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Online Student Engagement Success Stories

University Business, Feb 2012

A Community College Research Center study found that, at community and technical colleges in Washington state, students enrolled in online courses didn’t fare as well as those enrolled in face-to-face or hybrid courses. But better student preparation, faculty development, online support services, and other resources can close the gap. Here is what a few community colleges have done to implement those practices and help students be successful in online courses.

Pitt Community College (N.C.)

Boosting training for instructors and students

In the CCRC research, precourse preparation was a major factor when it came to student retention in a course. Officials at Pitt Community College, located in Winterville, North Carolina, are finding advantages to offering online course orientations for students and mandatory training sessions for faculty.

According to Don Hazelwood, director of instructional technology and distance education at Pitt, orientations are offered at the beginning of each semester for students taking online courses for the first time. Although students are taught the nuances of Pitt’s system, the orientations are particularly important for boosting confidence, Hazelwood believes.

“Some people feel that they don’t have the skills necessary to take an online course, and we help them to feel more comfortable and more motivated,” he says.

The orientations are in-person, Hazelwood adds, since those who need the most bolstering are students who are intimidated by technology.

For instructors, mandatory training sessions include an initial hour of training done on-campus, over the phone, or online, as well as eight hours of online course creation training that demonstrates the uses of different multimedia components.

Pitt administrators are putting together a certification for online instruction that should be in place by the end of 2013. The certification is likely to offer course-creation strategies and student-communication options, as well as peer review of online course content. “We hope to be a role model for distance education in a college system,” says Hazelwood.

Portland Community College (Ore.)

Creating a valuable student support network

When students feel more supported in their learning efforts, they tend to stay in online courses. At Portland Community College, a great deal of attention has gone into the creation of an online student resource center where students can find technical support, discussion groups, and e-tutoring information.

The site features online orientation materials that teach basic technology skills and system navigation, as well as student services links to areas like the bookstore, library, and financial aid office.

The college also offers academic advisors who handle only online students, so they’re familiar with the types of issues that can crop up with online courses. “We are always trying to be proactive in terms of support,” says Loraine Schmitt, director of distance education.

Discussion forums, in particular, are very well visited, she notes. Before the forums were developed, many of the college’s online students didn’t have a sense of belonging or community. Now, they mentor each other and have created a community of peer resources, and some have told the student services facilitator that they had dropped online classes in the past because they felt isolated, but that the forums have made a big difference.

“This level of support helps students be engaged,” says Schmitt. “When they feel that they’re not alone, they’re more likely to participate and to stay in their courses.”

Iowa Community College Online Consortium

Creating connections between students and faculty

A challenge with online learning is that, when students feel isolated from teachers and classmates, they tend to be less invested in their courses. To lessen that challenge, Iowa community colleges provide comprehensive training to instructors, including tips on staying connected to students, according to Steve Rheinschmidt, director of the consortium.

“We work with instructors to build relationships, so students feel they know their teachers before a class begins,” he says.

Through the use of online, threaded conversations, students can chat with each other and with teachers when a course begins. The consortium encourages faculty to share personal details of their lives—coaching high school volleyball, for example, or recent travel adventures—so that students can see them as real people, not just online-based instructors. When faculty contribute those types of details, students are more likely to do the same, Rheinschmidt has found.

“When everyone gets to know these kinds of small, personal details about each other, they’re more likely to become a team,” he says. “It’s most important to do this during the first week or two so they become engaged with each other as they’re becoming engaged with the course content.”

The consortium has done extensive work in tracking student engagement, and Rheinschmidt notes that if a student participates for only an hour or two in the first week, it’s a red flag in terms of subsequent participation. He says, “The chance of them dropping out is three times greater than for a student who engages for three hours or more during the first week.”


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