In addition to writing, I teach at a major university. Around the globe, there has been a move toward online classes over the past couple of decades and these classes certainly offer many advantages. They may, however, not be for everyone.
Many students who enroll in online classes do so because of the ability to do their work anytime, anyplace. This is great for the vast majority of online students. One of the major issues affecting retention is that online classes are NOT for everyone. Some students need that F2F interaction with the instructor. Some need to be constantly reminded of due dates and times and how assignments are to be done, as we often do in F2F classes. Many students also need more F2F interaction with classmates.
Over the years, as my classes have morphed from strictly F2F to hybrids (meeting periodically but not 2-3 times a week, with the remainder of the course online) to strictly online classes, I have encountered students who HATED online classes (some because of their own difficulties in adapting, some due the instructor's penchant for trying to simply convert a F2F class directly to an online class, which does not usually work well).
Online classes are not a panacea that cures the drop-rate or places a great educational experience in the hands of every student. I LOVE teaching online classes, but I have to acknowledge that they take more time for me that did my F2F classes. I know that some of us, when online classes began, tried to make that conversion "straight across." It was all we knew and it was expedient. Today, we know that F2F and online classes are very different and the instructor needs to treat them differently.
I recognize that these classes are simply NOT for everyone (not all instructors, not all students). I am fortunate to have a very high retention rate in my classes, but I have had years to tweak those classes so they are geared to address different learning styles. I also send my syllabi out to all my classes about one-two weeks prior to the first day of class so they can determine if the class is for them. They can get out BEFORE they start if they do not feel that they can handle to workload or cannot work on solo projects without a teacher standing over them or if they aren't quite ready for virtual group work. They can look for an alternative class (either online or F2F). Once we begin, the roster is usually pretty well set, with one, maybe two students leaving (but they generally leave the school, not just my class).
Outside of water and air, few other things in life are "for everyone." Online classes are no different. Yes, we need to adapt out technologies to help students and we need to adapt our teaching methods to help students. The reality remains, however, that there are some students who are simply more comfortable and who learn better in "group" (F2F classroom) situations.
Online classes offer many schools the opportunity to increase enrollment without the need for additional brick and mortar investments. We have a long way to go, however, in order to get the online class "right" and the need to continue to address varied learning styles is imperative. We also need to recognize that doing schoolwork at two in the morning in one's 'jammies may not be the most effective learning that some students can do. It isn't for everyone.
Online classes are great and I love them, but for some students these classes may not yet provide the individual attention they need in order to achieve success and to remain in the educational flow. It is not enough to simply post a number of readings and assignments on to the class page online. Engagement is key. Making assignments engaging and, simultaneously, informative can go a long, long way with retention of those students who are not sure about their abilities in the online class. Many fast food restaurants have drive-thru service for those who want it, but most of those same restaurants also have customers dining inside the building. Drive-thru education (online) is not yet to the point at which every customer (student) has his or her needs met at the drive-thru. Dissatisfied customers often do not come back. We in education can retain OUR customers better by varying our menus.