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Why did the Chinese Distance Learners Drop Out After Only One Semester?
--Case Study on Subjectsfrom 14 Provincial Radio and TV Universities in China
LI Ying1 & NIU Jian2
1. Research Institute of Open and Distance Education, the Open University of China, Beijing 100031, China;
Abstract:A high dropout rate seems to be a common problem in open and distance learning (ODL). The same is true with students in the English programme at the Open University of China (OUC). This study presents a close look at the English dropouts at OUC and aims to find out the factors contributing to their discontinuation. The purpose is for tutors and schools to improve teaching wherever necessary to help students complete their programme successfully. The subjects in this study are 2237 students studying English from 14 provincial radio and TV universities in China, who enrolled either in a higher diploma programme or a bachelor’s degree programme in the spring semester of 2010. The students were observed for one semester. Sadly, 204 of them gave up their studies after the first semester. Empirical data were then collected through questionnaires and interviews. 118 of the student dropouts filled out questionnaires. 98 of them took part in interviews. A total of 40 English tutors and class supervisors were also interviewed. The results of the study show that the students gave up their studies for various reasons, including academic and non-academic, personal and non-personal ones. However, prompt support from both tutors and the school would have certainly helped them stay in the programme.
Keywords: student dropout; open and distance learning（ODL）; English programme
Distance education is characterized by the use of various forms of media to facilitate systematic teaching and communication between students, tutors, and teaching institutions. Open education, in contrast to campus-based education, loosens restrictions on age, occupation, location and academic background. Those who have the desire and necessary knowledge foundation are all able to apply for the programme without any form of entrance examination. In an age when higher education is becoming more widespread, open education is a significant means to realize social equity. Open education can include both distance teaching and face-to-face tutorial, but compared with the latter, distance teaching is more appropriate for implementing open education. The integration of distance education and open education is called open and distance learning (ODL). ODL thus has the benefits of being open, integrated into society, high capacity, and accessible over a wide area, with few restrictions on admission. As ODL has different characteristics from conventional higher education, ODL students' circumstances are also different from those in conventional higher education. Easier admission results in a higher dropout rate, which is an issue that cannot be overlooked.
A high rate of student dropouts seems to be a common problem in ODL both domestically and abroad. One study (Simpson, 2008) shows that the dropout rates for UK open universities stand between 40-50%, in contrast to 20% of that for conventional education in the same period; the dropout rate for US distance education is approximately 70%, in contrast to 30-40% of that for conventional education in the same period. Since 1999, China’s online ODL has experienced rapid growth. The problem of student dropouts has become increasing apparent and has drawn the attention of distance education institutions and researchers. 1 A research team analyzed 11 consecutive years (Fall 1999 – Fall 2009) of teaching management data from a provincial radio and TV university and found that English, Computer Science and Business Management constituted the top three bachelor's degree programmes with the highest student dropout rates, being 19.69%, 16.81% and 16.35% respectively. English, Computer Science and Numerical Control constituted the top three associate degree programmes with the highest student dropout rates, being 37.21%, 21.06% and 20.13% respectively（Zhu Zulin，2011）. Experience shows that it is much more expensive to enroll a new student than to re-enroll a student dropout. Attention to distance education dropouts will not only greatly improve the effectiveness of distance education institutions and avoid the waste of educational resources, but also help more distance learners finish their studies so as to upgrade their educational level and to meet the social target of equal education access.
The issue of distance education dropouts has been widely dealt with in foreign literature. Some researchers have created theoretical models analyzing the mechanisms behind distance learner dropouts. For example, Kennedy and Powell（Kennedy & Powell，1976）developed an early model on distant learner dropouts. The two scholars constructed a two-dimensional explanatory model, noting that the probability of dropout was related to the learner's personal characteristics and life circumstances. This model highlights the influence of personal factors on the dropout phenomenon; it would follow that distance education institutions could do little to mitigate the issue. At present, Tinto's dynamic model （Tinto，1975）of dropout from higher education remains the primary basis for theoretical analysis of distance learner dropouts. The basic idea of the Tinto model is that students enter an educational institution with their own expectations and goals, and after integrating their prior academic and social experiences with the characteristics of the institution, they will reassess their original expectations and decide whether to stay or leave. In other words, whether the students will complete their schooling has much to do with how well their personal goals and academic abilities match the academic and social characteristics of the educational institution.
As difficult admission is accompanied by easy graduation in China’s traditional higher education, the student dropout rate is very low.