EDEN paper 2008

e-learning students reasons for dropout: the case of virclass (the vitual class of social work in europe)
Eduardo Marques, Instituto Superior Miguel Torga; Andrés Arias Astray, Universidad Complutense; Anne Karin Larsen, Bergen University College; Grete Oline Hole, Bergen University College

Abstract

VirClass, The Virtual Classroom for Social Work in Europe (Hole & Larsen, 2006), constitute an e-learning initiative that meets students and teachers from all over Europe to participate and cooperate in the 15 ECTS course "Social Work in Europe - Commonalities and Differences, and Comparative Social Work – European Perspective on Core aspects of Social Work". After two successful editions of the course in 2005 and 2006, high rates of early students’ dropout, close to 50%, deserve a detailed analysis in order to develop adequate strategies to solve this problem. In this paper a first step in this direction is taken by presenting and analysing the reasons offered by 2006 Virclass students to explain why they quit their participation. Surprisingly, an apparent minor reason like the lack of specific information about the high workload and time needed to become a VirClass students before enrol the course seems to be a more important factor to explain dropouts than those related to the pedagogical model, contents, and technical characteristic of Virclass and those connected to the students e-competences.

Introduction

The VirClass project was established in 2003 under the leadership of Bergen University College (Norway), in cooperation with universities from 11 European countries, which participated in the development of the curriculum plan and the running of the course. Since then a 15 ECTS credit online course in European Social Work and a Virtual book -which integrates virtual lessons, triggers, an a case study (Larsen, Hole & Fahlvik, 2007) have been developed, and more than 150 students from 15 countries have taken part in the programme (see http://www.virclass.net for a detailed view of the project). Working under ItsLearning VLE, students and teachers collaboration in comparative studies are encourage by using task-centred approach to learning, learning by dialogue, portfolio assessment, reflection on learning, and transparency (Hole & Larsen, 2007).
Students who finished the course tend to express a high degree of satisfaction when they are asked for different aspects of their e-learning experiences. Notwithstanding, a high rate of early dropouts has been a problematic fact from the beginning, because it is an important threat with a negative consequence facing the academic investment, personal effort, and money invested on these courses.
From a logical point of view, one of the reasons that can explain this disruptive phenomenon is that some of the Virtual students have no official recognition from their respective universities of the credits they obtain, what makes Virclass a second priority in their agenda. Another factor can be the fact that for a big number of students (those whose universities belong to the EUSW) Virclass is a free educative program, what probably reduces its real value and importance.
But whatever reasons we can anticipate to explain these dropouts, it will always be necessary to compare them with the perception of the real protagonists of Virclass. That is, e-students. This is precisely the objective of this paper: to analyze from the point of view of the students some of the factors and reasons that can explain the high rates of dropout that have characterized Virclass courses in its first years of live.

Method

Participants

14 students (3 males and 11 females) of a total of 35 participants who quitted the 2006 edition of the Virclass course took part in the study. Half of the sample was between 18 and 25 years old, 35,7%  between 25 and 32 years old, and 14,3% more than 33 years old. Students from Sweden were 3, from Norway, Portugal and German 2 for each country, and from Poland, Estonia, Netherlands and Spain 1 for each country.

 

Instruments

The address of an anonymous online-questionnaire was sent to those Virclass participants who quit the course before the start of the second of its two modules. The e-questionnaire comprised socio-demographic questions (sex, age, & country), several open ended questions, and a number of dichotomous (yes, no) close questions and 5 point Likert scale questions which will be the main focus of our analyse here.

Results

Credits recognition

Only 28,6% of the students said that the credits received from VirClass would be included as a part of their BA/Diploma or Master Diploma. That is, only 4 out 14 students who left the course would be external motivated to continue the course on the basis of its recognition in their formal curriculum. In addition, no other added value for the credits obtained were found for most of the students (57,1%).

Motivation

In a 1 to 5 points demotivation scale participants who quitted the course obtained a mean of 2 points (sd = 1), suggesting that their internal motivation at start was at least high and it cannot be used to explain their dropout.

Quality of the course

The quality of the material in the course does not appear to be a factor related to the abandonment of Virclass. In fact, only one participant regarded it as poor, meanwhile 84,6% of the sample placed their opinion on the positive side of the 5 points scale employed 

Three groups of reasons: lack of time & workload, expectations, and course specific characteristics & students competences

When students were given the 13 reasons for quitting the course that can be seen on table 1 to be rated on a 5 points (1=very important reason; 5=minor reason) Likert scale, three main groups of responses seems to emerge (see table 1).
First, those related to students lack of time and workload, that are the reasons regarded as most relevant for student when they explain why the left the course. All of them were regarded as important and very important reasons 
Second, those rated as middle importance and of mixed nature, linked with personal tastes and attitudes (lost of interest, and unfulfilled expectations), and with external and internal problems to access the platform (students personal and unexpected problems, and technical problems). These are the reasons that in table one have means higher than 2 and lower than 4.
And Third, factors regarded of minor importance to quit the course that are precisely those linked with the central characteristics and implementation of Virclass (teachers response, on campus support), and some of the skills and competences that able students to follow it (English language skills and interactions among students).

 

Table 1       N, means, standard deviations, and % of rates on a 5 point scale (5=minor important; 1=very important, NA=no response) of some reasons for quitting the course offered by students who dropout Virclass

 

N
mean
sd
5
4
3
2
1
NA
I did not realize that it would be so much work
14
2,43
1,45
7.1
7.1
21.4
21.4
42.9
0.0
I was too busy with other things and did not manage to follow the course
14
1,93
1,49
7.1
0.0
14.3
7.1
71.4
0.0
Personal problems turned up during the course and made it difficult to continue
11
3,64
1,63
35.7
0.0
7.1
21.4
14.3
21.4
Difficulties related to entering the its learning platform in the beginning
12
3,83
1,59
42.9
21.4
0.0
7.1
14.3
14.3
My English language skills were not good enough
11
4,82
0,40
64.3
14.3
0.0
0.0
0.0
21.4
Teachers did not respond to my tasks and questions quick enough
11
4,45
1,04
57.1
7.1
7.1
7.1
0.0
21.4
E-learning did not appeal to me after all
11
4,27
1,27
50.0
14.3
7.1
0.0
7.1
21.4
Gradually I came too much behind in my work that I could not keep up with the course
12
2,83
1,58
21.4
7.1
14.3
21.4
21.4
14.3
I found another course I rather would participate in
10
5,00
0,00
71.4
0.0
0.0
0.0
0.0
28.6
Collaboration with other students made the course complicated
11
4,18
1,17
42.9
21.4
0.0
14.3
0.0
21.4
The implementation of the course at my University programme was not appropriate
11
4,27
1,27
57.1
14.3
7.1
0.0
0.0
21.4
Module/course content did not meet my expectations
11
3,36
1,69
42.9
0.0
14.3
14.3
7.1
21.4
13.  I lost my interest
11
3,82
1,66
42.9
14.3
0.0
7.1
14.3
21.4
 

Discussion

Results obtained seems to show that reasons for dropout from the e-students perspective can be ordered in a relatively clear patter, being on the top those related with the lack of information about what is expected from them from the very beginning of the course. No main reasons related to the internal operation, the content and the quality of the course seem to have importance for the students when they dropout Virclass. The same applies when they refer to their e-competences and English language skills.

The lack of credits official recognition does not seem to affect students’ motivation to enter the course. Moreover, the decision to start the course may be reinforced by its free cost, its attractive thematic, and the possibility to study online without a fixed schedule. But when the students realize the actual workload 15 ECTS imply, or they are confronted with personal problems, Virclass is left behind other academic responsibilities that do have official recognition.

Conclusion

Taking into account the information received from e-students, several recommendations can be made to avoid early living of students in future editions of Virclass:

 

·           To develop a common informative strategy to be used by local contacts in each university in order to make clear to the students what is exactly expected from them when they enroll Virclass in terms of time, workload, and so. It is desirable that at least one teacher must be able to give individual and personalized contact with the students, to give and discuss all information’s but also to get a first impression and evaluate the motivation and commitment of the student.

·           The students must be informed about the actual cost of the course even if they do not have to pay for it. Otherwise they may have the feeling that they do not lose anything leaving the course.

·           A further work to gain ECTS official recognition in every home university is needed. The ideal situation would be to have Virclass courses fully integrated in the BA/Diploma Social Work curriculum.
·           Finally, other actions must be taken in consideration, especially when students start to fell stressed or lost at their daily academic life. Thus, it is important to find solutions, among others, to the following situations:
-           Difficulties to access to computers outside of university campuses.
-           The kind of computer technology they have and the speed of internet connections.
-           Lack of computer literacy and a bad relation with technologies.
-           Difficulties of studying in a foreign language.
-           Difficulties to manage time with academic/professional and social life.
-           The support and direction from local teachers at students’ home universities.

-           The perception of the quality of the course.

-           The relevance of the Virclass curriculum for their future personal and professional lives.

References

1.        Larsen, A.K., Hole, GO., Fahlvik, M. (2007). Developing a Virtual Book – Material for Virtual Learning environments In Seminar.net vol 3, issue 3.The future of the Learning Management System http://www.seminar.net/

2.        hole, GO.; Larsen, A.K.(2006). VIRCLASS - A toolkit for innovation in Social Work in Europe? In EDEN conference, Vienna, Austria June 2006

3.        hole, GO.; Larsen, A.K. (2007). VIRCLASS: the Virtual Classroom for Social Work in Europe - a toolkit for innovation? In EURODL (European Journal of Open Distance and E-learning) 1/2007 http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2007/Hole_Larsen.htm