Online academies face the same problem that health clubs do. On January 1 every year, hangover disguises itself as hope and makes you march in stunning athleisure to pay for a year-long membership. Ten days later, that march becomes a drag, and a fortnight later, there is no movement at all. Both send you wake-up messages and guilt you about all the fitness and career goals you are missing out on, but there is no turning back – life has already got in the way. With your fitness, you can still find a workaround – climb the steps to your office, do a few surya namaskars, play a sport – but with education? There is no shortcut to learning.
Online academies have increased the accessibility and convenience of pursuing higher education, and the introduction of blended learning models has offered a strong respite from lack of human interaction. Even with these efforts, student drop-out rates for online and blended courses far exceed the ones in traditional face-to-face learning. Understanding how to increase retention is not only about developing better technology or personalising learner journeys but also about addressing some basic needs of learners.
Teach students how to learn
One of the most useful skills in the world today is ‘learning’, and yet no one ever sits you down to teach you how to learn. Even in school, you learn how to give a test, how to write a paper, or how to interview, but there is no way of understanding whether you have truly learnt. Since the target audience for online academies is either in underserved geographies or represents an ageing demographic, it is most likely that they have either never learnt how to learn or have forgotten. Online academies should create and deliver their curriculum in a manner where it facilitates learning.
This becomes even more important when you consider that it takes more self-motivation to finish a course online than within a traditional education system. Some easy ways to do this are:
- Ensure the learning outcomes are clear from the very beginning.
- Facilitate discussions as a part of the lecture.
- Pick lecturers that can deliver with passion and be role models.
- Make it mandatory for learners to ask questions to move ahead.
- Reinforce learning through case studies, projects, and guest lectures.
Acquire the right students, instead of simply acquiring students
Just as it is important to find the right students or employees that are a good cultural fit for your organization, it is important to have the right students enrol for your courses. Every course should identify user personas that would benefit the most from the curriculum design and methodology of teaching. Online courses can make this information transparent to students to self-assess if the course would be the right fit for them. For instance, a course on blockchain designed for senior executives from the financial sector would not engage professionals from digital marketing or undergraduate students the same way.
Better identification of students would lead to higher student retention and see an increase in student motivation. This would also ensure a better experience for faculty to teach and for peers during group discussions and projects.
Provide essential student services
Socio-economic circumstances are a big factor in student drop-out rates. It could be as simple as lack of technological illiteracy to as complex as lack of buy-in from family members. Online courses need to ensure that student support is constantly available to not only use productivity tools such as MS Office and PowerPoint but also the Learning Management System (LMS) itself that the course is being provided on. With the complexity of features on most LMS systems, an online training manual is not sufficient, and the student should be able to access feature-wise ‘how to’ videos or call a support line.
Additionally, online course providers need to make it easy to create buy-in from the family for the student to invest in the online course. Since the most important investment that the student is making is in time, it is essential to create student support that can take into account pressures from work and family commitments. Another way to achieve this is by creating measurable benefits from completing the course such as employer recognition or new opportunities in the gig economy. Public school systems in developing countries were extremely creative in coming up with solutions for this problem, and it will be interesting to see what online academies do to help solve this problem.
Keep courses relevant
People opt for online courses in the pursuit of a better life. By making the courses relevant and applicable in the workspace the following day, you can help them achieve a better life instantly. Online academies can achieve this in extremely cost-effective ways by:
- Partnering with industry to update curriculum
- Discussing use cases through case studies, guest lectures, and webinars
- Bringing in industry mentors to help students apply concepts at their workplace
Put role models in the classroom
Listening to stories of people who have dealt with similar circumstances in their lives gives us hope and the tools required to solve our problems. Identify the reasons why your students drop out and help them access stories that encourage them to make it to the finish line. For instance,
- If they drop out due to lack of family support while raising kids and managing a tough pace at work, bring in an alum who can share their experience of managing the same situation.
- If they feel intimidated by other participants due to their cultural backgrounds, diversify who is teaching in the classrooms.
- If they can’t understand what is being taught due to language barriers, provide teaching assistants in their local language.
If online academies put learner satisfaction at the centre of their purpose then they will see that the needs of a learner are essentially the same, whether they are learning in traditional spaces or online ones. Understanding how to increase student retention rates is a matter of understanding why students drop out and what is the support that they need to resume their course. In addressing these needs of the learners, online academies will be able to differentiate themselves from the inevitable outcome met by the majority of the people that enrol in health clubs year after year.