Become a Ghost Hunter

August 2022 - Kabir Ganguly

I recently joined an online webinar entitled ‘Ghosting in Online Courses: Data and Strategies to Save the Academic Journey’.

Student retention rates in the online market is something that has always interested me. Right back to my early career in content development, where engaging with a user was the difference between retaining them as a potential customer or losing them to a competitor.

ghost busters

So what is Ghosting in Online Courses?

Ghosting can be described as when a person cuts off all communication without any warning or notice. We often refer to this as student retention. High retention rates in online programme delivery, not only results in receipt of full tuition fees but ensures students are making the most of their time and equipping themselves with the knowledge to succeed.

We had previously written about our high retention rates in distance learning, tactics to design for retention and how our learning design supports students throughout their programme. However, this webinar offered a slightly different angle as it was focusing on elements outside of the programme design and more about the culture of the programme.

The presenters wanted the audience to create a culture of connecting learners to ensure everyone felt welcome and included. They discussed how module leads could become ‘ghost hunters’, investigate the reasons why ghosting in online courses happens and innovation to ensure students remain engaged. University of Birmingham online learning retention rates are usually around the 90-95% mark, but across the sector, organisations can see on average 23% of their students disappear without explanation.

How can we spot Ghosting?

From the study, five ghosting archetypes were observed...

  1. Star students – will be tempted to ghost if they cannot perform at the highest level
  2. Apathetic Apparition– will be tempted to leave if there is no practical application of the course content
  3. Slow shadow – Will take a long time to complete the work and will leave if they fall behind
  4. Squeaking Spector – Temptation to leave if they do not feel validated. They need space to feel heard
  5. Feisty Phantasm – Temptation to leave if they do not receive attention

The three reasons why ghosting happens:

  1. Lack of connection
  2. Lack of support
  3. Lack of shame resilience

Early intervention is key and the intercept surveys can help support that. It is easy for us to say “they are adults, they can figure it out for themselves”.

How do we tackle Ghosting?

Setting your intentions as a teacher can help. Educators play a role in ensuring the students remain engaged and they can do this by thinking about their own goals for teaching or leading a course:

  • Do you know how many students are on the course?
  • Why the students are on the course?
  • What do you know about the students on the course?
  • Do you have access to this info?

Working with your learning designers, you will be able to create scenarios where you can connect with your students, create meaningful interactions, challenge them academically, build in opportunities to collaborate leading them to form a long term commitment.

Take away point

By making ghost hunting part of your preparation as a module lead, you will see high satisfaction rates and higher levels of retention.


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