CC-BY-NC-SA by Luke Chan on Flickr

From Community College to College community

When students drop courses at our community college, we ask them to complete a course drop survey form explaining their reasons for dropping.  The majority state for “personal reasons” the second most frequent response is for “other” reasons. Apparently we are not unique. Neal Raisman recently shared on his blog – “Great Service Matters” – the results of a study of why students leave college. Many of these students at the point of departure state they leave for “personal reasons”.

CC-BY-NC-SA by Luke Chan on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Luke Chan on Flickr

In the study, 864 students were interviewed after at least six months following their leaving college. The break in time was intended to give students an opportunity to be more reflective and open about their reasons for leaving.

Twenty-six percent of students reported they left because the “college doesn’t care”. Another twenty-four reported “poor service” as their main reason for leaving – which could be interpreted as another way of saying that the college doesn’t care. Together, these two responses account for fifty percent of students leaving school.

That’s huge.

In a previous post I shared the results of our own student survey of online learners asking what we could do to help them be more successful. It was clear from these student responses that they valued courses where the instructor was available and accessible – in other words – cared about them and how they were doing in the course.

What does it mean for a college to care?

Raisman talks about the importance of customer service. Certainly responsiveness is an important component to quality customer service, including something as obvious as having people available to answer calls, emails, texts, etc. in a timely manner. Listening to what students have to say, and then putting ourselves in their shoes is key to responsive and caring customer service.

Inclusiveness is another essential consideration. Many students at the community college are first generation college students. Their parents, friends and family may not be in a position to advise them about college life, expectations, and what it takes to succeed. Keeping this in mind, we need to consider ways of connecting students to the campus. For on-campus students this may mean student organizations or study groups. For online students we need to consider virtual connections that may leverage social media, or collaborative class projects, virtual office hours, etc. With more than 80% adoption of mobile technology by college students, there has never been a better time to leverage social media as a means of connecting all students to the college community.

Student support is more than a responsive friendly help desk or online tutoring – it includes a creating a sense of community for both the on-campus and the online student. If we are to succeed in retaining our distance learners,  the community college must become more of a college community.

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Customizing setting for the Blackboard Retention Center

Subscribing to Student Success

Online student retention is problematic. Online learners drop courses for any number of reasons.

Oftentimes the problem is they aren’t exactly sure what will be required in regards to time and resources for the course and are simply waiting for access before deciding whether to continue. One way to help offset this early drop phenomenon is to make sure the syllabus is available prior to registration. The syllabus should include information about the schedule, whether there are any synchronous requirements, textbook information, and any additional resources needed to successfully complete the course.

As for those students who enroll and decide to give it a go… there are some things we can do to help them get on-board, including fostering a sense of community with other students – especially those who have successfully completed online courses in the past – and making sure new to online students can find the support resources they need to navigate any technical issues (e.g. orientation to LMS, help desk, library, online tutoring, etc.).

Another way we can help is to find ways to reach out to students who are at-risk of falling behind.

Blackboard’s new “Retention Center” is designed to alert both student and instructor at the point a problem begins to emerge. This immediate feedback can help students to know where they stand in time for them to evaluate their own efforts or to seek help. Instructors can reach out to struggling students at the first signs trouble, before they get so far behind they cannot successfully complete the course.

The Retention Center replaces the former Early Alerts feature, permitting faculty to create and apply “rules” to help reach out to students who may be at-risk. Rules might include: logging in at least once every three days, or average grade falls below 79%, more than one late assignment. In the event a rule is broken, an automated message is sent to both the student and the instructor. The instructor (or other users e.g. advisor or program coordinator) may then reach out to the student ASAP to see what they can do to help.

9.5 mile marker post along highway

Celebrating milestones

Mile Marker CC-BY-NC-SA by Michael McCullough on Flickr

Mile Marker CC-BY-NC-SA by Michael McCullough on Flickr

According to a recent National Student Clearinghouse report, one in five students completes their college degree at a different institution than the one where they began. For many students the path to a college degree may be a long and circuitous route.

When deciding to run a marathon, we don’t get up one day and say “I think I’ll try to get in 26 miles this afternoon”. We set incremental goals – milestones – and then by building upon these smaller successes we eventually reach our objective. We start out working up to a mile, then maybe a 5 K, then a 10 K, at some point we go for the half marathon, and eventually we reach our goal.

I have on several occasions, heard students, parents and faculty say they aren’t interested in getting their associates degree – or a certificate in their program. Their focus is only on getting the bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, according the the National Student Clearinghouse report, only about 54 percent of those starting out actually achieve their goal.

I wonder if this is a cultural norm. How is it we do not value the opportunities for smaller successes along the way? And if indeed, this is the case, how might we begin to think differently and start celebrating the milestones and thereby encourage completion?

Some thoughts on how learning technology might support such a shift…

Use online discussion forums, blogs, and rosters at the start of the course, asking students share something about themselves to the class. Instructors can model by providing a simple introduction: my pets, favorite sports, hobby, etc. This can be helpful in creating a sense of community, especially in the online course where students may feel isolated without the advantages of face-to-face interactions available with the classroom environment.

Social networks  like Google+ Communities can offer a means of connecting with other students moving along similar pathways. Google+ Communities may be particularly well suited for establishing strong cohorts across programs and disciplines. Our campus already uses Gmail as its student email solution, thereby providing every student with an account making joining the network practically transparent.

Second year students might serve as moderators or hosts in the community for newly admitted students. Such communities may also include program alumni who are employed in their field or continuing their program of study elsewhere at a four-year institution or graduate program.

To take the marathon analogy a step further (at the risk of overdoing it) the long run is achieved not only with the help of those running along with us in the event, but also with the help of others cheering us on along the way. Hopefully we can help to make the finish line seem all the more within their grasp.

Helping Distance Students Get Onboard

 Some rights reserved by John Biehler
CC-BY-NC-SA by John Biehler on Flickr

Onboarding is a term used for getting new employees acclimated to their new workplace. Also known as “organizational socialization” the process includes introducing new team members to the organization’s values, norms, expectations, policies, etc. It seems to me the business onboarding approach can also serve as a framework for helping distance students get onboard with online learning .

These aren’t necessarily new ideas – just another perspective on the online learning experience, student engagement and retention.  For your consideration, how might “onboarding” provide opportunities for enhancing the online student experience?

1) Transparency: be clear from the beginning about program offerings, what percentage of the degree is offered online, are there any synchronous requirements (e.g. face-to-face orientations, proctored exams, web-conferencing, internships, etc.). Students working long hours or multiple jobs, overseas, etc. may find it difficult or impossible to arrange their schedules to meet such requirements. Designing online programs or courses for maximum flexibility will mean more students can engage at their convenience and ultimately succeed in their academic goals.

2) Personalize: offer opportunities for new students to connect with the college community and to get to know classmates and the instructors personally. Such opportunities can easily be lost with distance education unless we make the effort to reach out and welcome new students. Online orientation should provide the same experience on-campus students receive. Schedule live webinars with icebreakers, polls, short introductions with several campus speakers. Record the sessions for those students unable to connect at the scheduled times.

3) Orientation: new students to your online programs need to learn to navigate the system the same as your on-campus students. One way to accomplish this is for each new student to have an assigned guide to show them where to find support services: enrollment, financial aid, advising, tutoring, library services. Create short (2 minutes-ish) video intros to services. Online orientation and campus tour.

4) Technology: develop student-oriented tutorials for your learning management system (e.g. Blackboard, publisher websites, etc), campus portal, email systems, help desk services, online tutoring – any other online services, as well as any maintenance schedules that can impact availability of services, planned outages, etc. Again, best to have this a personalized experience; a live web-conference session allows for guiding the student through the process.

5) Socialization:  students need to meet other students enrolled in their program and courses.  Social networks (LinkedIn Groups, Program Facebook Pages, Google Communities, etc.) enable students to connect with the campus community and to create program cohorts. Because our student email system is G-mail, every student has access to the campus network and the ability to connect with others using Google Plus.

Campus Connections: stream student activities and campus events: graduation ceremony, career services, visiting campus speakers, hyflex workshops. Permit students to connect to student course and capstone presentations, portfolios, final projects, course and program guest speakers via web-conferencing solutions.

Pay it forward:  As students find their place in the campus community and program they may in-turn, serve as mentors for new students – yet another way for students to engage and invest in their chosen program. As student graduate, alumni may also participate by becoming guest speakers via webinars, helping students and program faculty to better understand the evolving job market and allowing alumni to contribute ongoing to the program and college.

For an in-depth look at online learner engagement – Kristen BettsOnline Human Touch (OHT) Instruction and Programming: A Conceptual Framework to Increase Student Engagement and Retention in Online Education. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Vol 4 No 3, 2008