Conference on academic success and dropouts


What leads to academic success and graduation in digital studies? Who drops out - and who sticks with it? A digital science conference has now addressed questions like these. It was organized by the team of the CATALPA-associated project LAMASS@DiLea.


Group of students Photo: Hardy Welsch
Learners in digital study formats are often older than traditional students, and many of them are working.

"If you do digitalization right, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. If you don't do it right, at best you will have a faster caterpillar," said President Prof. Dr. Ada Pellert, quoting MIT education researcher George Westerman in her opening address. And it was precisely these conditions for the success of digital teaching and learning that were the focus of the six-hour event, which brought together academics from all over Germany online. The conference was organized by Prof. Dr. Claudia de Witt, Dr. Joachim Wöhrle and Heike Karolyi from the FernUniversität in Hagen.

Digitization - from caterpillar to butterfly

"A lot has happened in the digitalization of universities since the pandemic," said Dr Klaus Wannemacher from the Institut für Hochschulentwicklung e.V. in his keynote speech. "The topic has moved further up the agenda of university management." As a result, modules and curricula should now be newly developed and refined in many places. There is still some digital "catching up to do", especially in university administration processes. Following various hacker attacks on universities, university managers also consider the topic of IT security to be particularly relevant. "All of this is important so that the digitalization butterfly can develop," Wannemacher picked up on the image cited by President Pellert.

Work-life-study balance has to be right

The situation in different digital study formats was then examined by researchers from three BMBF joint projects from the "Research on Study Success and Dropout II" funding line. The project LAMASS@DiLea, which stands for "Learning Analytics, Monitoring and Ambition for Study Success in Distance Learning" and is managed by FernUni, kicked things off. In three sub-studies on digital study formats, the researchers presented the work of three project years under the direction of Claudia de Witt. She is a professor of educational theory and media education and a member of the CATALPA research center executive board.

Student sits relaxed on a windowsill Photo: Jakob Studnar
Learning in digital format is not so relaxed for every student.

Heike Karolyi and Joachim Wöhrle explained that learners in digital study formats differ significantly from traditional students. The average age of the Bachelor students they surveyed was around 40. Many are employed and do not want to or cannot give this up because of their studies. This constellation results in changed educational goals and requirements, which can lead to students dropping out. "In our comparative study, we found that factors external to the university, such as the work-life-study balance, play a greater role in dropouts in the digital study format," explained Karolyi.

Specific suggestions for the institutions

But institutions can take countermeasures. The research team, which also includes Dr. Berit Blanc from the German Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in Berlin and Adrian Woick from AKAD University, presented the key recommendations for action extracted from the project: More flexibility in the curriculum and examinations, for example, can lead to a better balance between studying and other commitments. Contact is also important, for example with fellow students in interactive learning or with teachers in individual mentoring. "Routine" feedback, on the other hand, can be outsourced to learning analytics or AI systems, but transparent information and advice before the start of studies is also relevant for retention, as it helps to build realistic study expectations. On the other hand, institutions should consider students with a previous degree separately, as they may only want to gain further qualifications in detail anyway, without setting themselves the goal of completing a second degree.

Groups with different dropout risk

The DiSEA project (Digital Study Programs: Analysis of Success and Dropout Factors) is also funded by the same BMBF funding line as LAMASS@DiLea. Prof. Dr. Agathe Merceron and Teodora Dogaru from the Berlin University of Applied Sciences want to use learning analytics data - i.e. data traces from learning activities - to predict dropouts. Not an easy undertaking, as they discovered. For data protection reasons, they were hardly able to link the learning activities during the courses with socio-demographic characteristics. However, this initially significantly limited the validity of their results. Even regularities in course activity did not provide any clear evidence of academic success in the virtual courses. In contrast, the researchers were able to identify courses and course completions that could be used to predict dropout.

Claudia de Witt Photo: FernUniversität
The conference was organized by the team led by Prof. Dr. Claudia de Witt.

In the third BMBF joint project SaFe (Study success and drop-outs in distance learning), Prof. Dr. Birgitt Erdwien (Europäische Fernhochschule Hamburg GmbH) and Prof. Dr. Marcus Eckert (Apollon University of Applied Sciences) identified four types of students with different drop-out risks. Particularly at risk: Students who are motivated by career advancement and want to use their studies for better career opportunities. According to the researchers, the risk of dropping out of university is high if this group of people also lack the support of their social environment due to the double burden of work and studies. In order to be able to prevent this in good time, they developed a self-assessment with which the university can recognize the risk of dropping out in good time and counteract it with tailored prevention and intervention measures.

Visions for digital study formats

In the final block of the event, the four LAMASS project leaders outlined their visions for the future of digital study formats. "AI will offer relief for students and lecturers, but also for organizations as a whole, for example in the monitoring of study programs," predicted Prof. Dr. Niels Pinkwart (DFKI and Humboldt University Berlin). Prof. Dr. Hendrik Drachsler from the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education DIPF sees the greatest opportunity in personalized feedback with LA and AI. "This can really make a difference for individual students - and also relieve the burden on teaching staff." Prof. Dr. Daniel Markgraf from AKAD University relies on "predictive study support" through a combination of learning analytics and AI: "We want to intervene at an early stage. In other words, when the student hasn't even noticed that he or she has got a little lost in the study process." Event organizer Claudia de Witt concluded: "AI and Trusted Learning Analytics will change university teaching - and they will be involved in student success."

More information on the individual presentations

All presentation slides from the event are available here (German).