Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...

 
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
Lost in Transition:
A Report on Enabling Success
for Flexible Learners
James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello,
Lorraine Delaney, Seamus Fox, Ciara Galvin, Jennifer Gilligan,
Lisa O’Regan & Jamie Ward

                          May 2016
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
The Student Success Toolbox project is supported by the National Forum for Teaching
     and Learning Building Digital Capacity fund. It is a collaborative project involving Dublin
     City University (lead partner), Sligo Institute of Technology, Maynooth University and
     Dundalk Institute of Technology

         Authors can be contacted at:                                                Suggested citation:
                                                                                     Brunton, J., Brown. M., Cleary, A.,
         T: +353 1 700 5329                                                          Costello, E., Delaney, L., Fox, S., Galvin,
                                                                                     C., Gilligan, J., O’Regan, L., & Ward, J.
         Email: james.brunton@dcu.ie                                                 (2016). Lost in Transition: A Report on
                                                                                     Enabling Success for Flexible Learners.
         Web: www.studentsuccess.ie                                                  Dublin: Dublin City University.

     This work is published under the Creative
     Commons 4.0 Attribution Licence (CC-BY).

     ISBN: 978-1-873769-60-7

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     Acknowledgements
     Deepest thanks are due to Nuala Lonergan and Conor Mahon for his
     contribution to the production of this report.

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     2                                                                          Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
Contents
Literature analysis .........................................................................................................        05
  Methodology .................................................................................................................      05
      Guiding questions .....................................................................................................        05
      Scope of the literature analysis ................................................................................              06
      Search terms .............................................................................................................     07
      Compiling the database of literature for analysis ....................................................                         08
      Challenges .................................................................................................................   08
   Literature analysis findings ..........................................................................................           10
     Study life cycle ...........................................................................................................    10
      Who are flexible learners? ........................................................................................            12
      What do we know about student success? ..............................................................                          15
      What do we know about successful transitions? .....................................................                            23
     Literature on digital tools that facilitate successful transition
     into higher education ................................................................................................          31
      Summary ...................................................................................................................    32

The database of existing digital tools ..........................................................................                    33
  Methodology - Creating the database of existing tools ...............................................                              33
  Cluster groups ..............................................................................................................      35
    Course match ............................................................................................................        35
    Preparation for higher education .............................................................................                   36
    Orientation ................................................................................................................     38
    Personal circumstances ............................................................................................              40
    Community ...............................................................................................................        41
    Satisfactory academic experience ............................................................................                    41

Existing digital tools and how they relate to the literature ..................................... 44

Conclusion .......................................................................................................................   47
   Flexible learners and flexible learning ......................................................................                    48
   Factors of student success ........................................................................................               49
    Supporting transitions ..............................................................................................            50
    Connections between the literature and the reality ................................................                              51
   Potential tools for development in the Student Success Toolbox project ...............                                            51
   Summary ...................................................................................................................       52

References....................................................................................................................... 54
Appendix one ................................................................................................................. 69
Appendix two ................................................................................................................. 86

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                                                               3
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
Lost in
Transition:
    A Report on Enabling Success
    for Flexible Learners
As part of the Student Success Toolbox               in a gap in the literature, and seeks to
project an analysis of relevant literature           address that gap by offering an initial
and existing digital tools that are in use           scoping out of the connection between
internationally to support successful                literature that has been published in
flexible learner transitions into higher             this area, and what is in practical use
education was conducted. The Student                 in leading flexible learning institutions
Success Toolbox project situates itself              around the world at the present time.

Report Overview                                      the methodology used to create the
This report is presented in four sections.           database of existing digital tools
                                                     available internationally to support
• Section one presents the analysis                  successful transitions during initial
of existing literature and foregrounds               stages of the study lifecycle for flexible
the key trends that emerged from that                learners, before presenting an analysis
analysis. Initially outlining the questions          of the tools that were located.
and methodology used to frame the
literature analysis, this section of the             • Section three explores the
report then presents the literature                  connection between the literature
relating to: flexible learning; the                  and the digital tools that are in use
importance of student success in the                 internationally. This section also
first year; and transitions into higher              presents a number of potential areas
education. Consideration is given to                 for tool development in Phase three the
what tools the literature indicates are              Student Success Toolbox project.
useful in supporting such transitions.
                                                     • Section four presents the conclusion
• Section two begins by setting out                  to the report.

4                                             Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
Literature analysis
This section will first present the methodology used to conduct the analysis of the
literature before going on to present the results of that analysis.

    Methodology                                  and what is not within the scope of the
                                                 investigation” (Boote and Baile, 2005,
                                                 p.4) and help define the criteria for the
This subsection provides an overview             inclusion or exclusion of studies in the
of the methodology used to undertake             review. This review sought to address
an analysis of the literature relevant to        the overall question “what tools work?”
the project. The broad approach taken            in relation to supporting flexible learner
is that of a ‘systematic review’ and             success during the transition to higher
draws from a number of texts. Torraco            education, by considering the following
(2005) and Boote and Beile (2005)                sub-questions:
were consulted on writing integrative
and substantive literature reviews,
and it was the Evidence for Policy and              1. Who are flexible learners?
Practice Information and Co-ordinating              2. What do we know about learner
(EPPI) Centre’s (2010) ‘Methods for                 success?
Conducting Systematic Reviews’ that                 3. How does what we know about
provided the specific structure adopted             supporting transitions relate to
for this literature analysis. The EPPI-             the above?
Centre’s approach provided a clear
and structured frame for conducting a
review of a large body of literature.            The review will then consider, in
                                                 conjunction with the analysis of existing
                                                 digital tools:
Guiding questions
Systematic reviews, as outlined by the
EPPI-centre (2010), are built around                4. What connection exists between
the framework of answering key                      the literature and what institutions
questions, or a number of smaller sub-              are providing to flexible learners?
questions which address a broader                   5. What tools could usefully be
key question. A good guiding question               developed in this project?
should help “clearly demarcate what is

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                     5
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
Scope of the literature                               considered to those available in full-
                                                      text, primarily through two databases
analysis                                              (Education Research Complete and Web
It is important to note that the literature           of Science), readily available online, or
analysis is not intended to provide a                 located through other particular search
comprehensive historical account of                   techniques (discussed below). Limiting
the development and/or use of digital                 the literature to full-text results, in the
tools for supporting learners through                 English language, arose out of necessity
periods of transition, and so there are a             as the project progressed, to make
number of notable exclusions from its                 the analysis feasible within the project
breadth. The analysis does not explore                timeframe. Focussing primarily on the
the development of Open Educational                   literature since 2005 served a similar
Resources (OERs) or course design,                    purpose, but also had the benefit of
for instance, which have been written                 ensuring that the information covered
about extensively elsewhere (cf. Conole               in the analysis was up to date, which is
and Weller, 2008). There are also three               important in light of rapid innovation in
notable boundaries on the depth of                    this field. The strengths of the analysis
the analysis: there is a deliberate focus             in light of the above are its sharp focus
on literature published since 2005; a                 on the main areas of project interest,
focus on literature published in English;             and emphasis on recent developments
and a limitation of the texts to be                   in the field.

6                                             Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
collections. Education Research Complete
Search terms                                                   was identified as being an effective tool
The second stage of a systematic                               for the literature search, as it contains
literature review is to identify search                        750 education journals. Web of Science
terms which will strike a balance between                      was also utilised, especially for tracking
sensitivity, finding all useful studies                        citations. The Librarian for Education was
in an area of interest, and specificity,                       also aided in determining the type of free
making sure the search results are                             text, or ‘keyword’, and thesaurus search
relevant to the guiding questions (See                         terms to use, in order to produce as
table 1 for a sample of the search terms                       comprehensive a sample of the literature
utilised). We are grateful to, and would                       as possible within the parameters of the
like to acknowledge, the DCU library                           analysis, and in the timeframe available.
services and in particular the Educational                     The consultation of library services
Librarian, Ms. Aisling McDermott for her                       obtained at an early stage of the research
invaluable input on search strategies                          ensured that subsequent stages of the
and relevant literature databases and                          analysis progressed smoothly.

 Specific tools
 readiness assessment AND online
 readiness assessment AND online OR eLearning
 readiness assessment                                        General flexible learning
 workload calculator                                         flexible learn*
 time management AND adult learner                           flexible learn* AND adult
 time management AND student                                 flexible learner AND adult
 entry shock                                                 flexible learner*
 entry shock AND lifelong learner                            flexible learner* NOT language NOT chil-
 socialisation AND lifelong learner                          dren
 time management OR lifelong learner                         flexible learner*)
 time management AND lifelong learner                        Flexible learner* AND lifelong learn*
                                                             Lifelong learn*
 General educational tech                                    Lifelong learner*
 ( teaching and learning ) AND educational                   More tools
 technology                                                  retention AND lifelong learn* AND re-
 flexible learn* AND educational teachnology                 source*
 flexible learn* AND technology                              social media AND education
 flexible learning AND technology                            facebook AND education
 lifelong learning AND technology                            facebook AND lifelong learning
 distance learning AND technology                            twitter AND lifelong learning
 learning AND technology                                     social media AND lifelong learning
 education AND technology

Table 1. A sample of the search terms utilised in the literature analysis

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                                  7
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
Compiling the database                                others (see Table 1 above for a sample
                                                      of search terms used), located in excess
of literature for analysis                            of 15,000 results published since 2005.
The third stage of conducting the                     Narrowing searches by ‘thesaurus terms’
systematic review was locating the                    such as “higher education” and “distance
literature and compiling a database                   education” reduced the number of
of relevant results. Literature found                 articles. Limiting the search parameters
via the selected databases was                        to “case studies” proved too limiting as
exported directly to the reference                    too few relevant studies were tagged
management software RefWorks. As                      as case studies. However, it became
not all relevant results were necessarily             increasingly apparent that, though many
picked up by electronic databases the                 of these provided a general overview
following avenues were also explored,                 of the different elements of the guiding
and additional results added to the                   questions, and a number of them
database, in line with EPPI-Centre                    detailed the theoretical value of various
(2010) recommendations: drawing on                    tools for intervention, few specifically
personal contacts, authors, and experts               evaluated the use of existing digital
in the field; utilisation of general search
engines such as Google Scholar; use of
citation tracking (‘pearl growing’); and
manual searching of key journals.

Challenges
One of the main challenges of the
systematic review approach was
locating the most relevant studies
amongst the volume of other literature
with some but not central relevance
to the guiding questions. The analysis
sought specifically to locate published
evaluations of tools used with flexible
learners during transitions into
higher education and in the early
stages of study. Initial searches of the
recommended databases for journal
articles with keywords such as “flexible
learn*”, “lifelong learn*”, “distance
learn*”, “educational technology” and
various combinations of these and

8                                             Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
tools or other interventions with flexible
learners during the transition period.
Another challenge came from the
project’s use of a broad definition of
flexible learners, which includes adult
learners engaged in part-time and
online/distance learning. This definition
necessitates drawing on different parts
of the literature, for example those
focusing on Online Distance Learning
(ODL) students and those focusing on
part-time study. A related challenge
is that there is much more literature        were too varied. Therefore, a more
relating to ODL students and related         grounded approach was adopted with
issues than there is on part-time study.     the database of existing digital tools
                                             (see section below) being used to inform
A further challenge was also presented       further searches by using specific
by initially seeking to embrace a non-       keywords derived from an analysis of
exclusive definition of what constituted     this database. This approach broadened
a ‘tool’, for the purpose of uncovering      the found set of literature, but not on
as many interventions and resources in       the scale hoped for. For example, one
the literature as possible. This approach    such search, “‘readiness assessment’
did not prove to be as fruitful as was       AND ‘online’”, provided 15 results, of
anticipated, as the results uncovered        which only 1 was deemed to be relevant
                                             to the research topic.

                                             It was concluded from this process
                                             that there is a dearth of peer-reviewed
                                             evaluations of tools used with flexible
                                             learners during early phases of the
                                             study life cycle. At that stage our sample
                                             of literature was considered sufficient
                                             for the purposes of this study and no
                                             further searches were conducted.

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                9
Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners - James Brunton, Mark Brown, Ann Cleary, Eamon Costello, Lorraine Delaney ...
Literature analysis findings
This subsection presents the literature relating to: the study life cycle; flexible learning;
the importance of student success in the first year; and transitions into higher education.
Consideration is also given, in this subsection, to what tools the literature indicates are
useful in supporting such transitions.

Study life cycle
The study life cycle can be envisaged              The model adopted by the present
in a number of different ways; chiefly             study, which is a more detailed six
as a series of steps, or as a cycle.               stage study life cycle (Brown, 2014),
The Open University of Australia (no               goes two steps further. It traces the
date) sees the “pathway to student                 stages of study in chronological steps,
retention and success” as a linear six/            but also contextualises the stages
seven step process; thinking about                 in their institutional setting, and it
study, enrolling in the unit, waiting to           emphasises early intervention. The
start, beginning the unit, getting to the          stages are depicted as columns in
census date, completing the unit (and              Figure 1 and include: thinking about
starting next unit/graduating), whereas            study, making choices, enrollment, first
Anagnostopoulou and Parmer (2008)                  weeks, progression, completion. On
visualise the “student success cycle”              the left of the columns in Figure 1 are
in a five stage cyclical pattern; raising          the main contact points for students
aspirations, better preparation, first             in their university as they progress
steps in HE, moving through, student               through the lifecycle; individual
success, (raising aspirations) (see Table          staff, peers, school, institution. The
2). Both models focus on success. The              progressively more delineated groups
Open University of Australia model has a           to be targeted for intervention during
chronological breakdown of the different           the different stages are identified
stages of the study lifecycle, and the             within their relevant columns; from all
Anagnostopoulou and Parmer model has               learners, to select groups, to at-risk
an emphasis on early interventions to              learners, and finally to learners who
better aspirations and preparation.                are failing.

10                                          Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
The Open University of Australia                           Anagnostpoulou and Parmer (2008)
     “pathway to student retention and success”                “student success cycle”

         1. Thinking about study                                  1. Raising aspirations
         2. Enrolling in the unit                                 2. Better preparation
         3. Waiting to start                                      3. First steps in HE
         4. Beginning the unit                                    4. Moving Through
         5. Getting to the census date                            5. Student Success
         6. Completing the unit                                     (raising aspirations)
         7. Starting next unit/graduating

  Table 2. Two study life cycle models

                    Thinking
                     about               Making                       First
                     study               choices    Enrollment       weeks       Progression   Completion

Individual             All                 All         All            All                All       All
   staff

   Peers           Targeted              Targeted   Targeted       Targeted       Targeted      Targeted

   School                                            At risk        At risk         At risk      At risk

Institution                                                         Failing         Failing      Failing

  Figure 1. Study Life Cycle (Brown 2014)

Given the strong correlation between a                         learners, or those with characteristics
learner failing in a module and dropping                       that will potentially put them in the
out permanently (Woodley and Simpson                           at-risk category before they reach the
2014, p. 460), effective interventions                         possibility of failure during the first few
would ideally be targeted at at-risk                           weeks.

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                                     11
Who are flexible
learners?
To reiterate, in the context of this project
a broad definition is adopted of flexible             Flexible learners tend to be from one
learners, which includes adult learners               of two educational backgrounds;
engaged in part-time and online/distance              already educated and upskilling, or
learning. In this subsection this definition          ‘second-chance’ learners, possibly
of the flexible learner will be reviewed in           from marginalised populations who
the light of how the literature describes             have been previously excluded from
‘the flexible learner’. Flexible learning             higher education.
is a concept that, in many ways, cannot               (Flannery and McGarr, 2014)
easily be defined without reference to
the context in which it occurs. In their
overview of the concept in the Irish and              ‘Flexible learning’ in the sense of non-
European contexts, Flannery and McGarr                formal participation on MOOCs has also
(2014) observe that flexible learning                 been growing in popularity in recent
is heavily linked in public discourse to              years but, unless otherwise stated, the
lifelong learning, or as the Department               term is used here exclusively in relation
of Education and Science (2000) defines               to formal undergraduate-level study in a
it, “mature adult participation [in higher            higher education institution.
education] through flexible options
which can be combined with family and                 The benefits of higher education
work responsibilities” (Flannery and                  are well documented both in terms
McGarr 2014, p. 424). More recently, the              of individual and societal returns
Higher Education Authority (HEA 2012)                 (OECD 2015). Importantly this is true
defined ‘flexible learners’ simply as those           irrespective of the mode of study,
students who are in “part-time, distance,             whether full-time or part-time/flexible
e-learning and in-service education”, and             (Callender et al. 2011). For this reason
as ‘participation that leads to less than             great emphasis is placed on the
sixty credits per academic year’ (HEA                 importance of targeting policies and
2015 p. 37).                                          resources to ensure equitable access
                                                      to higher education and promotion
                                                      of lifelong learning opportunities
                                                      (OECD 2015).

12                                             Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
study part-time (European Commission
The National Strategy for Higher            2015). Age, in turn, is often related
Education in Ireland recommends             to socio-economic background, with
increased flexibility in Irish higher       adults more likely to have delayed their
education provision if levels of higher     participation in higher education for
education attainment and lifelong           reasons related to social class (Brine
learning are to increase.                   & Waller 2004; Croxford & Raffe 2014,
(Hunt, 2011)                                Delaney 2015). The Irish government
                                            seeks to increase participation in
                                            higher education by those from lower
The European Commission (2014               socio-economic backgrounds, first-
p.11) too assert that ‘flexibility          time mature entrants and part-time/
is essential for non-traditional            flexible learners (HEA 2015 p. 34). In
learners’ thereby acknowledging the         order to achieve these targets it would
enormous potential of technology            seem imperative that flexible options
to widen access to higher education         in Irish higher education provision are
and support lifelong learning and           developed and supported.
continuing professional development.
                                            Flexible learning also refers to
The rate of participation in Irish          ‘pedagogical flexibility’ as distinct
higher education of mature students         to ‘logistical flexibility’ (Collis and
has increased in recent years, with         Margaryan 2007). The flexible learner
most of this increase in part-time or       in this second reading is “collaborative,
flexible course provision, which has        contextual and connected” (Sims
increased from 7% in 2006 to 19% in         2008, p. 154) or an independent,
2012 (HEA 2015). The current target of      persevering worker requiring just
22% for part-time/flexible participation    clarity and an instructional set in
represents an increase of approximately     allowing them to achieve mastery of
11,000 part-time and flexible learners      information (Nunes, 2006). Arguably,
over the next five years (HEA 2015). The    active participation in and the shaping
age of students influences part-time        of one’s own educational experience
study, with older students more likely to   is something all learners should aspire

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                              13
to achieve. What differentiates flexible
learners from ‘campus-based’, full-time
undergraduate students in this regard
is the extent to which self-regulatory
skills are required in (this definition’s)
flexible learning. Flexible learning
modes are more student-centered than
traditional classroom learning, and
students assume more responsibility
and autonomy for their own success,
particularly in asynchronous learning
settings (Kuo et al. 2014). Drawing
on the works of Artino and Stephens                   the ‘success’ of logistically flexible
(2009), Barnard-Brak et al (2010),                    learners, at least not on courses where,
Hodges and Kim (2010), and Kuo et al.                 for example, taking part in group
(2014) conclude that the more skilled a               discussions or collaborative work is not
student is in self-regulatory learning, the           compulsory. Additionally, the reality of
greater their chances of success as a                 flexible learning, framed by the standard
flexible learner.                                     grammar of higher education institution
                                                      semesters and assignment deadlines,
The term ‘flexible learner’ is not                    did not tally with many students’ pre-
uncontested, and there may perhaps                    entry expectations around the flexibility
be a tendency to overstate the actual                 they thought would be afforded to
flexibility of flexible learning as Selwyn            them (Selwyn, 2011). It is worth noting
(2011) observes in his qualitative                    that Selwyn’s work concentrated on
study of 60 ODL students around the                   successful students who had overcome
world. Logistically, and indeed, in many              the challenges they faced, and there is
respects pedagogically, flexible learners             no mention made of students who did
were the exception rather than the                    not succeed.
rule. Though some students embraced
the ‘wherever, whenever’ possibilities
offered by flexible study options,
many adhere to strict, inflexible study
timetables to fit studies around other
commitments. And far from engaging
deeply in the learning experience, many
students do the bare minimum to
progress (Selwyn, 2011). This suggests
pedagogical flexibility may be desirable
but it is not absolutely necessary for

14                                            Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
What do we know about                        institution. Non-completion of study
                                             does not necessarily mean the student
student success?                             has been unsuccessful; withdrawal can
                                             be seen as a successful outcome if it is
For this project, given its scope, student   the right choice for that student.
success is tightly defined as being:
where a student moves beyond the             For the sake of quantifying student
early stages of the study life cycle, i.e.   success however, the most tangible
beyond the first few weeks of study,         measures of retention or progression
without exiting their programme of           and graduation rates are useful. In
study/the institution; or, makes an          Ireland, the main source of data for
informed decision not to study having        student progression is the Higher
reflected on their readiness for study at    Education Authority. Their most recent
higher education level. This subsection      report on progression (HEA 2014)
will examine this particular definition in   provides statistics for the progression
the context of others in the literature.     rates of undergraduates in the academic
                                             years 2010/2011 and 2011/2012.
Defining what is meant by ‘student           Unfortunately, the HEA do not separate
success’ is not a simple task. The term      out data on flexible learners from those
is complex and problematic, both in          that are full-time, nor do they report
how we measure and understand it.            graduation rates. Given the increased
The openness of the term arguably            importance of, and rhetoric around,
fits better with the concept of flexible     flexible learning in Ireland and Europe
learning than many similar terms in          at a policy level (cf. HEA 2013, Eurydice
the literature.                              2013), this is a significant oversight.
                                             The absence of this data makes it
    Unlike terms such as retention,          difficult to assess the precise scale of
    attrition, and even progression,         the problem in the Irish context but,
    success is student rather than           without evidence to the contrary, it must
    institution centred.                     be presumed that rates in Irish Flexible
                                             Learning programmes do not differ
                                             substantially from international rates.
Student success is also a positive term,
as opposed to deficit-oriented terms         It is widely acknowledged, though
such as dropout and suggests the             not widely publicised, internationally
longer-reaching impact of becoming a         that Flexible Learning courses have
flexible learner than persistence and        appreciably lower rates of retention
completion, which can be understood          and graduation than full-time, campus-
to tie directly into the duration of         based courses. It is perhaps not in
the learner’s study with a particular        an institution’s interest to publicise

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                              15
low completion rates of their flexible                measurements and gaps in the data
learners, especially when trying to                   gathered internationally. There are also
attract new learners. Gallie (2005)                   particular problems in ODL contexts
notes that some reports put student                   around analysing retention rates
attrition in ODL delivery to be as high               rather than course completion rates,
as 80%. This would tally with the UK                  as the former may mask a number of
Open University’s reported completion/                course withdrawals if the student still
graduation rate of around 22% (Woodley                passes other courses (Nichols, 2011).
and Simpson 2014), as compared to                     If anything, however, this only serves
a (British) national graduation rate                  to emphasise the problem of flexible
of 39% for part-time students. Both                   learner non-completion..
these flexible learner graduation rates
compare poorly to the 82% graduation                  What causes a learner
rate for full-time students (Woodley and
Simpson, 2014). In the same discussion,
                                                      to drop out?
however, Woodley and Simpson put                      The reasons flexible learning courses
the international graduation figure for               have high non-completion rates are
ODL education as often “around 10%                    difficult to state categorically. As less has
or less”. The discrepancy between this                been written on the subject of success
and Gallie’s figure of 20% may appear                 and retention in flexible learning than
substantial, but Woodley and Simpson                  on full-time, campus-based contexts it
contend that most figures on retention                is useful to outline some of the latter
are disputable due to different statistical           research first. Two such studies are

16                                            Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
briefly considered here. First a seminal                    Jones’ had an ‘unsatisfactory academic
work by Yorke (1999). Second, a more                        experience’. The implied responsibility
recent synthesis of retention research in                   rests very much with the learner in the
the UK by Jones (2008) undertaken for                       former, while the latter focusses on
the British HEA’s “What works? Student                      fault in the wider ‘experience’, which
retention and success programme”                            could encompass anything from the
report (Thomas 2012). The reasons                           initial induction, to course materials,
given for learner withdrawal in both                        to staff-learner rapport. With a similar
reports are broadly similar, though                         shift in culpability, Yorke sets out an
there has been a noticeable change                          incompatibility between the learner and
in the language used between 1997                           their course and a lack of commitment
and 2008, apart from where both                             to the course as two different factors,
identify poor preparation for higher                        while Jones attributes any lack of
education as a key factor in learner                        commitment to a weak course or
withdrawal. Both also identify financial                    institution match. Again the ‘lack’ reflects
problems as a major cause, though                           on the wider institution rather than
Yorke describes these as ‘hardship’                         primarily on the learner. Jones also adds
whereas Jones describes them as                             personal circumstances to the list, and
‘issues’, which can include hardship                        a lack of social integration. These are
but could also cover other problems                         perhaps indicative of a shift in the interest
such as bureaucratic issues or even a                       and focus of more recent research on
perceived lack of value for money. The                      learners towards a whole-of-person view,
largest difference in the terminology                       which is reflected in the work on why
lies arguably in the description of                         learners find it necessary to withdraw. See
academic issues; Yorke’s learner                            table 3 below for a summary of Yorke and
made ‘poor academic progress’, while                        Jones’ main points.

    Yorke (1999)                                            Jones (2008)
    reasons for learner withdrawal                          retention research synthesis

    • incompatibility between the learner and               • weak institutional and/or course match,
      their course and institution;                         resulting in poor fit/lack of commitment
    • lack of commitment to the course;                     • poor preparation for higher education
    • lack of preparation for the HE experience;            • financial issues and personal
    • financial hardship; and                                 circumstances.
    • poor academic progress.                               • unsatisfactory academic experience
                                                            • lack of social integration

   Table 3: A comparison of Yorke (1999) and Jones’ (2008) reasons for learner withdrawal

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                                  17
A general shift of focus appears to
have taken place in the time between                   Retention is the “ultimate invisible
the Yorke and Jones’ publications.                     elephant in the room, the statistic to
The focus has moved from resting                       which everyone gives lip service but
almost exclusively on the learner                      apparently no serious thought”.
and the academic side of study, to                     (Woodley and Simpson, 2014, p. 460)
encompassing difficulties in broader
learner/course, learner/institution,
learner/learner and learner/rest of                   Though studies on the scale of Jones
life interactions. As such, there is a                (2008) have not been undertaken
noticeable social turn in how ‘success’               for flexible learners, Nichols’ (2011)
or otherwise is constructed and                       overview of several works in the area,
understood. Another important note is                 including a number by Woodley and
that both Yorke and Jones rely on self-               Simpson, certainly suggests that serious
reported data for their analyses, which               consideration has been given to the
means the reported reasons are by their               subject. A number of similarities and
nature subjective. Nichols (2011), citing             differences can be drawn between
Woodley (2004), highlights how such                   the reasons flexible learners withdraw
reasons may not be entirely reliable,                 from their courses and the reasons
given the frequent time-lag between the               full-time, campus-based learners do,
learner withdrawing and being asked for               with three in particular standing out:
their reasons for withdrawal. There is                personal circumstances; weak course or
also the possibility that the ‘real reasons’          institution matching; and unsatisfactory
for non-completion are not expressed,                 learner experience (Nichols, 2011).
as learners may only cite reasons which
they perceive to be acceptable, and/                  Personal circumstances feature as a
or do not threaten their self-esteem                  reason for full-time, campus student
(McGivney 2004).                                      withdrawal, but perhaps weigh more
                                                      heavily on many flexible learners, who

How does this                                         are more likely to be combining flexible
                                                      study with other, time consuming
compare to flexible                                   responsibilities (Brown, Hughs, Keppell,
learner retention?                                    Hard, and Smith, 2015; McGivney, 2003;
                                                      Nichols, 2011). Nichols observes that
The comparable work that exists would                 personal circumstances are frequently
seem to confirm that the challenges                   and consistently listed in the literature as
detailed above are felt equally, if not               one of the top reasons flexible learners
more deeply, by flexible learners.                    withdraw from study (cf. Herbert, 2006).

18                                             Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
They may withdraw due to various
reasons including employment demands,
the needs of their dependents, workload,
problems with finance, and organisation
issues (Nichols, 2011).

Poor course or institution match also
features as a reason flexible learners
withdraw from their studies. Poor
course choice and poor support from
friends and family are identified as
triggers by McGivney (2004), though
older learners are less likely to pick the
wrong course (Yorke, 2004) and more          The essential difference between the
likely to cite external circumstances and    two versions in Gallie’s (2005) example
financial reasons for non-completion         was the use of learning management
(Yorke, 2004; McGivney, 2004). The           system options on the specially
characteristics of the learners, or of the   designed course to create dialogue and
course itself, can also play a role in the   engagement through active e-mails,
quality of learning/course match.            discussion boards, and time-limited
                                             lecture postings.
On the matter of unsatisfactory              Regardless of course content though,
student experiences, the quality of the      it appears expectations around
instruction offered is of considerable       the workload on flexible learning
importance to student satisfaction.          programmes can often be out of kilter
                                             with the reality (Brown et al., 2015).
                                             Learners who drop out typically found
Retention, student satisfaction and          study to be more work than expected
consequent grades achieved are               (Nichols, 2011), and/or had believed
on average higher on a specially             that flexible study, for example ODL,
designed “social interactive: cognitive      was going to be easier than attending
teaching” version of an online course,       an ‘on-campus’ programme (Nash,
than they were on ‘shovelware’,              205). Nichols (2011) found one instance
where an already existing course was         of a learner expecting the course to
copied without adaptation onto an            be doable in 6 hours a week, even
online platform.                             though course requirements clearly
(Gallie 2005, p. 70)                         stated a minimum of 10 hours would
                                             be required, while another student

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                             19
information literacy course could have
                                                      on advancing students’ information
                                                      literacy skills. They argue that the
                                                      extended guidance and distributed
                                                      practice provided learners with more
                                                      opportunities over time to grasp
found she was spending twice the                      complex concepts, and that conducting
recommended time per week trying                      the course online also provided
to keep on top of the work. Both                      flexibility and convenience. The ACRL
students withdrew from the course.                    (2010) notes that use of Facebook pages
It would seem to be as important to                   for an institution’s library can promote
foster realistic expectations among                   awareness of the library and builds
prospective learners regarding the                    academic community among students
nature of flexible learning (Brown et al,             This leads to a further reason why
2015), as it is to offer a quality learning           students withdraw from study: poor
experience. In situations such as the                 preparation for the higher education
latter case, however, it is possible                  experience. A number of elements
that the learners struggle to complete                which are relevant under the heading
the workload if they do not have, and                 of ‘poor preparation for HE’ have been
have not been taught, an appropriate                  mentioned already; incompatible
skillset before commencing study. An                  course choice, unrealistic expectations
example of a link between retention and               of workloads, under preparation in
the building up of a particular skillset              terms of developing the skills needed
is where the teaching of information                  to complete the course, and unresolved
literacy skills, and encouraging                      tensions between study and other
engagement with library services, has                 commitments. Another important
been shown to increase both retention                 element is that of time-management.
and academic attainment among first
year-students (cf ACRL 2010, Soria et al.
2013). Library led instruction sessions               To be successful, flexible learners
tied to specific assessments have been                need to be able to manage their time
shown to be particularly effective in this            and self-regulate effectively, in order
regard (Hurst and Leonard 2007). Mery,                to both structure their study around
Newby and Peng (2012) demonstrated                    their other responsibilities effectively,
the benefits a one-credit online                      and make the most of the time
                                                      available to them. If they cannot, they
                                                      will fall behind in coursework.
                                                      (Ashby, 2004)

20                                            Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
Ashby found the top reason for
withdrawal at the UK Open University was
falling behind with coursework, followed
by personal/family or employment
responsibilities. It seems highly likely that
the two are related, and the challenges
around them could perhaps be better               community between flexible learners.
prepared for during the pre-entry period,         Early experiments in this space, such as
for example by helping students to                those of Currant (2009) made use of now
“calculate what is personally realistic           largely outmoded platforms such as ‘Ning’.
during the path to enrolment” (Brown et           A more recent study (Pinto 2014) explores
al, 2015, pp. 12). The importance of time-        the potential use of a similar private
management has also been emphasised               network ‘Yammer’. There is some debate
by de Raadt and Dekeyser (2009), who              in the literature around the role of social
developed a simple time-management                networks in establishing communities of
tool in the form of a ‘progress bar’ for          learners, and whether social networking
students’ online learning activities. This        sites, specifically Facebook, can truly be
tool is now available on Moodle.                  used for learning given that it is designed
                                                  to foster conviviality and deliberately
Learners also withdraw from study due to          exclude the debate and disagreement
problems around social integration and            considered fundamental for learning
socialisation as a flexible learner. Both full-   (Ravenscroft et al. 2012; 179). Within an
time and flexible learners can experience         institution’s LMS/VLE there is typically a
problems around belonging, but isolation          facility to use discussion forums as part of
is particularly common in flexible learning,      the flexible learning experience, which can
perhaps due to to the often solitary              be utilised to foster a sense of community
nature of that study mode (Nichols,               and belonging. When Gallie (2005) wrote
2011). As is the case for campus-based            about the adaptation of course materials
students (Zhao and Huh, 2004), flexible           to provide a social interactive: cognitive
Learners need to helped to appreciate             version of an existing course, discussion
the benefits of having good support               boards in particular as an integral part of
networks as part of their studies (Brown          the online learning experience were still
et al, 2015). Anagnostopoulou and Parmer          a relatively new development. Since then,
(2008) offer an exercise for students to          they have become a standard feature of
map their own support network early               flexible learning. But though few tools
in the study lifecycle, in order that they
appreciate who is their life may be able
to offer them support. Social media
tools can be utilised to foster a sense of

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                      21
are more pervasive, it is less easy to
establish how frequently or effectively they                Jones (2008) found an average of
are used by learners. Anagnostopolou                        2.1 reasons for withdrawal. Nichols
and Parmer (2008) suggested a                               (2011) also found that multiple
spectrum of engagement exists, from                         reasons for withdrawal were given by
active participation, to ‘lurking’, to non-                 flexible learners.
engagement. Selwyn (2011) similarly found                   (Ashby, 2004)
that only a small minority of students
engaged regularly on discussion boards,
while many shunned them as a distraction                    This is an important point for academics
to the ‘real work’ of ‘getting an education’.               and practitioners seeking to help flexible
                                                            students succeed, as it highlights that an
A final common thread between the                           at-risk student will likely benefit more
literature on full-time, campus-based                       from a ‘whole of student’ approach to the
and flexible learner non-completion is                      provision of supports and interventions,
that withdrawal typically occurs when                       than a fragmented approach. See Table
the student faces a combination of                          4 below for a summary of the reasons
such difficulties.                                          flexible learner withdrawal.

                                          Course /                                 Unsatisfactory
     Personal Circumstances               Institution Matching                     Student Experience

     • Demands of Employment              • Characteristic(s) of learner           • Quality of instruction
     • Needs of dependents                • Characteristic(s) of course            • Expectations around
     • Workload                           • Low entry criteria                       workload
     • Financial Problems                 • Appropriate skillset                   • Social Integration /
     • Organisation issues                                                           isolation
     • Time management

 Table 4. Reasons for flexible learner withdrawal

In summary, it is challenging to define the core concerns that impact success in a flexible
learning setting, but there are a number of useful elements and aspects that surface from the
literature on retention and progression (see table 4 above). These include concerns for the
deeply social and personal nature of the learner experience, including the need to address
difficulties around personal circumstances, institutional and course matching practices, the
affective dimension of the academic experience, readiness for higher education, and the social
dimensions of transition. Learners impacted by multiple difficulties are particularly at-risk.

22                                                  Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
What do we know about                                        learning contexts or easing transfer
                                                             between them. Understanding, and
successful transitions                                       effectively responding to,learners’ needs
This subsection considers the nature                         for effective transitions requires a better
of transitions in relation to the flexible                   comprehension of “how people progress
learner and student success. Themes of                       cognitively, emotionally and socially
transition and transitioning have been a                     between different subjects at different
focus of academic research and thinking                      stages of their learning, and how
for some time now in the literature.                         they navigate the complex demands
An example of this is the seminar                            of different contexts” (Ecclestone et
series funded under the Teaching and                         al 2010, p. 6). A similar position is
Learning Research Programme (TLRP)                           articulated in the work on transitions
between 2005 and 2008¹, and policy                           undertaken by Thomas (2012). The
concerns articulated in various EU                           “What works? Facilitating an effective
funded projects, such as DG Research’s                       transition into higher education” project
Journeymen (2005). These themes have                         brings together findings from seven
only more recently moved onto the                            projects and 22 UK Higher Education
policy agenda here in Ireland. Recent                        institutions and identified the primary
ESRI work in the area (Byrne and McCoy                       importance of student engagement
2013) signals its rising importance as                       and a sense of belonging. In each of
does the Forum for the Enhancement                           these visions of transition there is an
of Teaching & Learning in higher                             argument for viewing transitions as the
education’s focus in this space²                             navigating of pathways, structures and
                                                             systems by the learner, and as a process
A working definition of transitions                          of becoming.
Ecclestone, Biesta, and Hughes (2010)
argue that transition is not the same
                                                             A working definition of transition
as ‘movement’ or ‘transfer’, although
                                                             for the purposes of this subsection:
it involves both. For them, transition
                                                             a process of becoming capable and
is about change and shifts in identity
                                                             resilient in a changing and challenging
and agency as learners progress into
                                                             academic setting.
and through an education system.
From this perspective, understanding
transitions requires more than                               This definition in turn points to
knowledge of facilitating changes in                         the challenges of supporting such
                                                             transitions, and raises questions about
                                                             what higher education institutions can do
  ¹ See Transitions through the lifecourse: analysing the
  effects of identity, agency and structures. URL: http://   to provide structures, support systems,
  www.tlrp.org/themes/seminar/ecclestone.html
                                                             and academic practices that enhance
  ² See http://www.teachingandlearning.ie/sectoral-
  dialogue-session-report/ for relavent publications         rather than inhibit successful transition.

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                               23
Literature on
transitions into higher
education
Jones (2008) notes that the literature
indicates that students are most likely
to leave in their year of entry. This is a
long established fact (cf. Yorke, 1999;
Quinn et al, 2005; Yorke and Longden,
                                                     academic achievement and, therefore,
2007) but what has recently been added
                                                     is significant in their learning processes.
is the understanding that students who
                                                     However, there is more involved here
are actively supported over the course
                                                     than learner characteristics. Institutional
of this transition also develop the key
                                                     structures and arrangements are also
academic skills needed to succeed
                                                     central to successful transitions. For
in the longer run (Armstrong, 2015;
                                                     example, if we consider the reasons
Thomas, 2011). Given also that many of
                                                     identified by Jones (2008) for learner
the students who exit will not re-enroll
                                                     withdrawal we can argue that students
(Woodley and Simpson, 2014), this
                                                     can feel stronger commitment to their
highlights the importance of supporting
                                                     courses and so are more likely to
students in the early stages of the study
                                                     persist if there is (a) strong institution
life cycle in order to promote both
                                                     and course match involved, (b) good
retention and future success.
                                                     preparation on the part of the student
Further insights from the literature
                                                     for higher education prior to entry, (c)
relate to why students persist. Much is
                                                     no (or at least few) financial issues or
related to the personality and personal
                                                     difficult personal circumstances, (d) a
circumstances involved, for example,
                                                     satisfactory academic experience, and
Alt’s (2015) work on self-efficacy for
                                                     (e) meaningful opportunity for social
learning in higher education emphasises
                                                     integration in the early stages of their
the role of students’ beliefs in their
                                                     studies. Clearly both learner agency
capabilities to regulate their own
                                                     and institutional action are required if
learning and argues that this can help
                                                     persistence is to be enhanced.
determine students’ motivation and
                                                     Thomas (2012) also makes a number
                                                     of observations around the issue of
                                                     transition, arising from the What Works?
                                                     project. These include a number of
                                                     observations on the value of belonging
                                                     and how this can be developed among
                                                     learners experiencing transition.

24                                           Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
Evidence from What Works? suggests                           importance to ensure all students
a need to put ‘belonging’ at the heart                       benefit. Third, developing the capacity
of improving student retention and                           of both students and staff to offer an
success (cf. Brown et al. 2015), and                         engaging experience, leading to shared
centres on the fostering of a set of                         responsibility for improving student
interrelated engagements and capacity                        engagement, belonging, retention
building activities. Doing so, Thomas                        and success. And finally, senior level
argues, requires four institutional-level                    responsibility in the institution for
initiatives (see table 5). First, Action on                  nurturing a culture of belonging and
Early Engagement in order to promote                         creating the necessary infrastructure
belonging that begins early and                              to promote student engagement,
continues across the student lifecycle.                      retention and success. This, Thomas
Second, the ‘nurturing’ of engagement                        (2012) argues, should include the
across the institution’s services                            harvesting and thoughtful usage of data
(academic, social and professional) with                     on the student experience to underpin
Academic Engagement being of primary                         transition, retention and success.

     Thomas’ (2012) four institutional                          Issues associated
     level initiatives to improving                             with successful
     student retention and success                              adjustment to HE

     1 Action on Early Engagement                              • Academic readiness
     • Promote belonging
                                                               • Poor course choices
     2 Nurturing of Engagement
     • Across institution services                             • Academic difficulties in integration
     • Academic Engagement
                                                               • Social difficulties in integration
     3 Developing Staff & Student Capacity
     to offer Engaging Experience
     • Shared responsibility

     4 Nurture Culture of Belonging
     • Senior level responsibility
     • Create necessary infrastructure

  Table 5. Factors influencing successful transition to HE

Student Success Toolbox Project | 2016                                                                  25
There is also recent and ongoing work in               the institution, and, perhaps because
this area taking place in Ireland. As Byrne            of a combination of these, becoming
and McCoy (2013) observe, this is, with                disengaged (Redmond et al 2011).
some exceptions including their own work,
based on single-institution data or small-             What can be done
scale qualitative research. Nevertheless,
as Redmond, Quin, Devitt, and Archbold
                                                       to strengthen the
(2011) note, over the past decade or                   possibility of successful
so, some research has build up around                  transition?
student withdrawal in the Institute of
Technology sector (Morgan, Flanagan, and               Hussey and Smith (2010) identify a number
Kellaghan, 2000; Eivers et al., 2002) and              of dimensions to successful transitional
the Irish universities (Morgan, Flanagan,              experiences that are equally applicable
and Kellaghan, 2001; Blaney and Mulkeen,               across both conventional and flexible
2008). A theme emerges across much of                  learning settings. The key to success, they
this research that successful adjustment               suggest, is that the ‘design and delivery
to higher education in Ireland is not                  of higher education’ should, as far as
just a single-factor issue. It is a bundled            is practical, be based upon the major
and complex issue, posing questions                    changes or transitions that the learner is
of academic readiness, of making poor                  experiencing. That is, the learner needs
course choices, of encountering academic               to be supported systematically across five
and social difficulties in integrating into            dimensions of growth.

                  1. Their changing knowledge, understanding and skills,
                  so increasing the prospects of successful transition
                  from novice to knowledgeable skilled participant.

                  2. Their autonomy, as they move from passive to
                  autonomous learner.

                  3. Their approach to learning, reflecting development
                  of deep rather than superficial understanding.

                  4. Their social and cultural integration as they enter
                  into a culture of knowledge.

                  5. The student’s self-concept as it grows and changes in
                  terms of self-description, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.

                  (Hussey and Smith, 2010)

26                                             Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners
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