Confessions of an Online School Dropout

I have a confession that I’ve been holding on to for a long time: I’m an online school drop-out.

I’m not the only one, and I think I know why.

In 2011 when Udacity, Coursera, and EdX launched the MOOC (massively open online course) movement, online learning was seen as a way to bring U.S. Ivy League education to the masses.

For a while this was true and I initially bought into the idea, successfully completing the Johns Hopkins course “Computing for Data Analysis”. In fact, I used this course as a training program to develop the discipline for pursuing a distance-only Master of Public Health.

Since MOOCs first launched, the shine has dulled. As enrollment skyrockets, completion is plummeting. Many reports and studies peg the completion rates as low as 4% and as high as 15%. These troubling trends of low completion persist into 2019, suggesting the model is broken.

Supporters of MOOCs and online learning say focusing on completion rates is unfair, since most students “audit” the course, so we should look at the success of people who do complete the courses. However, even students who persist or stay with the class aren’t passing.

Researchers discovered that most MOOC students are men from affluent nations. And another team of researchers discovered 6 reasons online students drop out:

  1. no time
  2. no motivation
  3. limited knowledge
  4. limited interactivity
  5. hidden costs, and
  6. feelings of isolation

This last reason of isolation matches my experience as an online learner. In fact, it’s telling that as course providers regroup, they are tackling isolation first.

Social isolation in a virtual environment is such a persistent problem that millionaire tech entrepreneurs are beginning to discover the downside of lean, remote organizations.

Leo Widrich, founder of the social media startup Buffer, wrote about his experience as a “virtual CEO”. He discovered what so many remote workers know first hand: social isolation leads to burnout. Working at co-working spaces or coffee shops isn’t enough to help.

In fact, because I have so much shame and stigma about my experience, it took me nearly two weeks to muster the courage to write the next part. But it’s a story worth telling, because it’s a common experience.

In 2012, after leaving my first job after college, I moved home to Alaska, and started a graduate program in Public Health. Despite this program being housed at a university 30 minutes from my home, the program was “100% distance delivered” or online.

On the surface, this was great! This meant I didn’t have to attend evening classes after a long day of work, and I could plan my coursework around my life. It also was great, because the program focused on arctic issues relevant to Alaska, and students were from across the state (and some were doing field work in south Sudan). How exciting!

Over time, the coursework became a drag: instead of participating in meaningful class discussions, I “gamed” my participation so my contributions were unique enough to get participation credit.

Despite being graduate-level, most comments were at a superficial level or about topics that had no relevance to my then-professional experience as a health educator.

For two years, I logged on to discussion boards to read comments from individuals I never met in person and maintained good grades. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything. In this way the University of Alaska was no different from Southern New Hampshire University.

At this point, I maxed out credit cards to pay for classes and had to make a decision: Do I continue with this program or try something else?

What I realize now, is that the lack of genuine human connection impacted my ability to stay motivated and engaged with the material. Social isolation led me to drop out of that program.

Three years later, I discovered a different graduate program offered by a school 1,500 miles away. For the next year and a half, 39 strangers and I followed a sequence of classes as a cohort of students, driving or flying into Seattle monthly for a 3-day course weekend.

It was a distance program, so we received materials and submitted assignments online. It was also “blended” or “hybrid”, so we physically attended classes and formed meaningful connections with the same group of students. People were thoughtful and the material was relevant.

So in one world, I spent two years making slow progress toward a degree with no connections to my peers. And in the other world, I spent less time and actually completed a degree.

What was the difference? Human connection.

This reinforces the idea that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

It seems trite, cliché, or fuzzy to say it, but it’s true: having people with whom you physically share an experience, makes it more likely that you’ll remember and enjoy that experience.