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Staying Online

Five strategies for keeping students engaged and retained in online courses
University Business, March 2013

In President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, he made it clear that increasing college graduation rates would be a main priority of his administration. In the months that followed, “MOOC” became the buzzword of the year, bringing online learning to the forefront of the education conversation. But whether they’re massive and open or they enroll 12 students, online courses have traditionally given institutions trouble in the area of retention—an issue that could dampen the goal of leading the world with the highest share of college graduates by 2020.

The Babson Survey Research Group’s 2012 Survey of Online Learning revealed the number of students taking at least one online course had surpassed 6.7 million. But a 2011 Community College Research Center study found an 8 percent gap in completion rates between students in traditional and online courses, among 51,000 community college students in Washington State whose enrollment history was tracked from 2004 and 2009. With companies and institutions looking to find a viable business model for MOOCs, plus institutions considering offering credit for these courses, this disparity could be further amplified simply because of the sheer volume of online courses that may be coming.

But what is it about online courses that makes retention more difficult? For one thing, students who have historically been drawn to online courses are nontraditional in nature and have other things pulling them from their studies, shares Jennifer Beyer, a solutions consultant at Hobsons who previously oversaw enrollment at the University of South Florida. “For students who have stopped out, those were the reasons we were hearing. It wasn’t necessarily a connection with their institution, but life got in their way and they couldn’t juggle life and school.”

Another issue is the anonymity that the online environment can foster. “It’s much easier for students to stop out without that personal level of engagement,” Beyer says. “When universities get it right is when they take that step beyond replicating what a traditional student services model would look like and really think of the needs of an online learner.”

Here are five strategies that can help administrators and instructors wade through the issues specific to online learning environments and make retaining students a reality.

1. Plan for Graduation

Aiding students by outlining a clear pathway to graduation is a key component to helping those enrolling in online courses to select courses that will keep them on track, shares Beyer. “That can really change the life of a student.”

One option is giving students access to a self-serve solution like Campus Management’s CampusVue Portal, Hobsons' AgileGrad, or Jenzabar’s Academic Planner. Spring Arbor University (Mich.) utilizes Academic Planner to allow students to plan all of their courses through graduation, as well as register for their classes all in one place. “Having a straightforward graduation plan is a critical component [for retention],” finds Jeff Edwards, vice president and CIO of technology services.

2. Prepare Students

It’s also crucial that students understand the amount of time they’ll need to dedicate to an online course, as well as the technology itself. Johns Hopkins (Md.) Bloomberg School of Public Health requires that students take an “Introduction to Online Learning” course before beginning any of its online academic programs.

The two-week course takes about 90 minutes to complete and helps students get a handle on the learning management system. It also helps those students who may not be able to keep up in a face-paced online learning environment to self identify, shares Brian Klaas, senior web systems developer for the school’s Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology.

“If a student is uncomfortable with the technology, can’t figure out basic things about finding files and taking quizzes, and if he can’t complete the coursework in the time allotted, it’s likely he can’t do a regular, [complete] course,” Klaas explains. The school encourages students who are concerned about whether the online environment is right for them as learners to take the intro course at any time, even if they aren’t yet set on enrolling in a specific program.

“I think something like that is really important for any kind of online program, not only from a retention perspective but from a basic tech support perspective,” says Klaas, noting that introducing students to the LMS and the basic mechanics of online learning reduces questions to the faculty and tech support staff. “A student shouldn’t have to worry about learning technology at the same time he’s trying to learn the academic coursework.”

3. Train Faculty

After learning that not all instructors are created equal when it comes to teaching online courses, Spring Arbor developed a set of best practices for instructing the instructor in how to engage students in an online classroom. Instructors are expected to learn those best practices in preparation for a course that all faculty members must take and pass before teaching online.

But faculty accountability doesn’t stop there. If an instructor is found to be not engaged online, he or she won’t be selected to teach the course the next time it’s offered, says Edwards.

4. Monitor Engagement

Holding instructors and students accountable means tracking engagement. Spring Arbor utilizes a report out of Blackboard to monitor how often faculty log in and post in message boards. If any red flags come up in the report, department chairs are notified and asked to follow up with the faculty member.
“Engaging the students with the faculty is important because we’re dealing with adult learners and they’re seeing a faculty person as a potential future reference for getting a job,” says Edwards.

Engaging early and consistently is key. Instructors should be sending welcome emails and getting to know students from day one, says Carol Smith, assistant provost of Berkeley College (N.Y.) Online. “If the faculty don’t establish their online presence, students will just feel like they’re taking a correspondence course, and that is not our goal. They should feel just as welcome and just as appreciated as if they were in a face-to-face class.”

It’s equally important to monitor this engagement early using LMS reports, says Klaas. “If there are students who aren’t doing the work, we can see right off the bat and faculty can intervene.”

5. Build Relationships

In an online environment, instructional design should help compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction. Johns Hopkins uses Adobe Connect for group meetings and discussions. LiveTalk sessions allow students and instructors to speak and simulate what it’s like to be in the physical classroom, says Klaas. “They’re like in-person sessions with everyone in the class.”

At Berkeley, online courses utilize a variety of multimedia, including welcome videos, voiceboarding, and video conferencing, to help students make connections. “We try very hard to provide as many artifacts that would simulate the classroom,” says Smith.

And while live instruction and/or video conferencing may not always be an option, assigning group projects and encouraging participation in online message boards can make up for the lost face time. “The relationships built in the online world are just as important as they are in the classroom,” says Edwards. “With our courses instructed asynchronously, having peer-to-peer, student-to-student communication throughout the program increases the level of commitment to continuing on in the program.”