Nine Ways to Avoid Dropout

British Embassies employ more than 15,000 people scattered around the planet, so online and remote learning are a crucial part of the mix for the Diplomatic Academy.  Crucial, that is, as long as people take part.

We all know the dropout rate on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) looks like the 62m drop on the Big One rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.  One paper suggests that MOOCs only have a 13% completion rate.  This is worrying.  Our programmes go well beyond the purely online, but it’s still worrying.

Donald Clark has made a powerful argument that we should look at participation, not completion.  An online course is a stopping train with people getting on and off at various points; it’s not a sealed plane with a single destination.  He also points out that “dropout” is unhelpful, provider-centric language.  But my worry applies mostly to participation.  Will people get full value from the programmes they sign up to?

So we’ve been evaluating our recent efforts to support people through internal programmes.  The programmes have ranged from six weeks to six months, with topics ranging from the international aspects of devolution to negotiating skills.  Some are heavily online, such as six new courses developed with the Open University.  Others relied more on a blend of remote learning groups and local events.  The common element is relying on people’s own motivation and skills to make the learning happen, over a period of time.

Here are nine things that seem to help.

One: Invest in Contracting.  Get the “psychological contract” in place at the beginning.  Ask people for a short business case, or to complete an application form for the programme, and get their line manager involved.  Establish an expectation of participation, sharing and feedback.  Have a clear statement of expected benefits.  Be clear about logistics and get key dates in the diary.  You need a “hard beginning”.  If people can drift into the programme, they are more likely to drift out of it.

Two: Build Small Groups.  We’ve tried cohorts of 25-30 and learning groups of five or six.  Big groups are efficient for logistics but the most powerful sharing seems to come in the smaller groups.  Small groups seem far more likely to share stuff on Yammer, for one.  The more often the small groups can meet, the better, and face-to-face meetings are far superior to video or teleconferencing.  People have a greater sense of obligation to a small group.  Inadvertently we seem to have mapped ourselves onto the British Army platoon structure, with slightly smaller Sections, or onto an action learning set approach.  The reasons are the same: mutual support, sharing, higher commitment.

Three: Give Them a Red Pen.  Many of our recent programmes have been pilots, as the Diplomatic Academy gets up and running.  But now I want everything to be a pilot, always.  People seem to enjoy offering their critiques – of the process, of the materials, of whatever.  They relax because the focus is on the programme (is it good enough?), not on them.  Possible they are more tolerant of imperfections.  I’ve always noticed that the way to get busy people to work on a draft text is to give them a red pen and ask for corrections, not to ask them to work on something from scratch.  Keep it in permanent beta.

Four: Online Content is Yin, Live Content is Yang.  They go together.  Or to put it another way, people seem more likely to work through online content if it’s linked to regular “live” moments such as masterclasses, expert panels, mini workshops or learning group meetings.  Live events provide a scaffolding, a chance to bring in human stories and up-to-date relevance, a chance to share learning from courses/books/experience, and if nothing else, a regular reminder that there’s stuff to be worked through online (don’t fall behind, you guilty slackers you).

Five: Don’t Let It Go Quiet.  Send reminders, recaps and check-ins.  Provide nudges.  Nag, in a nice way.  You are in a war against the pressures of the workday, so act like it.

Six: Leave Gaps.  The programme should be incomplete in some significant ways, with a requirement for learners to fill the gaps.  Examples of things that have worked: asking people to do their own internet research as part of an online course (also great for issues which change rapidly); asking learning groups to source their own expert speakers; asking people to find local courses on a topic and share what they learned.  Gaps give people a greater sense of investment in the programme, and allow for more shaping and tailoring.

Seven: Use the Best Technology You Can Find.  This point is perhaps more internal to the FCO, I don’t know.  It’s pretty obvious.  But I find it agonising when spiderphones or crackly conference calls undermine the whole point about people learning together.  You need high quality video conferencing (God bless Vidyo) and the most suitable webinar software.  You need individual microphones.  You need to book the best rooms. Plan this stuff in advance.

Eight: Get People to Cascade.  It’s not just about them.  Make the sharing of learning part of the programme.  It’s a surreptitious way of reinforcing their own learning, of course, and a way of building pride in what they’ve achieved – but it’s also good for colleagues who didn’t participate, and who knows, an effective advert for your programme.

Nine:  Evaluate from the Start.  Use SmartSurvey or similar to gauge people’s assessment of their own skills and confidence at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the programme.  Seek quotes and comments.

So those are nine things I think have come through from our initial evaluation.  I hope our overall approach to supporting people through programmes will lead to an increase in learning skills (along the lines of Associate Professor Sandra Milligan’s analysis of learner skills in this article on MOOCs).

I’d love to get comments.  Does any of that ring true?  What else have you learnt?


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Published by jonathanmarshall70

L&D professional. Senior L&D Adviser (Climate Diplomacy) at UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Head of Learning for UK Diplomatic Academy 2014-19. Chartered FCIPD.

One thought on “Nine Ways to Avoid Dropout

  1. Jonathan this is an extremely useful blog that captures lessons learned and a synthesis of tools and techniques that illustrate that formal learning is a very human endeavor and that learning is in the gift of the learner – not the teacher. As teachers it is tempting to try to manipulate and wring every ounce of learning out of every course or programme. Technology and carefully structured learning can go a long way to making materials, experiences and communication with others available at the right time and in the most convenient way for learners. Many things interfere with our best intentions to study and so as teachers and learners we have to be kinder to ourselves, recognize that any progress is still progress and retain a positive view of learning rather than using our inability to complete it as a way to feel guilty about it and therefore reinforcement of why we don’t have time to learn. Thanks for the opportunity to share the thinking and to contribute.

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