I’ve been working on the programme document this morning, and realised that I hadn’t mentioned at all my investigations into the phenomena which is the title of this posting.

This blog is intended to document the process of development of the massage therapy programme including any consultation relating to the development process. The reason that the info below hasn’t made it into my blog yet is that the discussion occured through an email group. Funnily enough, we’ve been having a conversation in a course I’m taking part in currently – Facilitating E-learning communities on the downsides of using too many communication channels. 🙂

I wish that I could give you a link to the discussion stream, but unfortunately the email-group is not open access, so I’ll need to copy & paste the relevant bits. There’s quite a bit of text here, but there are some interesting points. I think it’s worth persisting with.

David McQuillan

I’ve just been talking with Judy Magee, a lecturer here at Otago
Polytechnic who coordinates a foundation course in Bioscience. This
is the first year that they have taught Bioscience online. She said
that while there was no real difference in outcomes of the students that
participated through to the final examination, there was a significant
drop-off in student numbers getting to this point
. Of the 50 (or so) students that were
participating at the start of the course the numbers dropped to 34.
This is much more than the drop-off rate in previous courses which
were taught in the class-room setting. She is going to investigate to
see if she can find out any contributing factors – I’ll let you know.

I’m aware that this has been a problem for online education in the
past. What are generally thought to be the causes of this drop-off?


I’m really familiar with the course you are referring to having helped
to design it and write most of the course material. I’m sure there
are several reasons that have contributed to the drop-out. Perhaps
the most obvious is that foundation level students often do not have
well-developed learning skills or self-management skills (you have to
be fairly organised and self-directed), they may have difficulty
asking for help and some older students have few, if any computer
skills, so basically they may not be very well prepared for online or
learning, and its easy for them to become demotivated when they feel
lost and overwhelmed. Of course this can be helped with preassessment
of skills and making sure the students have realistic expectations
about what is involved, maybe a taster so they see what’s involved
before committing themselves, and offering lots of support at the
start, but I think there will still be some people that are simply not
ready for it or will always prefer a more traditional method.

In the course you are talking about, not only are the students new to
it but so are the teachers, with no experience as online teachers or
students themselves. So that has perhaps been an added difficulty as
the teachers have also been on a steep learning curve themselves.

Leigh Blackall

Veronique, I think you are dead right to point out the differences between
novice and expert learners, and Dave is touching on a troubling and
important issue for online learning generally.

When I was working in Australia, the NSW Department of Education (NSWDET)
started allocating funds based on course completion rates. Ring any bells
TEC? Unfortunately these rates were reported in percentages. Where as a
course prior to being online would attract 20 or so students and see 15
through, the online version would attract 100 students and see 30 through.
Comparing these two instances in terms of percentages instantly makes the
online course look like a failure, but it needed to be reported that the
online completion rate was a 100% increase on the face to face course…
I’ll try and track down the paper that pointed out this flaw in the NSW DET
reporting standards.. it was back in 1999 or 2000.. long before I was using
Del.icio.us bookmarks 😉

I did find this brief article from

In some cases, online students do not have the incentives and pressures of
classroom-based students; they can become lazy and unfocused. I had several
students who quietly dropped out of one of my online classes and later
contacted me to ask for an extension. Online drop-outs are more difficult
for an instructor to notice than in a classroom situation where daily
attendance and participation indicate a student’s involvement.

Educause is full of very good articles (this one being pretty so so),
especially in the 2005/2006 era. Well worth a browse.

I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was Veronique’s point about novice
and expert learners that makes me want to point out Jay Cross’ Big Picture
of Informal Learning <http://www.jaycross.com/informal_book/poster.htm>.. I
wonder if it will spark some reflective thinking in us about “setting people
up for failure” in online course developments…


I was interested in the various comments on motivation to stay in
contact on distance programmes. We have no great problem with this in
the post graduate programme in the OT school. However, classes are
smaller (e. from 8-15) and students are supported with
teleconferences. They are well motivated generally speaking but most
do miss the face to face aspect and I noticed in the last feedback
that they woudl like to be in touch with others who work in similar
area of practice. This means deliberatley setting a task to ensure
this happens – it seems to give them permission to contact one another
(by email and by phone as well I notice)

Bronwyn Hegarty

hey david
this is an excellent question. My immediate answer as I know the course
involved – is that the students had an expectation that they were coming
on-campus to study in class f2f. there was an initial two weeks on-campus
everyday, then they were studying off-campus and working through self-paced
materials. For some self-directed learning is a skill to be learned. I don’t
believe there were any online facilitated activities. someone may correct me
here if i have got it wrong.

I believe there is a bit of a myth running around in some circles that when
something goes online you can just leave people to it. Lots of students do
respond better to having a facilitator/teacher presence online and there are
many studies to show that this helps reduce attrition rates in online
classes. There is also another side to the debate that moderation also know
as facilitation of online activities does not always make any difference as
it depends on the student group. so that is why it is so important to get to
know your learners…as you know.

Of course there are other factors such as learning styles, computer
competency, academic level. etc.

Here are some references re views for and against having a
teacher/facilitator presence.
“Learner-paced learning facilitates learner independence and autonomy.”
(Holmberg and Keegan, 1989).

” ..two way communication, where significant and frequent interaction
between instructor and learner and among learners is the essential, enabling
learning feature.” (Garrison, 1989).

“If you add the interaction on as an afterthought to the course, then you
are missing the whole point of the interaction. Right from the beginning we
analyse tasks, determining if they are best accomplished alone, in small
groups or whatever. Then we ask, ‘how are we going to make this happen?’
“(Anderson et al, 2005).

AND this one I particularly like:
Organised discussion groups may not be the solution . “Emerging Internet
based technologies create opportunities for new types of learning
communities that allow learners around the globe to study at their own pace,
yet engage in meaningful interactions with others – in essence, allowing
them “to have their cake and eat it, too.” (Anderson et al, 2005).

– The search for learning community in learner paced distance
education: Or, ‘Having your cake and eating it, too!’
<http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/ajet21.html>by Terry Anderson,
David Annand and Norine Wark – Australasian Journal of Educational
Technology 2005, 21(2), 222-241. AJET 21. An excellent article about online

Which statements do people agree with or not?

Gordon Robinson

To respond to Bron’s question below, a couple of phrases come to mind…

Successful online instructors realise that building a sense of ‘community’
in the online classroom is necessary for successful learning outcomes… The
development of community becomes a parallel stream to the content being
explored in on-line courses (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Quoted by Woods and
Ebersole 2003 (http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring61/woods61.htm)

The key to successful on-line learning would appear to be the formation of
an effective on-line community working under the guidance of a skilled
facilitator. One of the principles of distributed learning is that the
‘knowing’ resides within the individuals. The whole point of the community
is being able to draw this knowledge out for all to share, analyse and build

Anderson et al appear to be referring to the emergence of the so called Web
2.0, which I hadn’t heard of until I (quietly) attended Leigh’s discussion
session at the recent eFest. The advance from 1.0, if I understood it
correctly, was the social networking aspect of the media technologies
available. Again this appears to depend on the formation of a community, in
whatever shape or form, of similarly interested individuals or groups.

Organised discussion groups may not be the answer? That may depend on the
situation surely. How would we feel right now about being bombarded by well
meaning (and other) contributors with all sorts of differing opinions,
thoughts, videos, podcasts etc.. Would we be able to wade through it all
then sort the wheat from the chaff? Would this be an effective community?
Organisation must surely have it’s place…or am I talking about censorship?

Leigh Blackall

An ex colleague and mentor of mine from Australia was able to dig some good
stuff up regarding Dave’s query about drop out rates:
G’day Leigh
> an interesting topic – and one that hasn’t been researched very well yet.
> The factors are much greater than a purely f2f versus online face-off…
> particularly when the online course is a new offering that is probably only
> a rework of the f2f material anyway – what online facilitation training have
> the lecturers had? What instructional design parameters were applied to the
> online offering? etc, etc
> One study that demonstrates some of the complexity of this issue is Diaz
> (2002) – http://www.technologysource.org/article/online_drop_rates_revisited/
> – this study indicates that the demographics of the online and f2f groups
> often differ, that the online groups often perform better (supported by
> several other studies including Albritton (2006) –
> http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_10/albritton/index.html) and
> that students who drop an online course are often making a mature/informed
> decision in terms of their overall needs, whereas students remaining in a
> f2f program may risk failure or a poor mark as a cost of continuing.
> Hope that this is of some help,
> Jock David McQuillan

My impression from talking with Judy was that there were some
facilitated activities which were run through the Bb discussion
boards, and that these were perhaps the primary way in which the
teachers attempted to build community. The facilitators/teachers
participated in these discussions.

There was quite a lot of participation in the discussion boards. One
forum had over 500 postings. Most of the discussion board activity
seemed to occur in the early stages of the course & was focussed
around getting to know other participants, and building interest in
the programme.

It’s worth mentioning that we only talked for 30 minutes, and that
these impressions may not be completely accurate.


An article on attrition rates in online maths courses gives an
interesting description of the problems facing students in this
subject area and I wondered if Bioscience may have some similar issues
(if maths is a significant part of the learning).

Article at http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/smith.html

Smith, G. G. and Ferguson, D. (2005). Student attrition in mathematics
e-learning. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3),
323-334. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/smith.html

What caught my attention was the issue of communicating in online
forums using mathematical notation and how this can be difficult and
off-putting for learners.

Leigh Blackall

Hi Yvonne, I haven’t read the article yet but your comment above prompts me
to point to communication platforms like Moodle <http://moodle.org> and
Wikieducator <http://wikieducator.org> that have mathematical symbols
available in their edit bars.. I don’t know much about communicating with
such symbols, but do these cut the mustard? Or I have heard of teachers
using the white board features on various web conferencing platforms to
write these symbols…

Gordon Robinson


This is a subject close to my heart as a former maths teacher.

A significant issue, particularly for maths learners, that hasn’t been
mentioned in the article is that of self-confidence. So many students have
poor maths educations early on that can permanently affect their subsequent
learning. I discussed this in more depth on a previous course so will just
go over the key points here. Often early teachers are jacks of all trades,
no disrespect intended to them, however they often don’t understand the
maths themselves at higher levels and can impart this unwittingly to their
students. In this subject perhaps more than others, if the groundwork is
shaky then the rest of the learning is problematic. The good news is that
this can be turned around but often needs 1-1, f2f, where the individuals
can be mentored closely, coaxed and generally encouraged until they regain
enough confidence in their own ability to be independent learners again.
Nothing better for a maths teacher to hear the words “Is that all there is
to it?” or “Why did I have so much trouble with this before?”

So I guess the fundamental question here is, can this closeness be
replicated in the on-line environment? Can the teacher/facilitator-student
relationship be built up to the required level in cyberspace?