A Literature Review on the Definitions of Dropout in Online Higher Education

Marlon Xavier
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Julio Meneses
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya


Online higher education continues to grow, yet its high dropout rates remain a pressing and complex problem. However, there are many different definitions of dropout (and related concepts: attrition, persistence, and retention) in the literature, usually related to a temporal conception, and the issue is controversial. Inconsistent terminology is problematic because the ways dropout is defined determine how it is measured, tackled, and researched. This contribution seeks to remedy such issue by summarizing a scoping review of the recent literature on the theme, focusing on the key issue of online higher education students’ dropout conceptualization and definition. A scoping review between 2014 and 2018 yielded 138 articles and dissertations. Findings reveal a complex yet disorganized field, lacking standard definitions. Some concepts (e.g. completion) were defined clearly more often, while others (e.g. attrition and dropout) varied wildly; few papers employed previous definitions from the body of literature. Future research should strive to achieve greater consistency in terminology, so as to compare findings and produce reliable knowledge for intervention in online higher education institutions.

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