Post by Todd Pottle, Ontario eLearning Consortium Coordinator

Why can attrition in eLearning courses for high school students often be so high? Why do students sometimes stumble right out of the gate, fall through the cracks midstream, or abandon course just when the finish line is in sight? Sure, it can be easy to explain it away due to misplacement, misalignment, misdirection, misfortune, or a whole host of other ‘misses’. Instead, let’s look at this from a different vantage point…

Why do students jump into eLearning programs and courses in the first place only to jump out again?  What does this tell us about our intake processes, structures, practices, and program design for keeping students in an eLearning program?  How could we improve these, what subtle changes might we make?  How could we better use our time rather than trying to ‘hoard frogs in a wheel barrow’ and keep students in eLearning programs rather than jumping out like frogs from a moving wheel barrow?

The following sections provide a seemingly endless, and perhaps overwhelming, frenzy of strategies and tools that may help you to capture interest, motivate participation, engage learners, and, most importantly, dissolve many of the factors, obstacles, and challenges that cause students to disconnect, drop the ball, pack their bags, vote with their feet, jump from the frying pan…. (okay, there must be a badge for that many clichés in one sentence). As you scan below, make note of the strategies that may help you now in engaging K-12 students in your own eLearning program.  Check out this compilation of research on successful ways institutions are addressing retention in online learning (click here).


Getting the message out

When surveyed, most students who dropped eLearning courses cited reasons that can be traced back to insufficient and/or ineffective communication on the part of the teacher. Here are some strategies that can help to open and sustain that communication:

  • Post prominently your contact information and the multiple ways students can reach you;
  • Update your News postings regularly, create video News posts;
  • Place all important dates (e.g., due dates and events) in a course calendar;
  • Respond to all messages from students in a timely manner;
  • Use a hashtag for your class and have students follow it, use it to tweet out important info;
  • Embed a Twitter Feed widget into your homepage that posts tweets containing the hashtag; and
  • Check:

Virtual Learning Environment

Know your classroom and make it theirs

Students are more motivated to visit their classroom often when it is simple yet dynamic, personalized, and comfortable. Remember the first day of secondary school when you didn’t know where to go, what to do, or how things worked? Who helped you and how did they help? Some great learning here that you can apply to your online classroom experience:

  • Become knowledgeable of and skilled in all aspects of your vLE (virtual learning environment);
  • Offer an experience or a task to help students become familiar with the learning environment;
  • Customize the environment with widgets, navigation bars, links, etc., ensure that features and tools are present and those most frequently used are prominent;
  • Routinely alter the learning environment as the course progresses and draw attention to these changes;
  • Personalize your course home page to reflect you, your students, and/or your course; and
  • Check out:


Creating content with learner in mind

Have you ever been given a document to read that was frustrating to decipher, interpret, or follow? When content authors fail to consider and prioritize the intended audience appropriately, the learning experience can be exhausting for both student and teacher. Check out these musts for ensuring that your learning content is well suited to the end user:


Good teaching is good teaching

The fundamentals and principles of good pedagogy remain unchanged as we move from one learning environment to another. The challenge is in knowing how to successfully improve upon good pedagogy from the face-to-face classroom that captures interest, motivates participation, and engages the learner in new ways. How can we leverage technologies to improve learning online? Consider the following:


Is there anybody out there?

Online learning can sometimes feel like a lonely and isolated experience. Today, however, given the multitude of tools available both within and peripheral to all popular Learning Management Systems, not to mention what we now know about the importance of interaction, collaboration, and community, there is no excuse for any learner to feel as though they are on an island, isolated and on their own. So, how do we ensure our learners feel less like they are stranded and more like they are an important and valued member embraced by their community of learners? Here are some ideas for your consideration:

  • Send a message prior to the start of the course, require students to complete a task to ensure they have received the message (e.g., post an introduction, etc.);
  • Create a video or animated introduction and profile of yourself (e.g., using YouSeeU, Youtube Channel, Voci, etc.) and encourage students to do something similar;
  • Learn more about each student to make decisions regarding content, delivery, assessment, and so on through a pre-course survey, ice-breaker activity, etc. – discover their aspirations, backgrounds, experiences, unique skills and knowledge, learning preferences, personal interests, etc.;
  • Integrate and encourage the use of a ‘course café’ or ‘student lounge’ where students can converse about topics not course-related;
  • Get personal! Let students know the human on the other side of the computer; and
  • Check out the following posts as well:


eLearning for all

Think of a time when you encountered a problem, an obstacle, a challenge, that you felt perhaps you couldn’t overcome on your own … Of course, as adults we typically have strategies, resources, networks, etc., to handle such events, not to mention past experiences to draw upon. How about that student in your online class, though? The one who has poor attendance, or perhaps is not participating in discussions, or maybe has fallen behind on task completion? How do you know for certain that there are no other issues at work, could there be a learning disability, perhaps an issue with literacy? Or, has there been an event that is interfering with the student’s ability to perform? Could there be problems with accommodation or readability? Knowing that many students are not likely to naturally self-advocate, we have to be deliberate in our efforts in online learning to establish open and caring learning environments that encourage communication and offer several mechanisms to facilitate dialogue and build trust. To achieve this, consider the following strategies:

  • Determine which students in your course have IEPs and/or are ESL students and reach out to each individually, to their counsellors and parents;
  • Contact no-shows early in an encouraging and supportive manner, include others in their support network and if email is not successful, make a phone call;
  • Post and maintain regular office hours and remind students frequently of your availability, inviting them to reach out as often as necessary;
  • Provide tips for success, ensuring students clearly understand what they need to do be successful, addressing directly those skills that are essential to success in the online classroom (e.g., time-management, organization, self-advocacy, communication, etc.);
  • Host synchronous virtual meetings where students can openly ask questions;
  • Make it a habit of virtually “tapping students on the shoulder” simply to pass on positive accolades, letting them know they are doing well before they run into trouble;
  • Introduce students to available text-to-speech readers and speech-to-text writers; Check out this great article on the advantages of text-to-speech readers for all learners:


Finding a way

Captured in such road maps as Growing Success, not only do we have a better understanding of assessment and evaluation but we also know how to best employ the strategies that not only measure achievement but, more importantly, inform and motivate success. Today, there are many approaches and tools at your disposal that help greatly to make your assessment and evaluation practices manageable, meaningful, and impactful:

Classroom Management

Stay in line and hold on to the rope

In most online courses students are required to complete an orientation and, of course, the orientation includes a section on netiquette.  Often, though, students acting according to that advice is not always the case.  Just like in school-based classrooms, online classrooms can have behavioural issues flare.  To help ensure you are managing your class and classroom behaviour effectively, try using some or all of the following strategies:

  • At the beginning of the course:
    • Take time to co-construct, illustrate, and come to a universal understanding with your students the class norms for acceptable behaviours, take advantage of this opportunity to teach about netiquette, plagiarism, and severe forms of unacceptable behaviour such as cyberbullying, flaming, racism, and sexism;
    • Consider having students sign off on an agreement or learning contract that attests that are aware of, understand, and commit to the above;
  • Require students to construct and submit a time management plan using a calendar, the purpose being to illustrate how they intend to meet the attendance and work requirements of the course while balancing their other obligations and responsibilities;
  • Practice using timed postings (e.g., News postings) so that students know they need to ‘attend’ (i.e., log in) to acquire information;
  • Monitor attendance and performance closely (e.g. set up auto notifications in your LMS) and show students that you aware when they are absent, not logged in, or when a task has not been completed or an assignment not submitted;
  • Use the built-in analytics in your LMS to monitor and track student participation (e.g., log in history, time spent, topics visited, submissions, posts read/authored/replied to);
  • Consistently document difficult behaviours, particularly those recurring, should student safety be at risk, if necessary request privilege suspension or course removal; and
  • In all communications and actions, consistently model the behaviours you expect while using a conversational tone that is inviting, personal, friendly, and encouraging.

Todd Pottle is a Secondary School Administrator on secondment as the Executive Director of the Ontario eLearning Consortium – a grassroots partnership of Ontario School Boards that, since 2001, have worked together to deliver online Ontario secondary courses, develop resources, tools and procedures, perform quality assurance, support teachers, and increase learning opportunities for students. Currently, the Consortium supports 22 member boards, both Public and Catholic, representing students who reside in both metropolitan and rural areas throughout Ontario. Todd is also an online instructor for Queen’s University and the author of two courses for their Continuing Teacher Education & Professional Studies Department – How to Teach Online and Designing for Online Learning.

Todd also serves on the board of directors for the Canadian eLearning Network.