Lowering Online Student Dropout Rates

Vincent Oria and Edina Renfro-Michel agrue that it’s not a surprise that many students fail to pass enough online courses to graduate. They say their two colleges' initiative greatly improves the odds.

June 7, 2017

With the promise, flexibility, and popularity of online and hybrid university courses comes one major problem none of us can ignore: sky-high student attrition rates. Research from U.S. News and World Report recently found that only 17 percent of students who enrolled in an online bachelor’s program in 2007 had graduated within three years. After six years, the number rose only to 35 percent.

The reasons for these high dropout rates are, admittedly, easier for most of us to pinpoint than the solutions. Students attempting to navigate through online lectures, assigned reading, and discussion boards often find it difficult -- or impossible -- to chart their own preferred path through the material. Something as simple as turning back to a specific point in a lecture from two weeks earlier for a refresher can prove prohibitively frustrating.

And these are largely Millennials we’re talking about: the first generation of students to grow up with their schooling supplemented by the internet. When the members of this generation have a query, they’re deft at finding their way swiftly to the answer, usually after some tapping on an iPhone. Online learning formats need to do a much better job of understanding how these students operate. Rather than hamper their progress with rigidity, we need to be giving them greater control.

Considering the failure of many online learning experiences to do just that, it’s not much of a surprise that so many students fail to work through the sufficient number of online courses to graduate. We hear from students in online programs that they often feel isolated. What can be done to help them thrive when they feel like giving up? As online education continues to gain traction within our broad higher education system, it’s imperative that we take this question seriously.

It’s with this very question in mind that the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and Montclair State University (MSU) have developed a new software tool that can help address the problems facing online education. The tool is called Ultimate Course Search (UCS), and early tests suggest that it may very well be the game-changer we hoped it could be. In large part, this is because UCS affords students control over the path they take through their learning material, thereby allowing for the personalized experience they’re telling us they want. Not everyone learns in the same way, and so this tool was created with that understanding in mind.

UCS, backed by the National Science Foundation, allows for Google-like searching of multimedia course materials, including video, text, and PowerPoint presentations. This “searchability” allows students to reclaim the reigns as they move through their own education, referring to past materials when necessary or skipping ahead to the next lecture on a given concept if they’re ready. For instance, it is easier for a student to comprehend the information on a complex slide if he or she can also watch corresponding video segments where the concept is also explained.   

How it Works

UCS works by integrating slides, lecture videos, and textbook content into one platform with search capabilities. Students search by keyword, and are presented with search results in the form of slides along with video segments where the instructor explains the slides. In other words, unlike in a traditional text search within a document in which a user is taken to the places where the search terms are found, a UCS search takes users to places where given search words are better explained.

As the software continues to develop from the original beta testing in 2015, machine learning will also play a role: Developers are exploring how to make sure that a given student’s search results can be tailored to his or her presumed learning preferences.

We’ve piloted the software in a Master’s level hybrid career counseling course at MSU, and in Bachelor’s level security courses at NJIT and the results were very encouraging—showing a dramatic change in attrition rates in the security course from 41 percent in the classes not using UCS to 13 percent in the classes using UCS. In the career counseling course, students reported a greater understanding of the most difficult theoretical concepts. All students in both courses reported that UCS cut down on the time they spent looking for information and generally constructing the knowledge necessary to complete the course. This is what we had hoped for and what we expected, given the results of current research on the benefit of giving adult learners the ability to shift within their own preferred learning styles.

Ultimate Course Search and other emerging software can serve as an important tool in helping address online learning platforms’ deficiencies, so clearly signaled by student attrition rates. It’s crucial that as educators and innovators, we continue to adapt and personalize the tools we use to teach students, and give them the best-possible chance at success.




Vincent Oria is professor and chair of the online Computer Science program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Edina Renfro-Michel is an associate professor of counseling in the Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership at Montclair State University. 



We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top