Published on 2015/07/29

Build, Buy or Buddy: Supporting Retention for Online Students

The EvoLLLution | Build, Buy or Buddy: Supporting Retention for Online Students
There are three key innovative areas that can support student retention in the online space, but the decision on how to deliver on these areas depends on the institution.

Distance education, and online course and degree delivery in particular, has experienced impressive growth during the past 15 years. Recent research indicates that online enrollments continue to grow, even though the pace of growth has slowed. Additionally, increasing numbers of academic leaders consider online delivery to be a primary component of the institution’s strategy. Interestingly, when asked about barriers to online growth, these same academic leaders cited concerns about student success and retention in online programs. Many describe the issue as a “lack of discipline” in online students.[1]

How can we more effectively deliver on the promise of online education to support our nation’s goal of increasing the percentage of citizens with post-secondary credentials? We need to balance the increased access of online education with a renewed student success focus.

As higher education innovates to balance student retention with increased access, there is an important focus on tools and processes designed to improve online student retention. Numerous innovations are emerging, and data supporting the broader application of some of these new approaches is increasingly available. These innovations can be clustered into three categories:

  1. Personalization of the student experience
  2. Engagement with the student
  3. Clarity of expectations

Within each category, we can consider two primary levers to improve student success in online courses and programs: wrap-around student support and course design. The following discussion offers some examples of both levers in each of the three innovation categories.

  1. Personalize the Experience

New advising and coaching models are being developed that personalize the type of interaction students receive based on their academic progress. Action analytics is an important emerging area in higher education, with some institutions building these models and systems on their own (Purdue Signals) and others engaging with external experts and vendors to implement systems that allow advisors to reach out to students at the right moment with the right message based on predictive models of student success (Civitas is a great example of such a service provider).

A tremendous amount of work has been done to build toward the personalization of online courses and credentials. Many institutions are experimenting with the promise of adaptive courseware, and the resurgence of interest in competency-based education offers an opportunity to personalize the pathway to credential completion. Adaptive courseware offers a personalized pathway within the course to support the student to mastery of the concepts and learning outcomes for the course. These tools are based on learning science models emerging from institutions such as Carnegie Mellon and others.[2]

  1. Engage Each Student

The literature on retention has long emphasized engagement as a primary driver of retention and student success.[3] Creating student engagement remains important in the online environment, although it must be approached differently. It is important to leverage technology as a way to enhance human engagement, allowing the technology to assume the repetitive low-value work, thus freeing the people involved (instructors, advisors, etc.) to spend their time in high-value engagement with students. The use of tools such as Starfish or “home-grown” solutions leveraging CRM systems driven by underlying predictive algorithms can highlight which students are most likely to benefit from targeted contact with faculty and staff. A recent article in the Chronicle report highlighted the successes of Middle Tennessee State University in applying this analytics rich approach to engagement.[4]

The analytics-based approach described above can also be applied to course design and course revision. Predictive tools can help identify courses that may serve as barriers to success, and redesign efforts can be prioritized toward these courses. Redesigned courses can emphasize peer engagement in creative ways, and new technologies (such as Google Hangout and others) can support well-established best practices such as peer support (such as supplemental instruction leaders models) at a distance.

Additionally, students remain hungry for interaction with faculty members, and simple tactics such as well-designed video greetings, webinars that are also recorded and available for viewing for those unable to attend, and brief audio recordings of feedback for assignments allow students to build a sense of connection to their professor, enhancing their experience and improving their success.

  1. Clarify Expectations

Retention starts with the first contact with prospective students, and one of the most important conversations is to develop a shared sense of what the student can expect as they move forward in their education with your institution. For online students, it is important that they take seriously the amount of time that they will need to plan to dedicate toward their studies. This can be particularly challenging for adult students who are looking for flexibility. A well-defined and transparent pathway to the degree is also essential since it allows students to both see their progress and understand the needed next steps toward earning a credential without wasting time or effort.

Additionally, when curricular learning outcomes are transparent across the curriculum and within courses, students have a clearer sense of what they are learning, why it matters and how they will build toward the needed competencies for their future goals. When designing online courses, tools such as the Quality Matters rubrics for curricular design can support an institution in offering courses designed to support student success.


Emerging technologies and data offer institutions new opportunities to improve retention in their online programs. Each institution must decide which interventions might be the best match for the students in their academic programs. Additionally, institutions face a strategic question regarding the development of these capabilities: to build, buy or buddy. In other words, ought an organization partner with a vendor, purchase a complete solution or work to build their own customized solution from scratch?[5]

This decision is best made in full consideration of the long term strategic goals of the organization, the human resources available to the project and the level of confidence that the solution is best for the problem being addressed. Much of the time, a nimble approach to piloting of potential solutions can be useful and will inform whether a full-blown investment is warranted. The work is challenging, and it is important to remain nimble when applying best practices to your own institution, but institutions are gaining traction by focusing on personalization, engagement and expectation setting.

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[1] Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J. (2011) Changing Course: ten years of tracking online education in the United States. file:///C:/Users/deb.bushway/Downloads/changing-course-ten-years-tracking-online-education-united-states.pdf

[2] Newman, A. (2013) Learning to Adapt: Understanding the Adaptive Learning Supplier Landscape.

[3] Tinto, V. (2004). Student retention and graduation: Facing the truth, living with the consequences. Washington, D.C.: The Pell Institute.

[4] Hoover, E. (2015) Spotlight on Retention. The Chronicle of Higher Education – the Trends Report.

[5] Baer, L. (2014) Build, Buy or Buddy. At the WCET Analytics Boot Camp: Building Institutional Readiness for Data Analytics. June, 2014

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Readers Comments

Jessica Monahan 2015/07/29 at 2:46 pm

Expectation setting is I think one of the more difficult tasks involved in creating new programming. It’s fine balance between clearly setting boundaries as to what you’re capable of and what you’re offering and still being as open as flexible as possible when it comes to student needs.

Wilma Roberts 2015/07/30 at 4:26 pm

The transparent pathways mentioned goes a long way to solving that problem. So often students don’t’ succeed because they lose sight, not necessarily of where they’re going, but how to get there. Showing clear pathways (multiple different pathways) through a program can help students visualize how they will succeed and what they need to do to get where they’re going.

James E. Miller 2015/09/01 at 1:44 pm

Enrollment, progress, completion: Comments to post: Build, Buy or Buddy- Supporting Retention for Online Students

I’ve had more barriers thrown against me in my attempt to enroll in Western Kentucky University’s School of Education program for a Master degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling than I did in becoming a Stanford student in the 50’s. This is true despite my two degrees from Stanford and a BS from Montana State University in the meantime. While I love a challenge, I’d rather be challenged by my zeal to lean and earn the degree, than fighting a bureaucracy bent on excluding candidates.

For adult learners, the online approach is by far and away, the best way for such students to learn, and higher education to deliver the teaching. Keep in mind also that as the students who learn by online methods, they will pass-on the practices they learned which worked for them, to their future students, whether academic or OJT. The asynchronous interplay between the learned and the learning is the best fit for most adult learners who are usually fully engaged in income producing and caring for their families. The academics who believe that face-to-face is the only or best way for students to learn, simply “don’t get it”. Learning depends on retention, and the article, Build, Buy or Buddy- Supporting Retention for Online Students , does a superb job of unthreading the string.

James E. Miller, BA, BS, JD

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