The effect of a pre-course orientation handbook on student persistence in undergraduate online courses
Lockhart, Kathryn E.
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The purpose of this study was to investigate whether or not orientation for new online students presented in a pre-course handbook would impact student persistence. In this sequential mixed-methods quasi-experimental study involving 15 new online students at a small community college, the treatment group received an orientation handbook emphasizing both the importance of online interaction for building community and the need to identify supports for and barriers to online study. Both treatment and control groups completed web-based questionnaires about their perceived barriers to and supports for online learning, and Rovai’s (2002b) 40-item Sense of Classroom Community scale. Qualitative data were also gathered from the questionnaire and a telephone interview. Data were insufficient to establish a relationship between the handbook and persistence, or between answers on the two questionnaire scales and persistence. The study revealed that student dropout is a complex phenomenon; that students’ preferred form of support was through interaction with peers and the instructor; and that the definition of “online course” is not consistent among institutions. Answers to the questionnaire items revealed that both the treatment and control groups encountered time-related barriers, perceptions that their courses were not what they expected, and difficulty with course content. For both groups, the lowest scores on the questionnaire occurred in the Sense of Classroom Community subscale. These data are explained by the follow-up interviews and College records which revealed that very few courses required online interaction, either as part of the grade or for a group project. Since online interaction was not required, students did not participate. The study concludes with a review of the limitations of the study and implications for professional practice. Recommendations include a call for more distance education research, accompanied by suggestions for improving its quality. Finally, it is recommended that institutions establish benchmarks for provision of student orientation, online interaction, and faculty development.