Critics of distance education frequently assert that completion rates are lower in distance education courses than in traditional courses. Such criticism comes despite sparse and inconclusive research on completion rates for distance and traditional education courses. This article reviews some of the existing research and then describes some of the caveats and complexities in comparing completion rates in traditional and distance education. Analysis reveals that numerous factors make comparison between these two formats difficult, if not impossible. Problems include limitations in the research design itself, differences in student demographics, and inconsistent methods of calculating and reporting completion. After exploring these issues, the article presents best practices for improving completion rates while emphasizing that distance education completion rates may be acceptable after considering distance learners’ characteristics.
Research Findings On Completion Rates
Studies on distance education completion, especially those targeting online learning, are relatively few, due partly to the medium’s relative newness. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000 reported: “No national statistics exist yet about how many students complete distance programs or courses, but anecdotal evidence and studies by individual institutions suggest that course-completion and program-retention rates are generally lower in distance-education courses than in their face-to-face counterparts” (Brady, 2001, p. 352).
Researchers report variation in completion rates among institutions, “with some reporting course-completion rates of more than 80 percent and others finding that fewer than 50 percent of distance-education students finish their courses” (Carr, 2000, paragraph 10). In another study by Brigham (2003), 66% of distance-learning institutions have an 80% or better completion rate for their distance education courses, and 87% of institutions have 70% or better completion. Roach (2002) observed that “individual schools and organizations are reporting that their online programs have as high or higher rates of retention as their traditional classroom offerings” (p. 23).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Retention: Similar to persistence, this term typically refers to whether students finish their degrees or programs.
Completion: The most frequent measure for success in distance learning; usually refers to the percentage of students finishing at the course level. Frequently associated with retention and persistence rates.
Traditional Education and Students: Usually refers to education and students in the classroom, but grouping all types of classroom instruction together makes comparison studies between traditional education and distance education inexact. As one example, the term traditional education does not specify whether a lecture or discussion format was used. The same problem occurs in grouping all distance learners and delivery formats together, when in reality a great deal of variation exists.
Persistence: Generally refers to whether students finish their degrees or programs.
Algorithm: A step-by-step procedure for solving a problem, in this case that of determining completion and retention rates. No national, standardized algorithm exists yet for calculating these rates.
Interaction: Contact and communication between faculty and students and between the students themselves are one of the important determinants of completion and retention.
Nonstarters: Students who register for a course, but never complete a lesson or attend a class. Such students make the calculation of completion rates difficult.
Student Demographics: Include the range of students’ characteristics that compromise the comparisons between traditional and distance education. Differences in student characteristics include age, full/part-time status, financial support, learning goals, and so forth.