Instructor and Student Roles in the Success of Online Learning

To what extent is the online instructor responsible for student retention rates?

Student retention rates are lower for online courses than for traditional "brick and mortar" classes (Evans, T. 2009). It is likely that several factors contribute. However, it should be noted early in this discussion that retention rates will always been less than 100% for reasons unrelated to education. As mentioned in the reading, often retention is related to personal goals, personal problems, or financial issues. With that in mind, we must ask ourselves, "What is the optimal retention rate for this institution with the demographic groups that comprise it?" And that question is not easy to answer. Although we don't know an exact percentage, we can strive to improve retention until we are convinced that "lost students" occur mainly because of non-educational issues.

The instructor is responsible for many factors of the online learning environment. It is more likely that students will be retained if instructors are organized, prompt in responding, engaging, and helpful. This means having a clearly laid out course that includes a syllabus, deadlines, expectations, and well-prepared content. Once the course is well-designed, the instructor should quickly respond (24-hour time limit) to questions, comments, problems, and discussion posts from students. As we have all probably experienced, unanswered emails/phone calls/text messages are very frustrating, since they make the sender feel ignored or even despised.

If the instructor is not the course designer, then it is his responsibility to make himself very familiar with the content organization so he can send reminders and give insight to the students about how to manage their time and effort throughout the duration of the course.

Furthermore, the instructor must communicate well with the students, not only by responding, but by actively engaging. Instructors should be encouraging, positive, constructive, and direct. Ambiguity is not the friend of education. Clearly describing assignments and defined expectations are imperative to student success.

If these areas are lacking from the instructor, or if the instructor appears uninterested in the course, students are far more likely to drop out of the course.

To what extent is the online instructor responsible for student success in online courses?

Most of the topics mentioned in the preceding paragraphs can be applied to this question as well. If students are being engaged and assisted consistently and positively, they are more likely to succeed. This doesn't mean just passing the course, it means internalizing the information such that it will help them in their later endeavors. Good grades are only helpful if they accurately reflect an internalization of knowledge and understanding.

With that said, even the "best" and most well-prepared instructors will eventually have students that lose interest, drop the course, complete assignments poorly, or fail to do the assignments at all. In these events, it is important for instructors to encourage students rather than criticize, mock, or belittle them. As teachers, we often feel insulted when students shirk our assignments. We feel as though they are personally attacking us, and we are tempted to lash out. To truly help students be successful, we need to be helpful and kind toward them under all circumstances. If a student senses the instructor cares for them and has their best interests in mind, they are far more likely to succeed.

Where does the instructor's responsibility end and the student's responsibility begin?

Instructors are responsible to improve their skills and prepare the best possible course with the assets available to them. Even with continual improvement and the best intentions, good instructors will still have students that "fail" or drop out of the class. Once an instructor and his institution are convinced that everything is being done to promote learning, then lack of motivation (or other issues) on the part of students can be blamed.

Students and teachers have a unique relationship--one that reflects a level of dependency. But as with any relationship, success requires that all parties contribute. If all the contribution and engagement is from the instructor, then the student is to blame for the lack of success. Since most online courses are being offered to late high school students, college students, and adults over the age of 25, it is expected that these students have a high level of self-motivation, self-discipline, and a desire to succeed at their chosen goals.

Who else can contribute to student success in online courses?

The most important contributor to a student's success is the student himself. After this, the instructor is the next most important contributor. After this, peers can be wonderful assistants in the learning process. The other students in a course can come along side other students to do some of the same activities as the instructor--encourage, assist, teach, and explain. And instructors should encourage this type of activity. It opens up a new avenue of learning--social learning; and it also takes some weight off the instructor by delegating tasks to other students.

Aside from the participants of a particular course, the other group of people that can contribute to student success is the institutional administrators that set up policy and regulate the technological potential of the online course. It is important that websites use intuitive software that allows for learning the content rather than spending hours with technical support trying to get the website to function properly.

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