This post originally appeared in New America's blog In the Tank
When I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took approximately 8-10 large lecture classes. I remember walking into my first lecture as a freshman—Introduction to International Relations—and choosing between a seat on the first floor or in the balcony. I chose the first floor, somewhere in the middle. The “classroom” that day was brimming with more than 500 students. As the professor went over the syllabus, it became evident that attendance at lecture was “strongly encouraged” as there would be no way to quickly take attendance. By the second lecture, there were many empty seats.
Many freshmen and sophomores who attend public universities find themselves stuck in these large, introductory courses. With no one to check up on them or give them personal attention, many fall through the cracks—they may stop attending class and then do poorly on exams, or they may fall behind and withdraw from the course.
With this in mind, when I began to research online courses and credentials at public universities for a policy report, I assumed I would find the same problems endemic to large lectures—high attrition and low success rates. Instead, I found something that surprised me: While some online courses may suffer the same problems as lectures, several universities have discovered simple ways to keep students engaged once they start exhibiting drop-out warning signs, like neglecting assignments or lectures. In many instances, the data collected about online students by some institutions create a safety net to prevent drop outs where none exists in a face-to-face lecture-hall setting.