Persistence (also called retention) is defined as remaining enrolled in the institution, presumably until degree attainment or completion. Online courses can help students achieve this, because they provide options for learning that were previously not available to them (Drennan, Kennedy, & Pisarski, 2005).
Satisfying and rewarding interactions with the formal and informal academic and social systems of the institution lead to greater integration and persistence (Tinto, 1975). However, teachers of online classes must find ways to keep their students integrated and to increase the social network that they have. Online chats and discussions can help with that, but only if the students participate in them (Richardson, 2006). If the students do not want to participate they will not, and if they are forced, this can cause them problems as well. Unpleasant or limited interactions inhibit integration and decrease the likelihood of persistence, whether online or in the traditional classroom.
Having online learning and an online 'community' of learners can help students to feel more connected if it is done correctly, however, because many of these individuals are in a similar age group and family situation. Because they have things in common, it can help them to form a bond and make friends with others like them. It can also allow them to receive help when they need it (Richardson, 2006). Previous research has shown that academic and social integration are influenced by a variety of factors (Munro, 1981; Pascarella et al., 1980); these factors include student background characteristics, pre-college educational experiences, student expectations, and initial experiences in college. While this previous research was carried out on traditional students, it also applies to online students in today's society as well.
Tinto's model, some researchers have suggested, overly emphasizes individual rather than social factors, does not address women and minority students' particular cultural backgrounds, and may implicitly blame students for their departure when, in fact, other cultural and environmental factors may be influencing their low participation (Braxton, 2000a; Laden, Milem, Crowson, 2000; Rendon, 1982; Tierney; 1992). Tinto's model of integration has been critiqued for implying that all students entering college are coming from and moving toward being members of the same culture, that they must come to share common cultural values, and they must conform to the norms of the dominant culture of the institution (Attinasi, 1989; Tierney, 1992). The dominant culture, however, is not always well understood by those that take classes online, and many of the individuals that only learn online are not interested in being part of the 'culture' of the institution.
For the purposes of this paper, "dominant culture" refers to the institution's traditional cultural norms, values, and practices, which, in the context of the United States, tend to be white upper- and middle-class male orientations. Tierney (1992) highlights the individualist emphasis of Tinto's constructs and measures that focus on the extent to which the individual adjusts to the environment rather than the extent to which the college environment might adjust to serve or support the student. In the case of online learning, in other words, the student must learn to meet what the environment needs in order for the student to be successful. The environment is what it is, and it will not change for the student (Kim, et al., n.d.; Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006; Yukselturk & Inan, n.d.). There are others, however, that do not feel that this type of model is working for online learners, and that it is the universities that should be looking to change for their students, because student demographics are changing, especially where online learning is concerned as more and more students consider it.
In support of Tierney's position, Caplan and Nelson (1973) provided important distinctions between person-centered and situation-centered problems, noting that the way a problem was identified gave way to specific solutions. For example, researchers focusing on person-centered problems would focus on individual characteristics as the root of the issue and the target of the solution, while ignoring context relevant factors. In the case of studying why older college women that are learning online experience alienation, a person-centered definition would identify the pathology as residing with the stereotypes of women (e.g. women are less intelligent than men, not analytical thinkers). Conversely, Caplan and Nelson (1973) noted that situation-centered problems have a system change orientation. Here, the context in which individuals operate is examined and remedies are proposed to change the male dominated norms present at some institutions of higher education. Online learning is helping to change some of that, as more women are taking classes online so that they can be home with their families and still attain their degrees, and they are encouraging other women to do the same (Kim, et al., n.d.; Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006; Richardson, 2006).
Tinto (1987) noted that "eventual persistence requires that individuals make the transition to college and become incorporated into the ongoing social and intellectual life of the college" (p. 126). The term "integration" can be understood to refer to the extent which the individual shares the normative attitudes and values of peers and faculty in the institution and abides by the formal and informal structural requirements for membership in that community or in the subgroups of which the individual is a part (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, p. 51). Where integration is considered, however, online learning is much different from the traditional forms of college classroom learning, and therefore it cannot be addressed in the same way. In order to integrate the online community, colleges and universities must determine what kinds of options for community involvement their online learners want, need, and will actually use (Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006). This is not always an easy task, but it is important.
Some individuals do appear to attend college mostly to socialize, but those that are seriously interested in seeking a degree will seek it regardless of whether they attend traditional classes or online learning classes. Online learning simply opened the doors to college for some individuals who were unable to attend traditional classrooms for a variety of reasons (Sedlak & Cartwright, 1997). Trends in the future look as though they will move more toward distance education and computer technology in higher education, but at the same time these trends must follow what students want and need (Sedlak & Cartwright, 1997). In the past, students who have attended classes off campus have not been thought of as highly by many members of the faculty and staff. They have not largely been considered as belonging to the University in the same ways that regular attendance students have been (Sedlak & Cartwright, 1997).
Because of this, students have sometimes shied away from online learning because they believed there was a stigma attached to it, and they would not be seen as serious students but rather as students who wished to buy their way to a degree over the Internet (Sedlak & Cartwright, 1997). However, there has been so much technology created lately and so many online learning courses offered by reputable universities that the tendency to classify online learning students as not as significant in the workings of the University is changing (Sedlak & Cartwright, 1997). Those that work on the faculty of many institutions also have reasons to embrace this new technology. Many faculty members enjoy it because they see it as challenging and new, but others who are not as interested in it are often talked into taking part in it by means of other incentives (Bowie, 1993).
While interactionalist theory is concerned with the interaction among individuals and institutions, involvement is the mechanism through which student effort is engaged in the academic and social life of the college. In the 1993 model, Tinto explains that the model is "at its core, a model of educational communities that highlights the critical importance of student engagement or involvement in the learning communities of the college" (p. 132). Consequently, it becomes important to address problematic issues related to the involvement dimension implicit in the Tinto model. While both Tinto and Astin would agree that the institution plays an important role in facilitating involvement, and in fact Tinto's 1993 revised model emphasized this point, these researchers have concentrated on the individual responsibility aspect.
Nowhere is individual responsibility more important than in the case of online learners (Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006). These individuals must take more responsibility for their own actions than traditional classroom students because they do not have an instructor standing over them, forcing them to work. They are responsible for keeping up with their college work, participating if there are scheduled online discussions, and turning work in on time. If a person cannot organize his or her time and remain motivated enough to do this, he or she might not be a good candidate for online learning (Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006).