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Delivering on the Promise of E-Learning

Posted by on in Best Practices
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-Addressing the Low Completion Rate in Asynchronous Online Learning Platforms

by Rick Bauer
Director, MEF Certification

The state of learning and training, particularly in the IT industry, is in great tumult today. While there are exceptions, the low completion rate of self-guided/self-paced e-learning curricula is an area that needs to be addressed if the promise of “anytime, anyplace, any pace” learning is to be realized.

Despite more and more programs (academic, professional, certification preparation, etc.) deploying online courses, the student retention and completion rates are receding, not improving. According to academic findings, online courses have 15% to 40% higher failed retention rates than traditional classroom environments. In some cases, 40% to 80% of students drop out of an online course.[1]

When the cost of failure is measured in student achievement, the implications are tragic. In industry and in the realm of technology innovation, the costs can be measured personally (the failure to qualify for a new job or a promotion) and corporately (the inability of the organization to deploy new technologies or business practices). Whatever the context, consigning ourselves to such a disappointing—and even increasing—failure rate is unacceptable.

As a former CIO at a school and a certification exam developer for Cisco, Microsoft, CompTIA, the Storage Networking Industry Association, and now MEF Forum, I have seen successes and failures in teaching with technology. I want to relay an experience of one of our training providers – Tech2000, a leader in Cisco certification, cybersecurity training, and training for the growing family of network professional certifications for MEF. It’s an experience that brings us hope.

Tech2000 faced a low completion rate for online students before Beau Oliver, the company’s CEO, decided to see how things could be improved. Instead of treating each student as simply another individual customer seeking IT training in an e-learning context, Oliver and his team implemented two simple, but game-changing, support mechanisms.

First, Tech2000 brought students together into a cohort, not simply accepting individual enrollment. “We had to create a team even though we didn’t always have one to start with,” Oliver said.

Second, they assigned a digital mentor to journey with the cohort and regularly check in with students on their progress. “This was more than some accountability function,” Oliver observed. “It was in many ways an e-learning Sherpa. Just as a trusted guide helps those who have never completed the summit, so our mentors had the task of doing whatever it took to keep students on track and on task.”  

The results were impressive. While the normal participation and completion rate for the self-guided e-learning classes was 33%, implementing these simple but effective improvements caused the completion rate on a recent course to soar to 74%. We’ll need further validation before broader observations can be asserted, but things clearly are moving in a positive direction.

“We know we can always improve, and in many ways there’s nothing more authentic and effective than a skilled teacher delivering learning in a synchronous classroom with motivated students. But I think we’ve found that if we have trusted guides, if we intentionally build teamwork even among strangers, and if we provide the right kind of support and encouragement, we will see improvements.”

MEF certification classes are being delivered using this online structure and format; as results continue to be recorded, we’ll have more to share in future opportunities. It should be no surprise that common-sense solutions leveraging the power of teams and the value of a trusted guide would improve the record of completion for online learning. Continued fine-tuning will help assure that the promise of e-learning will be increasingly realized.


About the author:

Rick Bauer directs the certification efforts for MEF. Prior to joining MEF in 2016, Rick managed the technical activities, operations, and programs for Open Networking Foundation. Rick has built skills certifications and conformance programs for ONF, CompTIA, the storage industry, and for the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. 

Rick brings a career of IT management to these tasks, having served as a technology officer and CIO for a variety of companies. Rick was the founding chair of the Cybersecurity Credentials Collaborative, representing cybersecurity and privacy certifications worldwide. Rick has earned advanced degrees from Harvard, the Wharton Business School, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Florida, and lives in Black Forest, Colorado, USA.

[1]“Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review”, by Papia Bawa. SAGE Open, January-March 2016, pp. 1-11). Available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2158244015621777. Creative Commons CC-BY to distribute fully.

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