How Does Online Learning Impact Class Attendance?

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By Alan D. Greenberg

Am I Skipping Class Today Because it’s Gonna Be Online?

OK, promise me you’ll read this article if I go ahead and remove the suspense?  Now that you have promised, the answer is…

Maybe so, maybe not.  But the reasons underlying whether or not college kids skip class are nuanced – and it may be for good reason if they do!

The fear that learners might quit coming to class if everything were to go digital is longstanding.  Some professors feared that the idea of recording a lecture might make them redundant and unnecessary.  Others feared that students would become lazy and simply “sleep in” if they could watch a recorded class session later in the day.

Here are some good reasons why that kid may have skipped class.  He’s a student who came down with the flu and can’t make it.  She’s an adult learner in a graduate program who lives across town and her job one day requires her to stay late – and she can’t make it to class in time because of traffic.  He’s a grad student whose other major class requires some field work that takes him out of town for a week.  One could go on.

But all of these reasons take into account learner convenience.  How about faculty?  This is where it gets interesting. The fact is, a huge debate is taking place on the role of technology in education – whether it comes in the form of lecture capture, massive open online courses (MOOCs), web conferencing, video conferencing, interactive whiteboards, Learning Management Systems, or in-class active learning platforms.

Just recently (April 2016) Phil Hill blogged in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a lawsuit filed on April 7th by four students who took an online program for a master’s degree in security and safety leadership from George Washington University’s College of Professional Studies.  The class action lawsuit alleges negligence and misleading claims on the part of the university – that “the students took classes without instruction from professors assigned to the class” and that “materials included ‘often nonsensical PowerPoint slides pilfered from other instructors’ in-class lessons’ for the 12 online courses.”  Students were promised professors who ‘specialized in distance learning,’ but apparently these students felt that their instructors were not.

Regardless of where this lawsuit goes, it demonstrates just how messy online learning can get. And I guess it demonstrates the free market at its best: if you deliver a sound product, students will appreciate it. If you do not, they’ll take their tuition money elsewhere (and maybe file a lawsuit to boot)!

My point is: good teaching is good teaching, and the debate about technology in higher education sometimes forgets that the instructor’s role – and the need for training and support on the proper use of technology – are paramount.  I once consulted to a large western U.S. state where seven community colleges all had some type of distance learning programs.  Four were immensely successful and three were jealous of that success, scratching their heads as to why they could not build programs.  There was one common ingredient at the four schools that were successful: instructional designers, the staff who understand technology and pedagogy, were on hand to assist their faculty in structuring and creating content for their classes.

This fits into the broader conversation taking place in higher education. If you are going to flip your classroom, change how you teach, deliver a MOOC to thousands, use clickers and polling, or whatever you want to do, you have to know what you are doing.

If you do it right, you don’t care if the students are in class or not, because you have engaged with them and they are getting something out of it. But OK, if you are still standing in front of a classroom and want bodies in there, what I can tell you what I know anecdotally: students do not stop attending class in any purposeful way just because it is online.  The same power structure that exists in face-to-face learning exists with blended and online learning: the instructor has the power of the grade and the need to impart knowledge and educational content.

But if that’s not enough to keep a student glued to his or her seat, here’s one more thought: I’ve seen study after study that shows class attendance does not decrease, and anecdotally, a Pacific northwestern state university told me they felt that class attendance actually improved because of their lecture capture deployment. Why?  Because they noticed their learners came to class more the year they first deployed. The learners appreciated the ability to stream course content after the fact but also wanted to be in classrooms to do what they always do: munch on snacks, talk to other students, and learn from the professor.  Some things never change.

Alan D. Greenberg is a Senior Analyst and Partner with Wainhouse Research and can be reached at


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