The Role of Educational Technology and Online Learning in Preventing Dropouts

By Yu-Chun Kuo
Rowan University

The use of educational technology appears to be a method to prevent students from leaving school (Harper & Boggan, 2011; Reimer & Smink, 2005; Roblyer, 2006; Smith, Clark, & Blomeyer, 2005). Fully online and blended learning are two of the most popular course delivery methods in K-12 education. The majority of these online or blended programs are provided for high school students; significantly fewer opportunities are given to middle and elementary students (DiPietro, Ferdig, Black, & Preston, 2008; Harper & Boggan, 2011). The potential of online learning may help remove learning barriers by increasing student motivation to learn or by improving student attitudes towards learning, which decreases the negative influences of individual and institutional factors contributing to student dropout issues (Rumberger & Lim, 2008). Developing an online program for credit recovery or for students at risk of dropping out may be challenging, and several factors related to online effectiveness need to be considered carefully. We provide several recommendations (see Table 1) through a summary of prior research that may be helpful for K-12 administrators or educators to consider when developing online and blended programs for at-risk students or those who have dropped out.

1. Program types/ArrangementsOnline and blended programs become popular options for credit recovery or at-risk students (Harper & Boggan, 2011). Blended/hybrid learning, a combination of online and face-to-face, appears to be the most often adopted approach to credit recovery. Providing students credits for working hours or community service was suggested (Watson & Gemin, 2008).
2. MotivationMotivating students who have failed in the traditional face-to-face instructional setting is important for the success of credit recovery programs (Archambault et al., 2010; Watson & Gemin, 2008). Students with low motivation are more likely to be less engaged in the learning process, which increases the chance of failing a class (Brewster & Fager, 2000). It may be necessary to employ developed diagnostic or assessment tools to identify at-risk students’ prior academic performance and the factors that lead to course failure. Although the flexible nature of online learning may engage students’ interest in learning, the design of the course and the continuous support from the instructor would probably be more critical in maintaining students’ participation in online learning.
3. Course designHigh-quality course content improves student retention and their learning experiences (DiPietro, Ferdig, Black, & Preston, 2008; Hawkins et al., 2013). For students who are at risk of dropping out, the content should be developed in a way to increase student motivation and engagement. The interplay between content, technology, and pedagogy should be considered carefully when developing courses for at-risk students (Marino, Sameshima, & Beecher, 2009). Formative and summative assessments are needed to identify students’ learning progress. Universal design should be considered for courses offered to disabled students (Alnahdi, 2014).
4. Interaction and communication channelsInteraction is a determinant of online satisfaction and success (Hawkins et al., 2013; Harper & Boggan, 2011; Kuo et al., 2014). Hence, it is necessary to maintain a high level of learner-learner and learner-instructor interaction (Kuo, Walker, Schroder, & Belland, 2014). Learner-instructor interaction may be especially important for at-risk students who need more one-on-one attention. Building effective communication channels between the instructor, parents, and the community supports successful student learning experiences (Rumberger & Lim, 2008). The communication mechanism can be manipulated through the online learning management system.
5. Innovative pedagogiesApplying innovative pedagogies or instructional strategies would engage students in the learning process (DiPietro, Ferdig, Black, & Preston, 2008). Active learning such as collaborative learning or project-based learning helps to involve students in a series of student-centered activities.
6. Instructional and personal supportStudents at risk of dropping out appear to need more attention and support from the instructor, tutors, or mentors to keep their learning progress on track (Harper & Boggan, 2011). In addition, support from family members and the community would contribute to student learning. Collaboration among the instructor, parents, the school, and the community enhances student success (Rumberger & Lim, 2008).
7. Individualized/Personalized learningThere are individual differences among at-risk students (Corry & Carlson-Bancroft, 2014; Watson & Gemin, 2008). Remedial instructions that accommodate students’ various learning styles and provide flexibility based on their needs help to improve students’ motivation to learn and maintain their interest on the subject (Corry & Carlson-Bancroft, 2014). Online learning may provide such flexibility of content selection and allows students to focus more on the content they have failed in regular classes.
8. Mentoring and tutoringMentoring or tutoring opportunities are essential for students in recovery programs or those at risk of failing a class (Archambault et al., 2010). They can be provided by an instructor, a mentor/tutor, site facilitators, content experts, or a counselor, depending on the type of difficulty that students have encountered in a class (Archambault et al., 2010). Through mentoring/tutoring, students receive just-in-time feedback and continuous support that help students maintain positive attitudes toward learning and increase their belief or confidence in completing a class successfully.
9. Technology access, technology literacy, and supportIt is important to ensure that students have access to technology so that they can attend online courses (Harper & Boggan, 2011; Ritzhaupt, Liu, Dawson, & Barron, 2013). Limited access to technology decreases the completion rate of online courses (Harper & Boggan, 2011). Students’ technology literacy may play a role in online success. Poor technology literacy may impede students from online activities. Technical support and technology literacy programs are needed especially for students with poor technology literacy (Ritzhaupt et al., 2013). Affordance of technology should be considered when developing online courses. The use of assistive technology is essential for students with disabilities.
10. Required skill sets for studentsAlthough online courses prove to be a remedial approach for potential dropouts, students need to possess certain skills to be able to succeed in an online course (DiPietro, Ferdig, Black, & Preston, 2008). These skills include time management, the ability to navigate through the content and assignments, technology skills, and organizational skills. Pre-class orientation or training may be helpful to develop such skills and get students ready for formal sessions. In addition, a trial session would allow students to test and see whether they are suitable for such online learning opportunities.
11. Professional developmentProfessional development is necessary for those who teach online courses (e.g., teachers) or work with at-risk students (e.g., teachers, staff, mentors, or facilitators) (Archambault et al., 2010). Teachers in virtual schools may serve several roles such as instructor, course designer, mentor, or site facilitator. Skills required for a teacher to maintain an online course include class management, organization, communication, and monitoring. Professional development can provide teachers with opportunities to hone their skills to manage online courses and perform different roles when necessary.

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