This project is set in the context of existing work and is informed by the literature in three main domains. These are research on retention and progression, e-learning and social behaviour and identity.

“Dropout is the outcome of a multidimensional process involving the interaction between the individual and the institution” (Tinto, 1993). Thus, the research focuses on the interactions of students carried out in an online environment, known as OASISplus, of a single HE institution. The data pool for the project was identified from an analysis of retention data from the current academic year 2007/8. Participants are located in different disciplines however, it is anticipated that discipline-independent similarities in student performance may be identifiable with regards to academic perseverance. The online profiles of students who have withdrawn/temporarily interrupted their studies have been retrospectively collected through the tracking tools available in the VLE and analysed in order to frame particular behaviours and actions characteristic of this group. It was envisaged that both quantitative (ie, number of discussion postings) and qualitative data (ie, nature of posting and language used) would be collected and analysed.

This study does include students who fail to progress successfully as the timescale for carrying out this study is such that final grades will not be known. Although students who progress to the next academic year with a credit deficit are at greater risk of withdrawing from their studies, this project does not focus on them as it only seeks to analyse online behaviours related to first year and first semester interactions.

This research builds upon Sharpe et al’s (2005) recommendations by illuminating the students’ voice in the evaluation and their experiences of blended learning through semi-structured interviews of ex-students. As the participants are no longer physically on campus, interviews are being carried out telephonically and are being audio recorded. For practical reasons the analysis of the data collected will be based on the interviewers notes, however the audio recordings will serve as accurate records and extracts can be used in the final report to emphasise any findings. The data from the interviews will assist in the examination of the phenomena through the eyes of the participants rather than through the eyes of the researcher; the observed actions become meaningful only when the students’ intentions to share their experiences are ascertained and understood (Berger and Luckmann, 1996).

Methodological triangulation has been employed in order gain access to characteristics exhibited by ‘at risk’ students in a valid and reliable manner. The usefulness of mixed method approach employed here provides the much needed triangulation, leads to multiple inferences which confirm or complement each other and provide the basis for designing subsequent phases of research (Green et al, 1989, cited in Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2003).