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A Second Look at Success Tools for Online Students

The EvoLLLution | A Second Look at Success Tools for Online Students
When expanding access to online programming, it’s critical that leaders invest in tools designed to support student retention and success.
I can always tell when my college colleagues have returned from conferences recently by the uptick in their excitement about educational technology. The latest buzz is about the educational technology resources that abound for online learning students at community colleges in California. At the June 2015 Online Teaching Conference, California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative (CCCOEI) leaders unveiled the availability of technology tools that hold promise to increase student success. Some of these tools include a common course management system, online tutoring services, a readiness assessment and readiness tutorials.

The CCCOEI is a multi-year effort funded by the state of California that is leveraging online learning to address student success in terms of associate degree completion and transfer to four-year universities. In addition to providing success tools specifically geared for online students, the CCCOEI is addressing online course design standards with its development and adoption of the OEI Course Design Rubric along with targeted faculty development training. The Public Policy Institute of California research study report released in 2015, “Successful Online Courses in California’s Community Colleges” commends the efforts of the CCCOEI for having “actively sought to incorporate current best practices into its online learning program.”

With any tool, effectiveness depends largely on the tool’s appropriateness for the task and the environment in which it is used. Sometimes, in our haste to find quick tech solutions to complex problems, we risk overlooking unintended consequences. And, if the tools are difficult to use, require a steep learning curve, require dedicated staffing for maintenance and support, require extensive training,  or are not adaptable, then they simply won’t be used or at least not used effectively or efficiently.

In order for California community colleges to take full advantage of CCCOEI opportunities, care must be taken to ensure that the student success tools match the unique needs and resources of each college prior to adoption. Additionally, college leaders must provide faculty with sufficient guidance and support to fully integrate the success tools with their instruction.

For example, let’s take a second look at the common course management system that CCCOEI has adopted for California community colleges, Canvas from Instructure. Most likely, students who must take online classes from several different colleges in order to cobble together a complete degree will find it simpler and more comfortable to use a single course management system instead of several different ones. However, unless all instructors use Canvas in similar (or standardized) ways, the benefits of a common course management system may be negated. In and of itself, the CCCOEI’s support for Canvas is not a panacea to address online course quality but the decision-making process conducted by each college to adopt Canvas can be a catalyst for faculty to revisit online course design and delivery standards of quality.

CCCOEI’s system-wide license for a mobile-friendly online tutoring platform from Link Systems International Inc. (LSI) makes it available at no cost for California community colleges to use. Furthermore, CCCOEI has negotiated discounted pricing for California community colleges to obtain the online tutoring services of LSI called NetTutor. Pilot colleges in the CCCOEI are eligible for these services at no cost. The services include 24/7 live online tutoring, student essay review, and asynchronous tutoring options. However, generic online tutoring services, per se, are not going to improve success rates among students enrolled in online classes. In order to be most effective and scalable, online tutoring services must match the needs of their customers–students and faculty. Tutoring can be tailored to individual students more easily when the service provides a systematic and streamlined way for faculty to share their expectations of student learning with each tutor in the form of grading rubrics, syllabus, and the required writing style guide.

And, faculty must fully embrace a college’s online tutoring efforts in order for students to actually access such services routinely. Without faculty embedding reminders and links about online tutoring services, the services are likely to be underutilized. Faculty will want to know about the accuracy of the tutoring that is provided, the competence of the tutors, and the perceptions of students about the service. Colleges will need to provide faculty with compelling evidence that encouraging their students to use online tutoring services is worth the effort.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California’s 2014 report titled “Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges,” the percentage of students who passed online courses was 10 percentage points lower than the percent success rate in courses held on campus for California community colleges in 2012. In hopes of addressing the low success rates of students in online classes, CCCOEI is providing colleges with a student readiness assessment tool and readiness tutorials at no cost starting in the fall of 2015. Such tools are most effective when faculty employ them proactively and prescriptively rather than as screening tools. The readiness assessment tool and readiness tutorials hold little meaning or value to online students when provided out of context of the classes they are taking. Depending on the discipline of the course, faculty will need to make intentional and informed decisions about when and where to direct students to selected readiness tutorials, either within the course site or external to the course site.

College leaders can enhance the success of students in online classes by actively supporting faculty in their efforts to leverage educational technology tools.

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California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative (2014) “OEI Course Design Rubric”

Christian, D. (2013) “How Technological Advances Will Reshape the Online Student Experience in 10 Years”

Public Policy Institute of California (2014) “Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges”

Public Policy Institute of California (2015) “Successful Online Courses in California’s Community Colleges”

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