academic freedom runs a distant second to standardization.

6675432873_3379c15d93_mThere is a fine line between “best practices” (meaning some good ideas that you might use), and “college x’s best practices” (the rules which you must follow). The buzz-phrase makes it sound as those these practices have been proven to be “best”, when what’s best is actually affected by instructor personality, discipline, pedagogy, technical knowledge, and other variables. I’ve seen very little agreement on what constitutes what’s best in any sort of teaching, much less online teaching.

Limited knowledge, as usual, leads to efforts to reduce the cognitive load, not of students, but of instructors. It is much easier to follow administratively-led best practices than to determine how to develop ones own online pedagogy. For many faculty, it’s more comfortable to do what you’re told than to develop your own way. We struggle with this with our students – developing inquiry-based exercises and problem-based learning can be difficult when students insist they want to just be told what they’re supposed to learn.

I think it’s wrong to encourage a limited view of teaching online, supporting it with selected (and often very small sample) “studies”, and calling it “best practices”. Doesn’t seem like good practice to me.

Images by Barry Dahl, cc Flikr

MOOCs: A Tool for Re-Imagining Our Teaching
MOOCs: A Tool for Re-Imagining Our Teaching avatar

Cris Crissman, Phd, Adjunct Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University; Independent Education Consultant

[vsw id=”St9_ji6IueY” source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]

. . . MOOCs have proven to be simply an additional learning opportunity instead of a direct challenge to higher education itself. — Preparing for the Digital University: A Review of the History and Current State of Distance, Blended, and Online Learning

. . . the debate over MOOCs helped us all think about ways to re-imagine our own teaching” (Lisa M. Lane, Follow-up to POT 2013-14, Week 21: Web-Enhanced, Hybrid, and Open Classes

I just signed up for another MOOC, “The Brain and Space,” led by Jennifer M. Groh, author of Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are. It’s a Coursera MOOC, an xMOOC where content rules (See Lisa M. Lane’s post on “Three Kinds of MOOCs” and don’t skip the comments). Understanding the content is my goal, and that of my friend who is taking the course with me. You see, he has Parkinson and is experiencing the “lost in space” phenomenon that Parkinson patients often have. Together we can work through the readings and videos to learn something about what’s happening in his brain. And we have the author of the book to guide our study and interact with.

This MOOC is the latest in a long line of MOOCs I’ve participated in (or not) over the past five years. It’s from a different universe as my very first MOOC, PLENK 2010 (Personal Learning and Network Knowledge). And my goals are totally different. PLENK 2010 was my effort to learn how the social Web worked and how I could be part of it. For someone new to blogging, webinars, and tweeting, it was scary. I remember posting my first comment and vowing that even if, in Dave White’s model, I became a resident, that I would never forget that fear of the unknown I experienced in this alien world.

That was many MOOCs ago and I feel personally responsible for giving MOOCs the high attrition rate that many see as problematic. But if you’re MOOC veteran, then you know that it’s much like going to a conference and quietly skipping out when you find the session isn’t what you’d hoped for. Life is too short to not spend your resources on what you really want.

I was drawn to PLENK 2010 like a moth to a flame. Yes, it was scary as hell but so exciting to be part of something so, well, massive, and seemingly revolutionary. So now the Preparing for the Digital University report officially recognizes MOOCs not as revolutionary but as simply new learning opportunities. I like to think that they are evolutionary (much as Derek Muller sees technology in general, “This Will Revolutionize Education”) and that they inspire new forms of learning opportunities yet to be re-imagined. For me, beyond guided learning about totally new content (The Brain and Space), and learning how to thrive in the digital ecology, one of the greatest values of MOOCs has been learning how I learn best and how I can become the teacher I want to be. MOOCs represent a powerful source of professional learning and, hence, re-imagination for our teaching.

Design for Online Courses
One of the first criteria I look for in a MOOC is space for me to learn. Open space. I once bailed on a MOOC after working through the pre-survey because the goal was me to compare my views on learning with that of the professor. What? A bit professor-centric, don’t you think? Now a pre-survey with all the participants’ responses would have been interesting and indicated openness. Openness has become the holy grail in my quest to become a better teacher and so a strong theme in my blogging — the latest of which is “Opening Up”. Though openness in learning and teaching is nothing new, I think the digital world gives us tremendous opportunities for exploring openness.

Perhaps the most burning and lasting question I took from PLENK 2010 was how to achieve the balance of openness that gives me and my students the space we need. In Dave Cormier’s work I saw a thoughtful, fearless quest for openness that inspired me to begin my own.

I see openness as the structural element that Claire Major has identified as “pathway” in her Classification Chain of Online Course Structures published in her new book, Teaching Online. I learned of Claire’s work through MiraCosta College’s Program for Online Teaching and find this model to be tremendously useful in understanding what attracts me to a course and the kind of courses I want to design. Here’s a brief video introduction to Claire’s classification chain:

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Lessons Learned
I’ve learned lessons about teaching from many MOOC leaders. From Cathy Davidson, with first her “Surprise Endings” open course (co-led with Dan Airely) and later her “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC, I learned much about the potential of crowdsourcing with an official university class so that the products can be shared with all.

Sarah Kagan and Anne Shoemaker with their Old Globe MOOC (Growing Old Around the Globe) managed to foster a surprising degree of community, accomplished in part by having forum leaders who facilitated warmly and wisely. I’ve reflected on my Old Globe experiences using Conole’s interesting framework for mapping MOOCs across twelve dimensions.

With Jeannene Przyblyski and “A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers” I learned to admire critique as an art and to understand the value of modeling critique for peer review.

Jim Groom, Alan Levine, and Martha Burtis of the infamous DS 106 (Digital Storytelling 106), which, granted, is not a MOOC, but a community helped me experience the power of creating, of making art, within a nurturing, supportive community that is passionate about their art-making and have a good time creating together.

Beyond the MOOC

I got this note today from a colleague at UNC Capel Hill, and it got me thinking — I’d love to see some great examples of what folks are doing in the online, non-credit space. Has the MOOC grown to be the predominate format? What other approaches are working for folks? Where are the great ideas in this space?– Larry Johnson, New Media Consortium, April 17 email to listserv

The key to the MOOC (as I’ve always said, not that anyone listens) isn’t the massive scale, though it is scalable, it’s the return of education to individual autonomy, of localized knowledge production, of the integration of community-based learning with other social values (diversity, openness, etc.). (Downes, OLDaily, May 14, 2015)

I’ve blogged about my efforts to open up my open course, ECI 521, “Teaching Literature for Young Adults” often with “Opening Up the Garden” being one of the latest posts. I feel there’s much potential, especially with a topic like young adult literature that is constantly evolving with new books and new trends each year. That’s why I love it — I never facilitate the same course twice. It’s always evolving.

Could opening up bring rewards to your university students? Could it help you make a connection to the larger community? Perhaps even make a contribution? If more online courses opened up, could the university evolve as more of the public sphere rather than the walled garden?

What lessons do you bring from MOOCs? What ideas do you have for courses that might embody the MOOC principles that Downes describes while meeting the needs of your students, of your community/communities? Do you have any innovations to share with Larry Johnson and the New Media Consortium?

Have you experienced MOOCs as a way to re-imagine your own teaching?


Major, C.H. (2015). Teaching online: A guide to theory, research, and practice. https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/teaching-online

MOOC List. An aggregator of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from different providers. https://www.mooc-list.com/

New Media Consortium. Larry Johnson (in May 14, 2015 email) confirmed that he has received many responses to his request for innovative formats in online, non-credit space and that he will share soon. http://redarchive.nmc.org/about/board-directors/larry-johnson-chief-executive-officer

OLDaily. A daily newsletter from Stephen Downes covering/uncovering the world of online learning. http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/login.cgi?action=Register

Program for Online Teaching. Led by Lisa M. Lane, MiraCosta College. http://mccpot.org/wp/

Culture skills – reflections on the online Umwelt
Culture skills – reflections on the online Umwelt avatar

Ross Kendall, Waikato Institute of Technology, New Zealand

In 2013, using WordPress, I put ‘Critical Thinking’ online as a semester-long elective in Wintec’s Bachelor of Media Arts (BMA). Untitled1This second-year paper, using a blended learning/flipped classroom approach, followed my popular ‘Introduction to Psychology’ and attracted a large number of students, so that it was offered in parallel as two identical papers. The approach had immediate benefits:

  • First, students compared, collaborated, combined and reflected on their work across the classes,
  • Second, students were encouraged to comment on blogs from their fellows in the other class and frequently did so,
  • Three voluntary Saturday classes (9am-2pm), offered as enhancement, attracted full attendance and engendered much spontaneous fun, new friendships and laughter and creativity – learning at its best. These Saturdays were festive occasions, with pizza ordered in, impromptu discussions about positionalities in the NZ context, and imaginative presentations at the end of each session.

My aims in the class were pretty much the same since I first began teaching in higher ed. I’ve tried to develop and apply strategies that connect the autonomy of persons and their communities with the objectivity of facts about the world and the systems within which people operate. The operative understanding is that immersion in particular learning environments should take account of the constitution of persons as both biophysical and sociocultural organisms in fields of relationships. On this view – informed by the theories of Engeström, Mezirow, Uexküll, Gibson, Esbjörn-Hargens and by Lacanian psychoanalysis – profound learning occurs, and attributes of learners emerge, under particular conditions, through certain processes and at different levels, in a wonderfully spiral looping.

The point is to conceive learners as individual loci of creative growth within continually unfolding phenomenological spaces of varying human and (other) environmental relationships.

What does this mean exactly? For the learner, it means that her individual beliefs need to be Untitled2connected to appropriate skills practice, developed by knowledge of her cultural and ecological milieu, performed in a structured environment of her current surroundings and at a level consonant with her level of ability and potential achievement. Conscious perception of these things involves the acquisition of narratives grown by a deep engagement with, and understanding of one’s identity: students need to be able to tell their own stories; they need to tell what others’ behaviours imply, to tell what sensory experiences signify, and to understand that understanding does not end at the skin’s boundary.

Untitled3 Indigeneity is significant in this respect: it is essential, I believe, to know and to be able to perform the rituals and traditions of one’s heritage. For me, claiming descent from colonialist Pākehā (Southern England) and defiant Māori (Tūhoe), it means not simply possessing Untitled4knowledge of my genealogical lineage but also being able to enact the customs and practices of both cultures and being familiar with the vastly different landscapes. It is important to me to see through two sets of eyes, to speak both languages, to assert my ancestral homes as London and Ruatoki. 

Big expectations for an online course, considering the considerable diversity among students, especially for those who lack a well-defined sense of their culture, ethnicity, class, culture or ways of being! Especially considering that the course demands crackling debate, sizzling intellectual fervour, outrageous creativity, wondrous collegiality and large dollops of fun! Especially considering that New Zealand currently boasts the world’s grossest per-capita pollution output, worst intimate partner violence (IPV) records, hideous child poverty statistics and greatest inequality movement over the last decade.


Under a tough (some might say brutal) neo-liberalist government, the institution is encouraged to market its programmes aggressively overseas, and accordingly, in my classes, the proportion of International to home-grown students runs at about 80:20%. Consequently, the imperative to provide safe and encouraging activities for students to engage and reshape their experiences in the development of new meanings is paramount. The students in the course, I hoped, would engage in the exercises in ways that enable them not only to tell the various accounts of who they are by threading activities in the Western theoretical, rational tradition to their customary affective and signifying practices but also in ways that provoke a creative confidence in constructing new knowledge and effecting change in their lives. In Saussurean (1959: 102ff ) terms, I wanted a mapping of systems of differences on the plane of concepts to a system of differences on the plane of physical events and objects; in Gibsonian terms, (1979:129) I tried to engender an awareness of what the social and physical environment offers as affordances. In these processes, the collective is enhanced and experience is generated, offering greater meaning and clarity. A poetics of learning, you might say.

Phew! But maybe not so hard. When students are given permission to freely engage in new experiences, their ‘‘becoming’ [ is like] a creative advance into novelty’ (Whitehead, 1929: 28). So exercises included sociological field-work (conducting an audit of household energy costs, the ‘making-stUntitled6 range’ by performing unusual activities in public spaces, the examination of unconscious racism in the academy, the revelation of dressing as the other gender); analyses of ideological frameworks in mainstream media, the Western family, traditional logical and non-traditional reasoning, deviance, corporatisation; a pair investigation into a local environmental concern; and debates. Some of these exercises were conducted online, others required students to self-organise into groups of particular numbers and some (e.g. debates) were held in class.

The course was configured thus:

  • online journal (8 entries and 5 commentaries on other students’ work: 40%)
  • research essay (30%)
  • multi-choice test (10%)
  • debate (20%)

Lectures were recorded and placed on line as Screenflow videos with accompanying slides, readings and review questions. VoiceThread was used twice as a synchronic strategy: it proved too unwieldy for large numbers and was discontinued. The test was conducted online, available for an hour on a particular evening.

What were the positive outcomes? WordPress is very user-friendly and feedback indicated that students greatly enjoyed the freedom to engage in learning at times that suited them, that the exercises were stimulating and fun, that the opportunity to engage with and learn about other cultures (one requirement of group work) was exciting and led to the formation of new friendships, that the anthropological approach was one that could usefully be incorporated into other courses, that they wished other classes were like this … I welcomed the opportunity to allow learners to generate emotional valencies that the usual classroom approach ignores.

The downside? A few (International) students wanted more structure and direction. Novices’ practical engagement and attention to new experiences was difficult to assess and monitor; nor could I determine the extent of learners’ involvement with, and learning from one another. It was impossible to identify the different levels of ability and involvement that makes teaching so much a mentoring role. (I can only hope that behaviour rose to a level where agents felt they were achieving something useful to add to their repertoire and that all learned some appropriate strategies to use in relationships with people and objects in the environment.) The work required was significantly more than the f2f classroom style. It cost a fair bit of money. And of course, I felt a keen sense of lack of control, but I’m getting over that.

Untitled7 Will I do it again? I think online learning depends on the nature of the learning, the expectations and commitment of students and the competence and desire of the teacher. In many ways, the anonymity and autonomy of the Internet allows for a degree of intimacy and engagement that is often overlooked in the classroom. Furthermore, on a personal note, I live in paradise, a 35 minute drive from work and it’s wonderful to work in my office with the view above and not be in the city five days a week! Moreover, I was prohibited from further use of WordPress (the less inviting Moodle is the institution’s preferred platform). But online delivery lends itself so much to contemporary students’ desire for meaningful and interesting educational experiences, so yes, I’ll continue, perhaps using a flipped classroom approach, where tutor and students meet fortnightly, in class or one-to-one. Meantime, I’m working on those aspects of integral andragogy that I find so difficult to elicit via the Web. Ka kite ano!


Student Retention in Online Classes: More Questions Than Answers
Student Retention in Online Classes: More Questions Than Answers avatar

By Laura Paciorek, MiraCosta College (Child Development)


Introduction: Student Retention

Student retention has always sparked a lot of questions for me and for many faculty with whom I have discussed the issue.  Why do some students finish a class and others do not?  Why is it that some sections of the same classes, even those taught by the same instructor, have different student retention rates than others?  What can an instructor do, if anything, to help with student retention in classes?  Should we be concerned about student retention or student success?  Are success and retention the same thing or are they different?  Whose issue is student retention: the student, the instructor, the institution, or some combination of the three?

Throughout my conversations with fellow faculty members and administrators regarding the topic of student retention, many theories have surfaced.  In preparing for this blog post, I decided to do a bit of research into the literature on student retention in online classes.  As a whole, my research has led to more questions than answers. 

I reviewed a total of six articles on online student retention, each on a totally different aspect related to retention.  I tried to find some of the most recent articles on the topic that were available to me.  The six articles found have all had a different focus and approach.  I will briefly describe the articles here:

Article 1

Leeds, E., Campbell, S., Baker, H., Ali, R., Brawley, D. & Crisp, J. (2013). The impact of  student retention strategies: an empirical study.  International Journal of  Management in Education, 7(1/2), 22–43. doi: 10.1504/IJMIE.2013.050812

This article by Leeds, Campbell, Baker, Ali, Brawley, and Crisp (2013) was particularly interesting to me because it looks directly at what instructors do to help with retention and whether or not those strategies were successful.  The study was empirical with an experimental and control group.  The focus was on whether or not the following strategies would increase student retention: video orientations, welcome e-mails, personal phone calls, e-mails of course contracts, course/syllabus quizzes, start here documents, welcome to student services activities, post-introductions, ice breakers, team projects, and small group discussions.

The finding: There was only about an 0.85% difference in retention for the treatment and control groups (Treatment = 70.37% retention, Control = 69.14% retention).

Does this mean that what an instructor does to help with retention does not matter?  Is there some other issue with the study that may have impacted the results?

Because there is a lot more to the article than what is listed here, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what questions and answers it brings up for you.


Article 2

Britto, M. & Rush, S. (2013). Developing and implementing comprehensive student support services for online students. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 29-42. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/jaln_main

This article by Britto and Rush (2013) suggests that “retention” is both completion and success.  The main point of this article is to describe what one college system did to address online student retention.  The Lone Star College system, in the Houston area, created a Comprehensive Online Student Support Services Model to attempt to provide comparable services to online students as are received by face-to-face students and to increase completion and success rates.

The following services were described in detail as a part of what was offered to students: technical support, an early alert system, advising services, case management advising, readiness assessments, student orientations, tutoring, new student orientations, and e-newsletters.  For individuals interested in institutional responses to retention, this article provides information that could be useful.  The authors are still looking at outcomes related to the model.  However, they noted that face-to-face students are requesting to access online advising because of efficiency of model (p. 39).

Article 3

Tobin, T. J. (2014).  Increase online student retention with Universal Design for Learning. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 13-24. Retrieved from http://www.infoagepub.com/quarterly-review-of-distance-education.html

Tobin’s (2014) article provides information for instructors who are interested in implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, which are suggested to increase student retention.  Tobin comments that it is helpful to consider access for students with disabilities, but that UDL strategies could help all students, including those using mobile devices more to access classes. 

“UDL is an approach to the creation of learning experiences that incorporates multiple means of engaging with content and people, representing information, and expressing skills and knowledge” (p. 14).  The article outlines five strategies and provides ideas for what instructors can do in the next 20 minutes, 20 days, and 20 months to incorporate UDL into teaching practices.  Resources are provided in the article.


Article 4

Russo-Gleicher, R. J. (2013). Qualitative Insights into Faculty Use of Student Support Services with Online Students at Risk: Implications for Student Retention. Journal Of Educators Online, 10(1).  Retrieved from http://thejeo.com/.

Russo-Gleicher’s (2013) article provides the results of 16 in-depth qualitative interviews with faculty who teach online.  The focus of the interviews was on how faculty use student support services in the classes they teach.  A variety of approaches were discovered.  While some instructors may refer students to support services, other instructors may not.  The conclusion of the article included three recommendations that would attempt to create more of a consistent approach to using student support services.  The suggestions were to provide training for faculty that includes information on prevention of attrition, insure that online referral forms are available, include details in the faculty handbook about student support services, and have the e-learning department reach out to faculty with student contact information.


Article 5

Cochran, J. D., Campbell, S. M., Baker, H. M., & Leeds, E. M. (2014). The role of student characteristics in predicting retention in online courses. Research in Higher Education, 55, pp. 27-48.  doi: 10.1007/s11162-013-9305-8

This article by Cochran, Campbell, Baker, and Leeds (2014) looked at student characteristics and whether or not they were correlated with student retention.  Out of the several factors considered, recommendations were made. First, policies and guidelines should be developed “to provide increased support for and monitoring of students at the lower level, e.g. freshmen and sophomores, who are enrolled in online courses” (p. 46).  Also, policies and guidelines should be developed “for students with lower cumulative GPAs (<3.0) that enroll in online courses and in programs with more analytical or technical content, such as those in business, science and math” (p. 46).  Those involved in online education are encouraged to “be cognizant of gender differences in withdrawal rates in field that have predominant gender roles as those in the minority are more likely to withdraw” (p. 46).  Lastly, institutions should “follow-up with students when they first withdraw from an online class to mitigate future withdrawals” (p. 46).

Article 6

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11(1), 19-42. Retrieved from http://www.ncolr.org/

If there is any one article to be read, this article by Hart (2012) might be it.  Although it was published in 2012, it contains a comprehensive review of literature pertaining to “student persistence.”  The results of the literature review were categorized into the following areas: persistence as a phenomenon, facilitators of persistence, quality of interactions and feedback, satisfaction and relevance, self-efficacy and personal growth, social connectedness or presence, support, and barriers to persistence.

Facilitators of persistence that were reviewed were college status, graduating term, comfort with online coursework, flexibility, asynchronous format, time management, goal commitment, GPA, quality of interactions and feedback, satisfaction and relevance, self-efficacy, personal growth, self-motivation, social connectedness or presence, and support.  Barriers that were reviewed were auditory learning style, basic computer skills, college status and graduating term, difficulty in accessing resources, isolation and decreased engagement, lack of computer accessibility, non-academic issues, and poor communication. As is stated in the article’s abstract, “factors associated with student persistence in an online program include satisfaction with online learning, a sense of belonging to the learning community, motivation, peer, and family support, time management skills, and increased communication with the instructor” (p. 19).


Conclusion: Student Retention

After reviewing the above six articles, I have been left with more questions than answers.  In fact, the questions listed in the introduction still stand.  With so much time and so many resources being invested into techniques that are meant to improve student retention, it would be useful to insure that the techniques themselves are improving student retention.  However, it might be that a particular practice is not proven to increase retention, but it still creates a more positive learning atmosphere for online students.  If that is the case, the practice may still be warranted.  More research is likely needed in this area to learn what does and does not work.

What are your theories?  Have you done your own investigation into this issue?  If so, it would be great to hear more and continue this conversation about student retention, success, and persistence.