Tip of the week 1: Keeping online learners motivated – building rapport

Back in the days of paper-based correspondence courses, distance learning was a lonely affair. It is not surprising that the vast majority of correspondence course learners dropped out along the way. Indeed many commercial providers of correspondence courses only made a profit because of the high proportion of students who dropped out after paying non-refundable fees!

Of course it’s different today, with Internet-based technologies offering lots of different ways to overcome the loneliness of the long distance learner. Feedback to the learner can (or at least should be) much quicker now that e-mail and other messaging systems have replaced the postal service. Learners can use forums, blog comments etc. to communicate with each other. And the technology even supports synchronous spoken communication through webinars and online classrooms. The very phrase ‘social media’ sums up the power and potential of the Internet to overcome isolation and loneliness.

Yet drop-out rates for online learning remain high. Over the next few weeks I will suggest some ways of maximising learners’ engagement and retention with online training. This week I will look at the importance of developing rapport with learners.

One study of completion rates in online professional development courses found that:

“Achieving completion rates [comparable with face-to-face courses] for online facilitated courses requires the development of support structures which are comparable to those already in place for classroom and web-based training courses.”

The same study suggested that the initial experience of the learner on an online course, even before tuition as such began, was an important factor in determining whether the learner would continue.

Both of these findings show how important it is to support learners and build a supportive relationship with them right at the very start of a programme of online training. Here are some practical ways to build this rapport:

  1. It may not always be possible, but it certainly helps if you can have a single face-to-face classroom session at the start of an online programme. This not only creates immediate rapport between you and the individual learners but it also helps the learners to form supportive relationships with each other.
  2. If it is not possible to meet face to face, then think of some other way of having spoken communication with each learner right at the start of the programme. Time and cost factors may make it difficult to have regular telephone communication with learners, but do try to speak with each of them right at the start. VoIP systems like Skype make this easier and cheaper than ever. There is no substitute for a friendly voice in building rapport.
  3. If you have a small group of learners you could set up an initial online conference call rather than make individual phone calls, but I would issue a word of warning here. Systems like Skype and Google Hangout are not yet 100% reliable for conference calls, and you could really demotivate and alienate a non-confident learner if their course starts with a technically problematic conference call.
  4. Once you have built initial rapport with your learners you need to keep it up by regular friendly communication and prompt responses to any submitted assignments or questions.

More tips on motivating online learners next week!

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Posted in Moving Training Online

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