Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education
reviewed by Aysenur Ozyer - November 01, 2013
First published in 2000, Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education examines four main issues in online and distance education: Student Support, Student Retention, Student Retrieval, and Staff Development. Ormond Simpson is an experienced distance educator who has consulted and developed programs in a number of developing countries, as well as the UK, the US, and New Zealand. In contrast to most books on distance education, which focus on the design of courses and instruction, this books chief concern is on the layers of resources that support learners through their distance-learning experience. He approaches the issue of student support from the points of view of student support staff and management. These two roles, while similar, have different ultimate concerns, and both complement the concerns of course instructors.
Simpson has written a book that is useful to practitioners. The language is kept simple and understandable and generally free of jargon. This makes the book accessible to people who are not familiar with the field and to non-native English speakers. In addition to an extensive literature review, Simpson presents many case studies that help readers relate the material to real-life situations. He maintains a web site with further resourcesdownloadable files and videosthat make the text even more relevant and accessible. Given the explosive interest in distance education worldwide, creating a clear and accessible text in this area is a welcome achievement.
Making the leap from a face-to-face classroom can be daunting for both learners and educators alike. Michael G. Moore suggests that education offered at a distance also suffers from perceived pedagogical distance that leads to a serious communication and psychological gap. This gap, known as transactional distance (Moore, 2005), can cause students to lose their motivation, which is the most important factor that helps them to continue their education. In this context Simpson examines the issue of student dropouts in distanced-based programs in detail, arguing that the problem often goes unrecognized or under-reported. If not specifically addressed, dropout rates can become a major reason of the loss of prestige of institutions.
Although Moore and Kearsley (1996) state that dropout rates are between 30-50%, according to Simpson the numbers are actually worse. While the UKs Open Universitys graduation rates are at 22%, the University of Phoenix, which has an aggressive marketing strategy, has only a 4% graduation rate. Since the universities do not publish their records, these numbers are alleged. If the numbers are even close, however, I personally found them shocking. Some of the low graduation rate may be attributable to transfer to other institutions and the multiplicity of purposes that student bring to their studies. Research has shown that comprehensive student supports can help reduce dropout rates (Howell & Wilcken, 2009), yet in a fast-moving, competitive climate, student support is too often seen as a costly add-on rather than integral to the whole system.
Simpson believes that motivation to learn is essential for success and the main reason for most dropouts is the loss of motivation. Dedicating a whole chapter on motivation, he examines the reasons for the loss of motivation and solutions for adult learners. According to Styer (2009), adult learners are those who determine goals, employ cognitive strategies for learning, know how to learn and what to learn, possess high-level self-efficacy, and take responsibility for their learning. However Simpson describes adult learners differently by indicating that these students are vulnerable to motivation losses, do not trust themselves for success, do not know how to study and learn and sometimes do not know what to expect when they enroll in a program. Adkins and Nitsch (2009) suggest that adult learners starting their education cannot anticipate the commitment that the education requires. This situation leads students to dropout. At this point Simpson shares his own theory of student support: Proactive Student Support. Composed of three different theories, Proactive Student Support has four characteristics: individual, proactive, interactive and motivational. He emphasizes the effect of proactive communication on retention rates. Proactive communication doesnt wait for students to ask a question, but rather initiates contact based on likely needs, and engages students in communication early and often. Prediction of success is another important subject in retention. Simpson believes if universities could assess the success potential of students before they enroll, the potentially unsuccessful students could be identified and receive special attention and supports. By offering extra help to these students they could be prevented from dropping out.
Students tend to dropout silently without formally letting the institution know. They just quit studying, following the classes or taking exams. These dropouts are hard to detect. If a student stops visiting the virtual learning environments, webpages and Twitter page of the institution it probably means that the student has gone. Simpson suggests tracking students entry logs to the VLE. He also mentions that a university in London is tracking its students key cards use for entering the universitys main building. He argues that in order to understand the reasons behind dropouts better, the universities should use interviews and focus groups instead of questionnaires. However I feel like it would be a nearly impossible task to use such detailed qualitative methods in a distance education context with great numbers of students.
The universities tend not to engage in retrieval activities aimed at recovering students from dropout status. According to Simpson all dropouts deserve some kind of contact from the institution. One of his students could not find time to study because of her mothers illness. At the end of the term, she stated that nobody from the university seemed to notice it and shes not thinking to continue next year. Although very few studies address the issue of retrieval, evidence from a university in Scotland shows 10% of contacted dropouts re-enrolling the next term.
The most interesting concept in this book to me was the focus on the student support outside of the institution. Simpson was able to change my thoughts on how a student should be supported by an institution via alternative ways. In addition to his suggestions on supporting students inside the institution, he offers different ways for the institutions to support students outside. He separated the outside support into three sections: support from partners/families/friends, other students, and employers. Institutions should inform the families of the students about what their student signed up for, what is going to happen to them and how they could support them better. Websites, leaflets, and other documents might be useful. Another method of outside support is to organize study groups. For instance tutor support, peer support, and mentoring might be helpful for students. Last but not least is support from employers. This suggestion is quite surprising. Simpson suggests that the universities may approach employers for financial help for their students. One of his sample leaflets for employers contains the option of paying for your students course. While certainly a novel and promising idea, I am not sure if many employers would be willing to pay an employees course fee.
Simpson dedicates a chapter to research and evaluation in the institutions. As an entrepreneur himself, he gives advice to those who are willing to create a change in their institutions and calls them entrepreneurs. His advice is quite straightforward though: Come to work each day willing to be fired!
Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education is a necessary book for those who work in student support services. It has important concepts for student support staff, their managers, and tutors. With its easy reading I believe it can appeal to a wide range of readers. My own life partner is a distance education student, and this book helped me realize the importance of my support and gave me new ideas in supporting him in his studies. Ormond Simpson sheds light on a neglected area of distance education and addresses an important gap in the field.
Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems View. Belmont: Wadsworth.
Moore, M. G. (2005). Theory of Transactional Distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical principles of distance education (pp. 20-35). Taylor & Francis e-Library.
Styer, A. J. (2009). Motivating the Adult Learner Online. In P. L. Rogers, G. A. Berg, J. V. Boettcher, C. Howard, L. Justice & K. D. Schenk (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distance learning, Second Edition (4 Volumes) (pp. 1456-1460). IGI Global.
Adkins, M., & Nitsch, W. B. (2009). Student Retention in Online Education. In P. L. Rogers, G. A. Berg, J. V. Boettcher, C. Howard, L. Justice & K. D. Schenk (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distance learning, Second Edition (4 Volumes) (pp. 1944-1950). IGI Global.
Howell, S. L., & Wilcken, W. (2009). Student Support Services. In P. L. Rogers, G. A. Berg, J. V. Boettcher, C. Howard, L. Justice & K. D. Schenk (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distance learning, Second Edition (4 Volumes) (pp. 1951-1956). IGI Global.