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Engaging Experiences and Student-Centered Service Critical to Online Retention

The EvoLLLution | Engaging Experiences and Student-Centered Service Critical to Online Retention
Minimizing transactional distance for online students by ensuring services are designed with their needs in mind has a profoundly positive impact on online retention and success.

Numerous studies published in recent years paint online learning as something of a gamble for students. Though it provides a flexible pathway for non-traditional learners to access post-secondary content, the success rates tend to be lower than in-class options. That said, students that persist through at least one online course have higher completion rates than those that never enroll in an online course. It’s up to institutions to create the conditions for online student success, and minimizing the transactional distance impacting distance students while creating as engaging an environment for these learners as possible has a significant impact on their persistence. In this interview, Tim Gordon discusses the factors that contribute most to online student attrition and shares his thoughts on the steps institutions can take to maximize online students’ chances for success.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant challenges to retention facing online students?

Timothy Gordon (TG): Students need to be able to identify the online model that best works with their learning style. The first thing we need to do is create mechanisms to help students assess what’s best for them in online learning. The other challenge is that online students, similar to campus-based students, need to balance their education goals with their day-to-day lives, whether it’s raising a family or working.

Online students certainly face the challenge of also being in an environment that can be a lot less structured. In addition, there is not a visible community for them to be a part of. Online learners need to take the extra step of connecting with the online communities that are provided for them. They need to work a little bit harder to make sure they are connecting with the tools that many programs provide them to connect to the campus and to resources.

Evo: How do these differ from retention challenges for face-to-face learners?

TG: Many of the retention challenges facing online students are very similar to those facing on-campus learners in terms of connecting with community and balancing studies with all of the competing life demands. In that way, retention challenges for online students are very similar for campus-based learners.

Some of the significant differences are obviously there’s not that face-to-face community that students can connect with, that encourage them and support them. Additionally, because there’s typically not a carved out time to show up for class, online students can put off some of the pieces that relate to online studying to deal with the face-to-face challenges that they have in life, whereas a campus-based student would know their class times.

Many online models have built robust opportunities for students to connect with campus-based resources in ways that are designed for distance and online learners. However, there are other pieces of the campus where a student may have to, even though they’re an online learner, adapt to a more traditional model, such as making a call within a specific time frame. There may not necessarily be 24/7 support.

Evo: What can a college or university do to help minimize those retention barriers for their online learners?

TG: The campuses that have had the best programs learned to align the resources for online and campus-based students, and consider where modifications in services and support need to be made on the institutional side so that it’s really seamless for online learners. Ultimately, campuses have to take a really hard look at how their services are structured and define whether there are arbitrary barriers that are prohibitive for online students. It’s similar to the discussion about serving non-traditional students. When we have offices that are only open until 5 p.m. and we have students coming to campus who work until 5 p.m., we had to really look at our hours to make sure we served all students. That is also the case here with online learning. Campuses have to take the leadership and initiative to look at what might that campus experience look like for an online student and how do we move barriers and create great access to services and support.

There is a large obligation on the campus’ part to make sure that, as it launches into creating places for online learners, it also operates inclusively and provides them connection to the campus community. Maybe that’s a model such as different opportunities for students that participate in campus traditions or a periodic touchstone by email or mail that are similar to what a student might get in a campus-based environment. The reality is online students will have to do things differently than campus-based students because the learning modality is different. We need to be conscious to ensure that we are creating as few barriers as possible to connect them to campus.

Evo: From the institutional side, how challenging is it to create the systems to maximize persistence in online programs while keeping the program costs low and the price competitive?

TG: It has been my experience that with online learners, many times the windows of accessing resources may be limited or different than what the campus is delivering and larger campuses are going to be able to scale something differently than a campus that is smaller. As you provide high-touch programs and leverage that through technological solutions or greater staff ability, you’re going to have some additional costs.

With the UW Flex system, we can really leverage the power of an entire system and then look at what each campus is able to do. We have online students as part of the mix. We’re not necessarily adding an online advising office but we are looking at current advising structures and we are making those advisors available to students. If another place doesn’t have that same structure, then there will have to be some real cost-benefit analysis done. In most cases, when you look at competitive programs that are high-touch and able to support students well, doing that will certainly reap benefits and provide resources to the institution as students are recruited and then retained. It’s much less costly to retain students than it is to recruit them. Institutions invest in really retaining those students, they reach some of those additional resources, but they may have to consider myriad options, whether that’s outsourcing some services or providing some additional hours to services. Students are great partners in looking at what they need and how that can be accessed. It has to be very intentional, focused on what the learner’s needs are. If there are ways to provide that or ways to train peer staff as opposed to full-time staff, those are different ways that campuses can do that.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the retention challenges for higher ed institutions when it comes to their online students and what institutions can do to really maximize retention while minimizing costs?

TG: One of the areas we see evolving with online programs is really how students engage with services. How are we supporting online students that also need access to campus services such as counseling or tutoring? What many campuses are looking at is the modality in which they deliver that. It’s not necessarily about adding lots of people to these teams, but more about looking at how do these teams serve all students, including online students. Ultimately, campuses have to look at this as an opportunity to examine the entire campus community and how it continues to be more inclusive and intentional about serving students and not treating online students as an add-on but really as a robust part of the campus community. When schools do that, that’s when online students are served really well in additional to adding value to their fellow campus-based students.

This interview has been edited for length.

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