Published on 2015/09/09

Overcoming Online Persistence Challenges With The Trojan Café (Part 1)

—Co-written with Amanda Smothers | Assistant Director of Student Engagement for eTroy, Troy University

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming Online Persistence Challenges With The Trojan Café (Part 1)
Online, non-traditional students have a tendency to experience a transactional distance from other students and from the institution that contributes to low persistence rates; Troy University’s leaders developed the Trojan Café as a mechanism to overcome this reality.

Vincent Tinto’s conceptual “Schema for Dropout from College” correlated academic and social engagement with student success and learning. However, several factors make social engagement more difficult for non-traditional, online students. They don’t have the opportunity to participate in social engagement and institutional extracurricular activities that are afforded to traditional, on-campus students. Consequently, online students often feel disenfranchised from the university community, and as Tinto put it, “Insufficient social interaction seems to lead primarily to voluntary withdrawal”.[1]

We sought a way to overcome that disconnect. The answer was to create a virtual student union where online students could congregate, share, and build that sense of belonging.

As we explored the concept of an online student success center, we kept Tinto’s scholarly work in mind. We carefully considered who our students are, what we were delivering to them, and where we wanted to take them.

Troy University’s non-traditional students represent a highly diverse set of demographics and degree programs. Some are working single parents, some are active military members and veterans, some have disabilities. Their ages range from 18 to 92 with the most common age range being 25 to 35. Most importantly, many are returning to higher education after a significant break and they often begin their educational quest feeling intimidated, confused and technologically challenged, but excited, optimistic and hopeful. Their persistence and attitude are directly affected by many personal and educational factors, including the relationship with faculty and staff, the quality of the online courses, family and job support and responsibilities, and financial aid. Success often is just a matter of positive reinforcement and a sense of being a part of the university.

Unfortunately, online programs often fail to make a personal connection with students. The majority of our faculty were doing what they could to engage the students academically but we didn’t have a mechanism in place that created a sense of community among our students. There was no place to weave the fabric of our eclectic student body together. We frequently pushed out information to students but we didn’t offer a platform for their ideas to grow and intertwine into something that could inspire and support. A platform where they could contribute the little nuances that decorate the traditional university campus and make it endearing. We wanted to see the faces and hear the stories, to create a way to bring the pulse of this population together in one virtual location while delivering exceptional customer service.

We already have a successful, thriving campus atmosphere and we wanted to consider those strengths in our online outreach. We wondered how could we take that rich concept and culture and build it into a virtual format that was both attractive and effective. Initial goals were to utilize the website as a tool to deliver supportive mechanisms to online students that would help them acclimate to the virtual classroom, provide instructional material on how to be successful, self-directed learners, and deliver positive educational experiences that enrich academic learning. Additionally, online students need services that foster social engagement with peers, faculty and administrators, creating a sense of connection with the university. The site pages needed to be attractive and casual. We wanted the content to read like an online magazine, with articles and features that would appeal to both the online and traditional learner.

We envisioned a one-stop-shop that would equip students with multimedia created to supplement the academic experience with similar opportunities afforded to the student walking the campus grounds each day. We wanted to offer them more, without asking them to work for it. We devised a plan to build the site into a Blackboard course shell that would be directly managed and maintained by experienced Academic and Educational Technology staff at eTROY. Blackboard offered all of the interactive tools necessary to make the effort possible.

When students log into Trojan Café, they are reminded of upcoming dates and events pertinent to university operations. A live chat feature connects them with a representative who can answer many of their questions quickly. Next, they are able to access frequently updated articles of interest, such as a written piece introducing them to one of Troy’s visual arts instructors, or the Summer Wall of Graduates showcasing the names and faces of TROY’s most recently awarded alumni. Articles inform students of opportunities related to applying work experience toward actual college credit. We include a question and answer series called, “Get to Know Your Student Advisor.” Students respond positively to informal reading such as a casual infographic about getting to know Troy, Alabama (Troy University’s hometown), or a student-written piece on overcoming fear of failure. We share video clips of the university marching band, the Sound of the South, and inform students of brand new programs and organizations available to them. Students can then select from several tabbed items devoted to specific areas of support and engagement.

This is the first of a two-part series by Glynn Cavin and Amanda Smothers discussing the challenges of serving and retaining non-traditional, online students and sharing how their Trojan Café concept has allowed them to accomplish these twin goals. To see the second part of this series please click here.

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[1] Vincent Tinto, “Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research,” Review of Educational Research (American Educational Research Association Stable), v45, no 1 (Winter 1975): 89-125

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Readers Comments

TCx 2015/09/09 at 8:01 am

A virtual student union is a great idea. Having a place to go to check in on all the things you would find in a brick-and-mortar student union building takes so much of the pressure off online students to go chasing after individual pieces of information until they find everything they need.

Russell Collins 2015/09/10 at 7:40 am

The social aspect of the center, including the curated magazine piece actually seems like it might be the more important piece in terms of creating that social connection that leads to success. Having a centralized place for information is necessary, but having that need for social connection with things like local events and college history recognized is huge.

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