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How to Keep Distance Learners from Dropping Out of School

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 4/25/2013

As an instructor in the online education field, you know that dealing with an online learner is different from engaging students face to face in the classroom. There are no office hours and no after class meetings; however, there are a number of alternative means of engaging the online learner.

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    High Attrition Rate

    Online education has been hailed as the answer to those with busy lives, who also recognize a need for the benefits an education can offer. At the same time, those attending college online are subject to some of the highest attrition rates in the educational field.

    A 2001 article by the MIT News Office suggests that some online education courses are facing up to an 80 percent attrition rate. This stacks the odds against the distance learner from the get go, and even the most dedicated student attending college online may at some point be tempted to forego distance learning altogether.

    As an instructor, you have the power of engaging online learners on the quest for knowledge. As a matter of fact, as the instructor, you are the main contact that the student has with the online college. Debbie Cavalier revealed that 21 percent of online education drop-outs cite a failure of faculty members to adequately interact with them as their main reason for quitting distance learning endeavors!

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    Engaging Through Social Media

    Savvy online instructors are using FaceBook, MySpace and Twitter to interact with online learners. Claire Schooley, a senior analyst for Forrester Research, cites the fact that social media has become the main means of Internet shopping and interacting on the peer level; this translates into making this kind of media also a main means of instruction.

    Although primarily addressing her findings to industry, the fact that most any online learner is plugged into one or more social media applications is not lost on distance learning program providers; as an instructor, make it your job to know where your students congregate online and meet them on their turf. The interaction between you and them – and amongst themselves – is a crucial component to forging an engagement that is hard to walk away from.

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    YouTube and Video Conferencing

    You do not have to be a whiz behind the camera to curtail attrition of the students entrusted to you for an online education. YouTube is best known for its vast collection of oddball mini movies and clips, but as an instructor working with a technology savvy online learner, you can put YouTube to good use.

    Engage the online learner by encouraging the posting of clips and videos in lieu of written assignments. Post lectures and invite discussions. Any form of online education that strengthens the bond between online learner and instructor has the power to lessen the potential for attrition.

    Another useful means for engaging the online learner is video conferencing as a means of bridging the gap between conventional and online learning. The application for distance learning is undeniable: a virtual classroom setting that allows real time interactions as often as needed.

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    For the online instructor, it pays huge dividends to get a good feel for the needs of your students and also the potential for attrition. This empowers you to adapt the usage of any – or all – of the technologies mentioned to suit your needs. Why not give it a try? You may be surprised to learn just how attrition-proof your online education classroom can be!


  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Sloan e-learning course goes the distance for Merrill Lynch employees” at (accessed May 29, 2011)
  • New Learning Playbook. “Do You Know What Your Learners are Doing Online?” at (accessed May 29, 2011)
  • Debbie Cavalier. “Top 5 Reasons Online Students Drop Out” at (accessed May 29, 2011)