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The tyranny of distance: Online learning, isolation and attrition rates

Addressing student attrition rates is a crucial aspect of tertiary education policy and practice. In terms of practice, student retention is intrinsically linked to quality of teaching. There is also now an urgency as to the issue given that the Commonwealth government recently announced its intention to make university funding conditional upon performance-based metrics, including student retention rates. The correlation between academic and social integration, institutional attachment, and student attrition rates in traditional face-to-face study mode was established long ago (Tinto, 1975). According to Tinto, student integration is developed through peer associations and interaction with faculty. It results in a collective affiliation and minimises the risk of attrition (Tinto, 1975: 107). However, the evidence of such correlations in the online tertiary landscape is a relatively new terrain. Drop-out rates for online students are more than double that for face-to-face or blended modes (Australian Government, 2017). Therefore, online learning carries with it an acute risk for student attrition (Bawa, 2016). Other issues facing online tertiary students include isolation and low motivation (Bawa, 2016; Milheim, 2012). It is the isolation factor that consistently features in scholarship on attrition rates for online students (Bawa, 2016; Rush, 2013; Rovai & Downey, 2010; Rovai, 2003). Low student motivation ties back into issues of lack of support and relatedness (Chen & Jang, 2010). Rush’s 2014 study of online tertiary students found that isolation and disconnection were key indicators of student dissatisfaction. Rush’s findings tended to support Tinto’s theory that increased academic and social interaction lowered attrition. She also found that online learners were less autonomous than Moore’s (1975) early work would suggest. It is against this background that this paper explores the issue of student isolation amongst a cohort of online students with the objective of informing teaching strategies and academic professional development. In particular, we benchmark Rush’s findings against data collected via a 2018 survey of undergraduate students in the Bachelor of Laws program at CQUniversity. Preliminary analyses confirm Rush’s findings, with isolation as a key indicator of online learner dissatisfaction, and lower student autonomy. This latter point has implications for online teachers using the ‘flipped classroom’ model.


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Central Queensland University

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Peer Reviewed

  • Yes

Open Access

  • Yes

Era Eligible

  • No

Name of Conference

2019 Scholarship of Tertiary Teaching Virtual Conference