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Exploring Retention Strategies for Distance Learners

Facing reduced revenues and increasing demand from changing student groups, institutions must focus more on their student services to ensure their learners make it from enrollment to graduation. Photo by 401K 2012.

The following is a Q&A with University of Phoenix Senior Academic Counselor, and distance education advising thought leader, Steven Starks. We discuss retention best practice,  accommodating tight budgets and he suggests some tools that administrators could find helpful.

AA: What is the best way for higher education institutions to improve their distance student retention?

SS: Retention…it is the most prominent area of concern in academic advising departments. Retention strategies are always learned and never mastered; student services professionals are constantly searching for effective techniques to enhance student retention. From an academic advising standpoint, supporting online learners is best achieved by establishing solid, meaningful student-advisor relationships. Thus, retention strategies can be conceptualized as relationship-building strategies.

Ideally, distance learners should have a single point of contact; a representative of the institution who specifically works with the online student population. Adding distance advising responsibilities to the already full workload for which faculty- and campus-based advisors are responsible is inappropriate and ineffective.

Distance learners deserve the same level of consideration (if not more) as their face-to-face counterparts. Hence, distance advising should not be treated as an auxiliary activity, but rather a primary responsibility. Distance learners will need ongoing, regular contact if they are to feel connected to the institution.

From a departmental perspective, creating a sense of community and engaging learners in the academic advising process is crucial for supporting student success.

AA: Is it difficult for institutions to achieve these goals, especially in the face of ever-reducing funding and pressure to keep tuition amounts low?

SS: A tight budget and limited resources can impede the realization of these goals. Depending on the capabilities of the technological infrastructure the institution has established (e.g. the LMS, student services platform, etc.), academic advisors may be restricted or liberated by it; with a sophisticated infrastructure, the capabilities are enhanced. For example, institutions may wish to consider creating an academic/social engagement network in order to create an online community for their distance learners (and even campus-based students).

Student Relationship Management (SRM) software is also essential. Effective SRM platforms should be implemented as an enterprise-wide information system to share student profile information (e.g. GPA, program of study, etc.) across all contact-points.

AA: What are a few low-cost strategies colleges and universities could use to generate both a network among distance learners as well as a personal relationship with their students?

SS: From my research I’ve come up with eight strategies institutions could use to develop relationships between students themselves and between students and institutions.

  1. Student Success Webinars: Engage students by hosting live webinars! This can be a meet and greet opportunity in which students meet their support team (academic advisors, faculty, etc.) or learn tips and strategies for success. Webinars can occur prior to the beginning of the program or throughout the entire program in order to enhance student preparedness by offering relevant and useful information about campus resources, policies, or procedures.
  2. Supportive Calls and Emails: Advisors can contact students for telephonic advising sessions, use email templates with succinct messages that offer useful information, or send motivational messages.
  3. Social Media: Meet students where they are by creating a Facebook page, Twitter account, or YouTube channel to broadcast messages about campus news and events, remind students of important deadlines, or inform students of certain opportunities. Institutions could also create a blog that addresses strategies for success.
  4. Orientation: Design an orientation for students that provides them with a list of resources and contacts prior to their start date. Address expectations and orient students to the online environment and the resources available to them
  5. Advisor Chat: Designate specific times when students can chat with their advisor using an IM/Chat Client for basic questions and answers.
  6. Resource Portal: Develop a portal that enables students to get the latest information or access to resources; a central location that is easy to find and use.
  7. Establish Learning Communities: Learning communities can be integrated into existing LMS or academic/social engagement network or created through the use of free resources such as EdModo.
  8. Mine Data: Measure as much as you can and use the data to make informed decisions. Track course completion rates, satisfaction measures, etc.

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