Research on Dropouts from Open and Distance Education: Conclusions and Reflections     

                                                                             Li    Ying

(Research Institute of Open and Distance Education, The Open University of China, Beijing 100039, China)

[Abstract] High dropout rates have become an unavoidable problem in open and distance education. This paper, based on the “Research on Dropouts from Open and Distance Education” Project, conducts an in-depth analysis into the phenomenon of open and distance education dropout rates in China by way of quantitative, qualitative, and international comparative studies, so as to provide answers to the questions surrounding dropout occurrence rules in open and distance education. The research findings are as follows: dropout rates vary among study levels and majors; the highest dropout rate appears in the first year; the gender and age of the learner, the administrative zone where the learning centre is located, the study level, major, and academic record of the learner are all influential factors for dropout. The “Open and Distance Education Dropout Explanation Frame” and “Diagram of the Relationship between Essential Factors for Learners’ Achievement” are used to uncover dropout occurrence mechanisms and key elements encouraging learners to finish their education. The study also shows that learners who have weak distance education learning skills (e.g. information literacy, time management ability, teacher-student interaction); who have chosen the wrong major or an inappropriate study level; who are overloaded; who have failed a higher number of courses; who lack drive; who lack determination; or who are economically disadvantaged are more inclined to drop out. The paper proposes a formula for retention rate, offers suggestions for dropout re-entry, and explores the impact of the open and distance education teaching system on dropout rates. Finally, the paper considers the prospects for China’s open and distance education dropout research through comparing related research findings in China and Britain.

Key Words: open and distance education; student dropout; student retention

I. Research problems

Open and distance education, as an important component of higher education, plays a significant role in the expansion and popularization of higher education, contributing to educational equality and social justice. Two essential attributes distinguish open and distance education from traditional higher education. The first is free access to learning: all qualified individuals who aspire to learn are admitted without examination, regardless of age, occupation or geographic location. The second is the “open campus”: supported by modern information technology, open and distance education incorporates multi-media teaching methods into the design of teaching resources and activities, enabling learners to study at the time and place that best suits them. The two attributes can be summarized by the three A’s: anyone, anytime, anywhere. The above attributes show that open and distance education is characterized by strong socialization and capacity, especially in the form of low barriers to entry. However, ease of entrance is often accompanied by a high dropout rate, a widespread problem that open and distance education cannot afford to ignore.

Related data shows the graduation rate of international open and distance education institutions and reveals a high dropout rate. The graduation rate from the Open University UK (OUUK) stands at 22% after the students have been in school for 11 years, only one quarter that of the conventional universities in the UK. The graduation rate from Athabasca University stands at 5.3% after the students have been in school for eight years. The graduation rate from British Columbia Open University stands at 33.5% after the students have been in school for eight years. The graduation rate from the Open Universiteit Nederland stands at 2.5% after the students have been in school for eight years(Simpson, 2010). E-learning and Open Education Project in China’s RTVU began in 1999. China’s open and distance education institutions include China Central Radio and TV University (CCRTVU, the predecessor of the OUC) and 66 web-based colleges in the conventional universities. By 2011, enrollment in open and distance education had reached nearly 4.85 million (Yang Zhijian, 2012), indicating a great contribution to the expansion of higher education. However, the issue of dropouts has grown increasingly evident, drawing attention from open and distance education institutes, teachers and researchers. For open and distance education institutions funded mainly by student tuition, high dropout rates lead to a loss in school-running benefits and a waste of educational investment. For learners who have invested time and money, dropping out suggests that their efforts have not achieved the expected return, representing a failed learning experience. Dropouts also cause damage to education institutions and individuals. Paying more attention to dropouts, and improving student retention rates and success rates, are at the heart of the goals and interests of distance educational institutions.