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End Note

Keeping Students on Board

Implementing a research and development approach
University Business, March 2012

Student retention is a big problem that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. About one-third of college students fail to obtain a degree six years after taking their first college course, and the United States is no longer in the top 10 list of countries with the highest graduation rates, according to the College Board. The drop-out rate affects long-term economic prosperity nationwide. This is particularly true in an age where knowledge, creativity, and innovation are key drivers in a globalized economy.

The good news is that there are ways to meet this challenge if we as educators are willing to mirror the innovative spirit that drives successful research and development (R&D) efforts. We’re taking that approach at OC Global, the online learning program at Odessa College in West Texas, where we develop and test new strategies to maximize student success. With drop-out rates well below the national average, we’ve found a formula for figuring out what works. But the key to long-term success is continual research, development, and innovation.

OC Global approaches distance learning from the student’s perspective. We identify barriers to success and find ways to overcome them. Here’s what we’ve learned to do.

  • Be accessible. We design courses with accessibility built in. Students have a variety of learning styles. We continuously study new learning models and technology tools and choose the best elements of each to design courses accessible to traditional students and those with learning disabilities alike. For example, our learning management system features text-reading software.
  • Be supportive. Distance learning students can feel disconnected, which can translate into high drop-out rates. OC Global creates a learning community for distance learners that was previously available only to students on campus. Besides our fully functional online student services organization, instructors provide support via chat and webcam.
  • Stay flexible. Rigid course scheduling is a real challenge for many students. We experimented with a four-week course start-date model rather than the semester-based approach. In some cases, it worked very well. Other courses required more structure in the enrollment process. We applied what we learned to maximize flexibility. Instead of limiting students to one time frame, we offer four-, eight-, 12-, and 16-week courses.
  • Offer on-demand courses. Students sometimes need a core course that’s not offered. We have a process for students to request a course, and we provide it, sometimes in less than one week.
  • Provide free textbooks and course material supplements. Textbook expenses can be a huge barrier. An open-source strategy is used to provide free, high-quality e-textbooks for most classes. But even tech-savvy students prefer printed material in some cases. We used SoftChalk learning management system software to develop printable “mini-textbooks” that students can access online or via mobile devices. 
  • Provide flexible due dates. Finding the time to study and complete assignments is a challenge for all students, particularly those who work full time or are raising a family. We emphasize flexible assignment due dates to allow students to learn at their own pace.
  • Guarantee results. Businesses that provide guarantees for their products or services gain consumer trust. OC Global makes a similar pact with students: Anyone who makes a good-faith effort to complete a course but fails to make a passing grade can retake it at no additional charge. This gives students a greater stake in the class and the confidence they need to further their education.

Students can request a course and we provide it, sometimes in less than one week.

We don’t have all the answers, but we are actively engaged in the search for solutions. Our R&D approach to educational innovation can be replicated at other institutions where leaders and educators are willing to embrace change. The barriers our students face are not confined to West Texas, but are challenges students all over the world encounter.

Educators truly concerned about what the high drop-out rate means for students, their institutions, and national prosperity should consider a student-centric approach that directly addresses these problems. It’s a journey that never really ends. But along the way, we are changing lives and delivering an invaluable service to our community.

Corey Davis is executive director of OC Global, the online learning program at Odessa College (Texas).