Student success in open, distance and e-learning

Student success is crucial to the purposes of open, distance and e-learning – but challenging to achieve compared with selective post-secondary systems – a study for the International Council for Open and Distance Education, or ICDE, found. Good practices include whole-institution strategies for student success and the mitigation of drop-out at course, qualification and institutional levels, solid data, honest admissions policies and accountability.

Student Success in Open, Distance and e-Learning was published in April and draws on research findings from a survey of 53 ICDE member institutions. It was produced by a task group led by Professor Alan Tait of the Open University, UK.

The report investigates how student success – an indicator of quality and institutional effectiveness that has been increasingly stressed in recent years – can best be supported and drop-out diminished.

Student success, retention and support is one of eight themes to be debated at the 26th ICDE World Conference being held in the Sun City resort near Johannesburg from 14-16 October, hosted by the University of South Africa under the theme “Growing capacities for sustainable distance e-learning provision”.

Aspects of success in open, distance and e-learning – ODeL – and technology-enhanced learning will be explored in numerous areas including the changing needs of students and the transforming face of student support, the use of analytics, recognition of prior learning and measuring the impacts of student support.


Members of the ICDE had expressed the need to be more informed about research and innovation in the area of student success, says the Tait report. Also, distance education is facing threats and opportunities but there is little research on which to base responses.

A Student Success Working Group was established in November 2013 by the ICDE’s standing committee of presidents, to conduct a meta-study on research and challenges in student success and to advise the ICDE on student support issues.

The terms of reference of the working group* included identifying best practice in strategies to improve student success, making recommendations for improving success rates and diminishing student drop-out and failure, and creating a dissemination strategy for outcomes.

A survey was launched in October 2014 and sent to all ICDE members. There were 53 institutional responses, of which 34 were fully completed.

The research revealed a number of significant issues.

For instance, the report says: “There was a widespread linking of institutional funding streams with student success, especially where government funding was made available.” Approval was given to personal contact with students through a range of methods and media.

Enhanced use of data analysis to support intervention strategies was widely endorsed, but was not yet evidenced through practice. This was also the case for research into student success, which appeared not to be fed back into institutional strategies.

According to the “Key research findings” in the report's appendix, responses to the survey were by senior people in institutions, mostly at director level, and there was a range of institutional sizes – 15% had more than 100,000 students and 15% had fewer than 5,000 students.

The survey revealed that the student success focus was mostly towards qualification completion rates (75%), followed by module completion (50%) and employment outcomes (40%). Also, 54% of institutions identified student satisfaction ratings as definitive to student success, while only 4% identified league tables as a measure of success.

Asked about strategies to improve student success, 77% of institutions indicated that their plans were academic subject based – personal tutoring, extra sessions and so on – and 73% reported both financial and intervention strategies. The majority of strategies selected “have strong personal contact elements between the institution and the students”.

Understanding the challenges

There are a number of issues facing open, distance and e-learning programmes that appear to be of worldwide relevance, the report says.

For instance, students are likely to be: adults who have not come to study directly from school; studying in the post-secondary sector; part-time with family and-or work responsibilities; and to have gained access to ‘open’ courses.

Also, many ODeL students come from families with little or no history of post-secondary education, and from lower socio-economic cohorts than those in traditional universities.

It was “widely though not universally” the case that student success in part-time study is less than for full-time students, and that within part-time cohorts, students on ODeL courses generally do less well in completing qualifications than part-time campus based students.

Students who study without the social and cultural capital of the elite, the report points out, take a “significant risk in terms of self-esteem, money paid in fees, and time committed to study at the expense of family and leisure”. ODeL institutions need, in partnership with students, to manage that risk in transparent and responsible ways.

The mission of inclusion and access of most ODeL programmes lies in “seeking to achieve something different from the elite universities, and [they] can be proud of that”. But this does generate a set of responsibilities.

There is clear tension between wanting to maximise student numbers and responsibly advising people on preparedness for study. “There is sadly and shamefully a history in ODeL of commercial motives conflicting with that sense of responsibility,” says the report.

There have been too many recent instances of particularly private for-profit colleges using unethical and untransparent admissions practices, “to the severe detriment of students who pay high fees and accumulate debt without the benefit of qualification”.

Supporting student success

The report describes a framework to support student success as an organic whole-institution system – “that is to say it must be based on the student’s whole experience of study”.

Pre-study information, advice, guidance and admission is a crucial stage in the engagement of students, the report stresses.

Sales and marketing activities are essential for an institution to make its offer known to the public. But misleading statements must be avoided, as they can “lead some students to register on an unrealistic basis and to individual disappointment and high dropout statistics”.

Information on all dimensions of study must be clear and channels of communication open. “Advice and guidance staff should have professional goals derived from enquirer satisfaction, not sales targets.” There is a range of possible communication channels, from face-to-face to web-based access to peer support.

“There should be quality assurance for this, as for all other elements that support student success, to include systems to provide feedback on accuracy, helpfulness and timeliness of enquirer interactions.”

The report says that innovations in ODeL systems have focused on learning design for student success, and have included pioneering learning outcomes, continuous assessment, the use of visual supports, and the use of radio and television for teaching.

Effective learning design delivers student engagement, among other things, the report says: “The resilience of that engagement is core to delivering student success and mitigating drop-out.”

The nature of study programmes in ODeL is driven by what students want to study – that is, by the market – the report points out. But the market may be substantially influenced by what students are told is valuable, especially regarding employment and livelihoods.

“This needs to be honest and not unrealistic in terms of possibilities. It may demand knowledge of labour market trends, insofar as they can be understood.”

Other drivers of curriculum design include regulation, academic understanding of disciplines and major issues in society such as sustainability, HIV-Aids and ethics. “Considerable skill is needed to resolve tensions between them in a compelling curriculum offer.”

Intervention, assessment and support

The stages of the student experience provide a structure for learner support, and interventions should be both universal at particular times in the learning schedule when all students may need support, and individual when a student is having difficulty or not making progress.

“Intervention has been practised in many ODeL systems for many years, and has been demonstrated to improve student completion,” says the report. The capacity to use data analytics “now makes intervention potentially much more immediate and powerful”.

It is clear from the ICDE survey that information collected is not optimally used to improve the student experience. “There needs to be focused cycles of review of module design in response to feedback.”

Assessment, the report says, plays a crucial role in students success. “It is integral to learning design and pedagogy, not as an add-on at a subsequent stage.” ODeL programmes have for years used formative and summative assessment, and continuous and final assessment.

“Online learning systems now have the capacity to provide frequent shorter assessment tasks that support student engagement and diagnose learning at shorter intervals, thus supporting student success.”

Providing personalised support for learners lies at the heart of successful teaching systems that operate at a physical distance from students, the report says.

“The advent of the web has made possible the potential of much easier student-tutor and student-student communication, through email and electronic conferences.

“In some ODeL systems student support is enhanced through social clubs and networks. The development of student peer support through Facebook, wikis and other similar crowd approaches offers much.”

While creating learning resources benefits from the cost-effectiveness of scale, individualised support to students has the opposite cost dynamic – it increases with the number of students.

Serious consideration needs to be given to how much of a teaching budget is given to learning resources versus student support. Too often resources are allocated to learning materials “with individualised support coming into the budget as an afterthought”, the report finds.

Information, logistical and management systems

The contribution to student success of effective, timely management of learning embedded in learning and teaching materials, assessment and learner support services is central, the report argues. Learning management systems – commercial and open source – have for years provided a framework.

The fast-developing area of learner analytics, using digitally held data to support intervention, is of “considerable significance. Issues of privacy and confidentiality create ethical and legal challenges which will managed differently in a variety of legal settings.

“It is clear from the ICDE survey that member institutions regard learner analytics as central to future development, but that promise is at this stage greater than achievement. Learner analytics represent a significant priority in strategies for student success.”

All this means, the report says, that student success is crucial to the purposes of ODeL programmes and institutions – and challenging to achieve, at least as compared with highly selective post-secondary systems. “Attention to this proposition underpins the ways in which ‘putting the learner at the heart of the system’ can be made a reality.”

Good practice

Good practice for ODeL programmes, the report concludes, would include:
  • • A strategy for student success and the mitigation of drop-out at module, qualification and institutional levels, with a distinctive focus on the first or early modules.
  • • The strategy should be a whole-institution issue and cross-functional, ensuring that curriculum producers, student support, student admissions and learning advisors, tutors and instructor cohorts and management address the issue jointly.
  • • The strategy should propose steady and realistic improvement, and investigate any backward steps in rates of student success in a timely way.
  • • Data on student success needs to be distributed and acted on in order to underpin intervention at both general student population and individual student levels, and with learning materials and assessment strategies.
  • • Admissions policy and practice should take account of rates of student success in transparent and honest ways with future students.
  • • Accountability within the institution for management of student success should be clear at course, qualification and institutional levels.
The working group also recommended further evidence collection from willing institutions and possibly a more qualitative survey, an investigation into anomalies in answers regarding employment and research into student success being conducted by institutions, and that the ICDE consider providing further information and guidance on learning analytics.

* Other members of the The ICDE task group were: Athbah Al-Kamda of Hamdan bin Mohammed Smart University in the United Arab Emirates; Iolanda Garcia of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain; Ojat Darojat of Universitas Terbuka in Indonesia; and Caroline Seelig of the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. The research officer was Hannah Gore of the Open University, UK.