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Course Completion Rates at Athabasca University

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By George Siemens May 6, 2011 - 9:35am

(via Deanna Douglas)

Course Completion Rates at Athabasca University - DRAFT

April 2011

One of the questions we are asked from time to time at Athabasca University is about our course completion rates – how many students pass their courses? As part of our 2010 Middle States Commission on Higher Education review, we decided to make the previous year’s data available (.pdf) to all of our students on the undergraduate registration screen . As was the case in previous years, 85% of courses started by undergraduate students were successfully completed (the other 15% withdrew or failed; graduate and “non-starter” registrations were excluded).

Interestingly, a February 2011 paper on online learning in Ontario (.pdf) painted the same picture; the universities there also had an 85% online course pass rate . As Canadian post-secondary consultant Tony Bates concluded in his widely-read blog, this “(puts) to bed the lie about online courses always having high drop-out rates. The Ontario completion rates also suggest that the quality of online learning is consistently strong throughout their institutions (or that their students are particularly determined).” Athabasca University’s students throughout the country show the same level of focus; together, they stand in the face of the myth about online learning completion - and all that is thought to mean.

Residential institutions tend to focus their completion metrics on years and programs, making course completion rates harder to come by. And, some have argued, one shouldn’t necessarily try because comparing online and residential pass rates is not an exact science. Important differences exist in terms of admission policies (Athabasca has an “open” admission policy at the undergraduate level); whether students study together according to a pre-determined schedule or at their own pace (again, as is the case at Athabasca); the higher number of under-represented students in online education (who often need more supports), etc.

As Tony Bates pointed out, 85% is a strong showing that demonstrates what quality online education can do. We need to keep abreast of rates at other institutions, and ensure that we continue to support our students to facilitate their success. Robert Nash’s study of US community colleges came to the not uncommon conclusion that the average is often well below 80% , highlighting the challenges online and distance learners face. While most Canadian rates have a stronger showing, many – including the Ontario colleges in the February online learning report – do fall below the Athabasca / Ontario university mark. In addition, online institutions need to work harder to engage those who register but never start their course work (Louis Giguère discusses starters in his 2007 course completion benchmarking paper - .pdf).


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