Why students drop

Each semester, most of my online classes fill and have a wait list. I usually email the top several people on the wait list, and invite them to join before the class starts. Then I let in about 5 over the limit (which is 40 – too many, but that’s another post). This way the enrollment will balance down to about 40 by the time our official census occurs, at three weeks in.

classef14But in two classes this semester, I’m down to 33. Usually only one section gets that low, and not until much later in the semester.

Why is this a problem, when 40 is too many for them to get to know each other, and 32 is about right? Because online classes are under the microscope everywhere. There are still people who don’t believe college classes can, or should, be taught online. I just last week heard about a college department all ready to go online, with skilled teachers, and then changing their mind upon hearing from an administrator that the subject just can’t be taught online. At our place, there is concern about the gap in “student success” (defined as those who finish with a grade of C or higher) between online and on-site classes.

Those of us doing this awhile know there are many reasons students might not be as successful online as they are on-site. We know that many students take an online class assuming it will be easier, or require fewer hours. We know they confuse flexibility with total workload. We know some don’t have the technical skills to know where to click or how to submit work. We know that some who aren’t prepared for college are even less prepared online.

But all this knowledge is based on experience, while admins like to focus on the less messy numbers. We do have some studies (like this one from 2005) that indicate some predictors of failure in online classes – students with a low GPA, young age, not taking an orientation, and a habit of dropping classes tend to fail. Another (from 2006) indicates that success online depends on time spent on the class, student initiative and student competence.  This one from 2007 concluded that “self-regulated learning strategies” are essential. A 2011 study concluded that individual student attributes (including persistence, academic achievement, and time management) plus life factors (including resources, skills and time) predict both student satisfaction and success. By 2013 we see a study claiming that self-efficacy and “task value” are the biggest predictors. Some studies note which types of students fail more often: males, younger students, AfricanAmerican students, and low GPA students (here). And “students with higher levels of technology self-efficacy and course satisfaction” earn higher grades (here).  Specifically referring to students who dropped out, another recent study showed that those who stayed in the class “had higher levels of academic locus of control and metacognitive self-regulation skills than dropout students” (here). An even more recent study decided that in addition to employment and academic preparation for the class, just the fact that the class was online was a predictor of final exam performance.

All of these suggest that the greatest predictors of student success reside in the student. And yet the pressure is on faculty, and the focus on instructional design. The implication is that if students succeed at high levels, it’s because we’re doing something right. If they don’t succeed, we’re doing something wrong. This view creates more pressure for cookie-cutter, idiot-proof, publisher-developed, team-created courses with no academic freedom or creativity for instructors.

CC Flickr Matthew Langham

It was too much work on board
CC Flickr Matthew Langham

So with such a high drop rate and such high stakes for me, I am surveying (anonymously, at a colleague’s suggestion) the students who dropped on or after the first day of the semester. So far, results are interesting. Most of them are saying that the class looked liked too much work, and that they wanted a class where they could log in just once per week. One said s/he dropped because the class wasn’t in Blackboard.

After years of designing my classes to provide quick, low-stakes assignments for the purpose of immediate feedback, so students can track their progress, this is a blow. I have no mid-term exam and no research paper – rather the writing is scaffolded, the quizzes are short and weekly, and the primary source posts take about half an hour of student time. The final exam is an essay they work on for several weeks, with feedback from each other and me.

Does this bring us to the last thing we know, but only anecdotally: that not all online instructors are requiring a similar workload for similar number of units? That my class is now too hard because other online classes are easier? And (a horrible thought) to what extent has my encouragement of online classes led to this?

Or does this bring us back to the studies, where student success clearly resides in student self-efficacy?

As they say, watch this space…

 

Textbooks (yes, again)

Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.

This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.

nobleadvantagearoowsWe started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.

I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.

So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.

Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:

  • Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
  • Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
  • Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.

The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?

When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.

How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?

By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.

The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.

So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.

It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.

The other digital divide

I read carefully a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune called Online Class Takers Less Likely to Pass. I am interested in online successful retention rates, the percentage of students passing the class. For online classes at community colleges, successful retention has always hovered around 10% lower  for online than traditional classes.

The 10% holds. According to the article, online class successful retention rates are about 60% at California community colleges vs 70% in traditional classes. The article wants to examine why.

But it also presents an even bigger gap. The article says:

Researchers also found that achievement gaps are exacerbated in the online world. For example, the gap between white and African-American students in traditional classes was 12.9 percentage points; that widens to 17.5 points in online courses. They said that might be partly a reflection of the digital divide, where some students don’t have access to computers and broadband.

I’ve heard this argument many times, that the digital divide makes it hard for students to access the technology they need to be successful in online classes. I think someone needs to acknowledge that this is far less true now, in this state, in this country, than anywhere, ever.

Historically, those with lower incomes tend to purchase items for social reasons, even at the risk of sacrificing quality in housing and food. This has been true since at least the Victorian era, and Thorstein Veblen even wrote a book about it in 1899. I have a number of socio-economically disadvantaged students, and they all have smart phones.

As for race, according to Pew research, more AfricanAmerican and Hispanic people in the US have smart phones than “white” people. And, if we want to get away from race and look only at income, 47% of people earning less than $30,000/year have a smart phone.

Although I don’t recommend taking an online class on a smart phone, many of my students do.

In addition, all the college’s students have access via our computer labs on all our campuses, and local public libraries.

This is not that kind of digital divide.

Someone needs to talk about three very real reasons that there is an offset online achievement gap for certain groups:

1. The primary pedagogy of online class continues to be text-based.

For most online classes, the assignments include reading text. Lots of text. And students must write for most of the heavy General Education classes, and they must do it in standard written English, at the college level, on their smart phone or a crowded library. It seems to me likely that those who do poorly with text would have a better chance of success with alternative assignments. That said, such assignments may not be considered appropriate by the instructor as a way of determining whether material was learned. In my history classes, you must write.

2. Students expect flexibility of time to mean less time.

This is mentioned briefly in the article, that students may enroll thinking an online class will be less work. I think it’s just a confusion between flexibility and total time. Self-directed students budget time appropriately, but others assume that because they can work any time, the total time for the class will somehow be different. If you ask students how many classes they can handle during a semester, they often assume they could handle more if the classes were online.

3. The lives of those struggling to meet basic needs is not conducive to the concentration required of online classes.

Here we have to make the jump from race, which is the focus of the article’s statement, to class, which is more to the point. When you are raising your siblings and carrying two low-paying jobs to feed everyone, even if you have a smart phone there may be no good space in which to work. There’s no time to go to the library. I have a number of students from military families and others with very complex arrangements at home. I have students who have been thrown out of the house and are living in their car. For these people, the time spent in a classroom may be the only time they have to focus on the material. Online classes are a poor option.

This last one is the divide no one wants to talk about, because it involves getting into a deeper discussion of poverty, and the lack of social services and public money available to help. Start talking about this, and you must talk about food stamps and living in a country that provides help for tuition at community colleges but can’t help people with hunger and living circumstances. It’s easier to blame poverty itself for failing to provide the means to buy technology.

If the reason for achievement differences were access to technology, the gap would have narrowed in this age of the rapidly increasing adoption of mobile technologies. But it hasn’t – the 10% hasn’t budged. It won’t surprise me if the larger gap holds too.

After over a decade of this, I’m looking forward to the discussion of the digital divide getting broader.

 

Paying it forward for extra credit

Yes, of course I offer my students some things to do for extra credit. But near the end of the semester, the last thing I want are more things to grade.

So I do things like Glogster poster assignments, or a speed quiz. But this semester I did something different. I asked them to make a video clip answering the question, ”What’s one tip you would give to a new student in a MiraCosta online class?” Then I put a few of them together to help future students:

I didn’t announce it. I just put a link called “Extra Credit – Short video” in a Moodle forum. The exact wording of the assignment was:

For up to 3% extra credit, create a video of yourself answering the question “What’s one tip you would give to a new student in a MiraCosta online class?” I will be creating a MCC version of a video like this one. Your video should be about 15 seconds long.

Post your video to YouTube and embed it in this forum (do not attach a media file).

Privacy issues:  

  • If you don’t want to appear on camera, you can do a paper slide video instead.
  • Do not use your name in the video unless you want it made public.
  • If you need your video to remain private, put the setting as private in YouTube, give me permission (lisahistory@gmail.com) to view it, and put the URL here.

Important: to get extra credit, you must indicate in your post whether or not I have your permission to use the video in public, because I plan to put these together for next semester’s students.

Grading criteria:

3 -  one great tip, articulate, good production values (video and audio), filmed on Oceanside or San Elijo campus, includes statement of permission to use

2 – one very good tip, articulate, OK video and audio, filmed outside anywhere, includes statement of permission to use

1 – one good tip, fair video and audio, filmed inside

I came up with it because I was looking around for a cool video for students new to online classes, one that preferably had students in it instead of some prof telling students what’s what. And I found very, very few (including the one I used here as an example for them). So I decided they could help me do it.

It took very little time for me. They did the video work, obviously. There were a few too many phone videos, and not as much emphasis on quality as I would have liked, but since I made it an option in all five of my online classes, there were plenty of clips (over 20) to choose from. I didn’t by any means use all the good ones – just some. I liked the result so much I wrote the students saying I hoped to use this as an example to other teachers and on my blog as well as a resource for students, and to let me know if that wasn’t OK. Everyone was cool.

Technology: I downloaded from YouTube using a Firefox plugin. I took the ones with low sound and used Quicktime to extract the audio, then Audacity to boost it and do some noise control. Then I dropped the resulting QT files into iMovie.

I highly recommend this!

Navigating the treacherous waters of the LMS

A student wrote me last week asking when the extra credit is due in her class. Since I had put the due date next to big red letters as a label in Moodle, I told her the date (of course) and asked if she was able to see it at the site. I sent her a screenshot to be (a bit impatiently, I admit) helpful:

extracreditdue

She replied, thanking me and telling me she hadn’t seen it because she uses the “list on the left”. Confused, I asked what she meant. To me the screen looks like this – no list on the left.

myscreen

It turned out she is using the Navigation menu, which I have docked on the left side. I never use it.

I looked at it and noticed it didn’t have any of my labels, just a list of the Moodle activities that have links:

MoodleNav2

Here’s that week as I designed it, in the center column, the main page:

Moodlecenter2

 Notice that my labels, which have the due dates, are not in the Navigation menu. This prompted me to tweet:

loststudenttweet

The Navigation menu, which surely more than one student is using, cannot be removed, even if I were running my own installation, which I’m not.

So here is where the technology forces me to change my method, and messes with my design. These things are due every week on the same day. I have the labels to mark them clearly, and they are convenient to replicate throughout the class. They also set a clear pattern, like a calendar.

But if students are using the Navigation menu, and I cannot stop them, my method is poor, and it would be better to put the dates in the description of each activity, or at least have “Due Tuesday” in the title of the activity.

However, what happens when I have a reading assignment from a book? I have one class coming up this summer where I am using a textbook, because I haven’t yet edited a satisfactory version of my Wikipedia-based textbook. So my Moodle page looks like this:

103Moodlepage

The lectures will appear in the Navigation menu, because they will be linked. But students will not be able to see the reading assignment, because it is a label, because there is nothing to link it to — it’s a real, page-ridden textbook. To fix this, I’d have to create a page for each reading assignment, which is likely what I will have to do.

Students will also not see my introduction to each week’s material. :-(

Hours await me of removing labels I had painstakingly created for five classes, and making activity pages for things that are not activities, all because students are using a Navigation menu to navigate. Super.

Lecture, sources & discovery

Lecture is not about discovery, unless it is the discovery of how the professor processes and uses information. It can be excellent modelling. When I talk through a historical subject, and its significance, I can model how historians think.

But most professors lecture in order to relay information. This always seemed silly to me, since the “information” was in the book. Now the “information” is on the web. But if they don’t read the information, and understand it, they can get it from the lecture.

In my online lectures, there is indeed information. It is told from my perspective, and everything about it (including what I choose to discuss) represents my interpretation. Because it contains events and dates, and explains them chronologically, it constitutes “content” in the class. My online lectures include my own writing (recorded in audio), links to websites, embedded video, and specially marked links to primary sources.

These sources were originally collected in a paper workbook. Now each unit’s collection is on a web page. Some of them have audio reading the documents (as I’d like to do with Edmund Burke). Questions on these documents are included in the lecture quiz each week.

In “discussion”, my students do not discuss, but rather post their own primary sources, then write about several of the ones posted and the way they tell us something about that era. Through this process I teach historical writing (thesis and evidence).

This week something interesting happened.

In my Depression lecture for US History, I feature a section on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, his radio broadcast from Halloween 1938:

 lecturewarofworlds

But not until a student posted it as a YouTube video did any of them, as far as I can tell, actually listen to it.

Then this happened:

warworldsdisc

So I’m thinking. No one went to find the audio before, but they watched a video (that’s really just audio) posted in the forum. Someone was interested because a fellow student posted it. Sure, she posted it because it was mentioned in lecture (maybe), but a student actually experienced it because it was posted by another student rather than by me.

So….back to those other primary sources, the ones I actually assign. Those written primary sources are posted by me as part of the lecture. I suspect few actual read them except to answer quiz questions.

Perhaps if they discovered them instead of me providing the sources? We already do that – they find and post sources every week. Maybe I shouldn’t select sources at all. Perhaps the collection they make is fine – especiallly if they actually look at or listen to what the others post.

I must think on the implications of instructor-provided content. We have this idea that instructors need to curate content. I could do that in a different, more engaging way. But first I need to be sure that, at least when it comes to primary sources, I should be doing it at all.