Staying the Course: Engaging and Retaining Non-Traditional Students in Online Education
In today’s higher educational landscape, non-traditional students are increasingly present on both traditional and online campuses, yet as online education has tripled over the past years more and more non-traditional students are opting for an online/blended course load that helps meet their competing demands and obligations. Administrators and faculty understand that this group has returned to the campus to complete college degrees begun at an earlier period of their lives or to retool for the changes that have taken place on the jobs market. As academic programs make the shift to hybrid and online education, engaging this population in order to help them succeed is of increasing concern.
Attrition continues to plague online education and the lack of integrated policies and practices that provide faculty with access to the tools and support necessary to address online attrition is an issue that should be considered. Engaging the online student, the types of activities professors utilize, assignment follow up, feedback, and interventions all impact the non-traditional student’s retention. Research demonstrates that there are specific practices that help students stay the course, which include methods and techniques that faculty and administration should consider when developing an online community for their institutions. These encompass the social, technical, organizational, and policy aspects of online learning.
Social connectedness in the online environment has been found to support student success in the online environment; students that form social relationships in an online environment are more likely to persist. Faculty are encouraged to develop activities that engage students in group projects, lively discussion boards and synchronous online meetings, which provide a rich, engaging and stimulating environment.  Collaborating with peers, reading and reflecting upon posted assignments, sharing from personal experiences, moving beyond the learning management system to chat boards, web meetings, course blogs, building wikis, and other faculty- and peer-related exchanges promotes and supports the social experience while learning. A student learns through the thoughtful responses of their peers and faculty that either support or refute their position on subject matter. The non-traditional student may have an edge here as life and work experience provide rich material through which to work through course content. It adds an additional element of depth to the learning process.
Synchronous or Asynchronous Learning
How about both? Non-traditional students are independent adults who are self-possessed and aware of their own needs. They tend to be self-directed and motivated; they are not in the educational process to waste time and, in most cases, mom and dad are not footing the bill.
When designing a learning experience for the non-traditional student it’s important to keep flexibility top-of-mind, and so both asynchronous and synchronous models work. Webcasts, chat rooms, desktop audio, pre-recorded lectures, Skype, Facebook, cell phones and Twitter can all help with information sharing and delivering instruction, which serve to support the online experience.
These students want on-demand access to instruction but also need to form the social relationships that are important to the online learning environment that is active and collaborative which sustains an active learning environment and increases student success.
Organization and Feedback
The online learning experience requires structure, easy to follow instructions, links that are current and operational and timely feedback. The non-traditional student needs feedback that is useful, straightforward and applicable.
Students who have their time and attention engaged in other matters, such as family and work, appreciate quick responses to emails. Faculty teaching online should set aside time to respond to emails, review work submitted, address student issues and provide steady feedback to students on the work they have submitted. Feedback is an imperative aspect of coursework that student’s need and as they move from module to module, assignments tend to build on one another and feedback from one assignment informs the next one.
In doing this, faculty help to reduce feelings of isolation, confusion and address questions that students may have. In an online environment it is important that faculty anticipate questions in order to remain a step ahead of the needs of their students.
Faculty Need Support from Administration
The online community requires support, technical expertise and an infrastructure that addresses the needs of faculty and students. It can be frustrating and challenging for an institution to solve these issues, but it’s critical as it transforms programs and courses so that they meet online demand in a way that supports faculty and retains students.
As administrators walk the straight and narrow road of online learning with faculty, administrators will find that an ongoing evaluation of practices and policy in an inclusive manner will minimize major bumps along the way. What has worked for us so far in the online environment? What is our current data pointing toward? What are students asking for in an online environment? What do our faculty need?
Having faculty and students serve on distance education committees helps administrators make informed decisions, as do surveys, opinion polls and other resources that provide feedback opportunities for students and faculty. This kind of behavior has the potential to cultivate a university’s online community. If you are an administrator or faculty member ask yourself: Is there a faculty onboarding plan that is followed up with professional development each year for distance education? Is our institution conducting an annual review of the condition of online education? Is someone at the executive level championing the local online movement with more than words?
This will require the allocation of resources in order to crunch data, read through surveys, hold focus groups and write reports, but as education is a trust and this is what we are doing, then we need to attempt on our part to get it right so that our trust is earned. It is important to recall that our non-traditional students are counting on us to help them build a better life.
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 Christensen, Clayton M. Horn, Michael B., Caldera, Louis, Soares, Louis. 2011. Disrupting college: Howdisruptive innovation can deliver quality and affordability to postsecondary education. The Center for American Progress. (p 3)
 Jinkens, Robert C. 2009. Non-traditional students: Who are they? College Student Journal, 43(4): 979-87. (p 980)
 Ivankova, Natalia V., Stick Sheldon L. 2005. Collegiality and community-building as a means for sustaining student persistence in the computer-mediated asynchronous learning environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(3): 1-18. (p 10-11)
 Zhang, Dongsong. 2005. Interactive multimedia-based-e-learning: A study of effectiveness. American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3): 149 – 62. (p 150)
Author Perspective: Educator