For the past few years community colleges have shifted their focus from one of access to one of completion. Offering online programming is a great way to provide access to higher education but closing the gap between online and classroom student outcomes is an ongoing challenge.
Efforts on bridging the gap have mostly centered around learner characteristics: GPA / SAT scores, whether students have previous experience with online learning, their capacity for self-regulated learning (self-efficacy, time management, organizational skills), etc.. Although these can be helpful indicators in predicting online student achievement, another approach that offers promise focuses on the at-risk course.
Ferris State University has been offering Structured Learning Assistance (SLA) for the past 25 years focusing not on the at-risk student, but on the high-risk for failure course. Although this has not been offered as an online option the impact on student success has consistently meant better than a 10% higher pass rate than of those sections without supplemental instruction. By focusing on courses with a history of high failure and withdrawal rates SLA has been able to support students with an additional 45 hours of supplemental instruction.
A recent study at Borough of Manhattan Community College at CUNY looks at online course-level predictors of learning outcomes (Wladis et al 2015). The study found that there was a significant gap in course completion between online courses taken as electives and those that were required for a given major. Also lower-level courses had a much higher attrition rate than higher-level courses. The study suggests that interventions such as embedded supplemental instructional support (tutoring, mentoring, advising, extra technical assistance) within the more challenging courses could significantly improve – and possibly even eliminate – the performance gap between online and face-to-face outcomes.
A few years ago I attended the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) conference and sat in on a panel presentation describing strategies to keep students enrolled in online learning. The panel was represented by faculty and staff from Penn State World Campus. The strategies included embedding tutors in some of the more challenging online courses. A single embedded tutor might support as many as eight sections of the course.
Tutors meet virtually with students one-on-one or with groups by appointment as many as five to six days a week – including evening and weekend hours. The tutors also scheduled “drop-in sessions” when they would go over some of the more challenging concepts, answer questions, and provide more detail on upcoming course assignments. In addition to the virtual meetings, tutors posted helpful tips on study skills and supplemental web resources. The goal of the initiative was to increase retention by 2% per year over a five year period. However, the results showed a 75% reduction in withdrawal and late drops, and a 15% reduction in course failure rates.
Implementing an online supplemental instruction program sounds like a big undertaking but focusing on the most challenging online courses sounds like a great place to begin.
C. Wladis, K. Conway, A. C. Hachey (2015). Using course-level factors as predictors of online course outcomes: A multilevel analysis at a U.S. urban community college. Studies in Higher Education. Vol 42 (1). Taylor & Francis Online. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075079.2015.1045478