As colleges and universities continue to invest in and expand the number of online courses and degree programs they offer, retaining online students is an area of focus for college faculty and administrators. There is a variety of ways that colleges can keep their online students.
Make it easy for students to get started. From the moment students access an online course, they should be clear on how to get started and what they need to do. This information could be provided in a welcome message often found in a News or Announcements area located within your learning management system (LMS). If students are confused on how to navigate their course or what the course requirements are, they often become frustrated, which can negatively affect their engagement with the content, the instructor, and other students.
Promote consistency in course design and navigation. Survey results from our online education students reveal that they appreciate some consistency and standardization when taking online classes. Taking courses that are more consistent in design and navigation often allows students to focus more on course content and less on figuring out how to navigate a course. Having templates, such as an online course syllabus template and a course shell template, can aid faculty when they are designing and developing their classes.
Provide feedback that allows students to improve performance. Students want and appreciate feedback on their work. In serving as the director of online education at my institution, one of the major complaints I hear from online students is that they turn in assignments or projects or takes quizzes and exams but don't receive any feedback from their instructors. Students may see a final score or grade posted in the LMS, but they don't know why they received the score or maybe had points deducted. This feedback can be especially helpful when it allows students to resubmit their work and improve their performance.
Promote instructor presence. Having an instructor who is engaged and present with online students can help students stay more connected with the class and increase the likelihood that they will complete the course. Instructors can develop and show their presence in online courses by responding to student questions in an appropriate time frame, regularly participating in online discussions, providing timely and meaningful feedback on course assignments, and sharing regular course updates to help keep students on track.
Have teachers provide more instruction. Additional survey results from our online students reveal that they become frustrated when online instructors simply have them read a textbook chapter or research articles and then take a quiz or exam on the material. Students often want to see and hear their instructor and want to know the instructor's views, insights, and opinions on course content. After all, the instructor is the expert and, as students often point out, is getting paid to teach the class.
Make academic advising a priority. Providing strong academic advising services to students in online programs can help keep them on track and also improve retention rates. Some online programs hire full-time academic advisors, some leave the advising responsibilities to the program director, and some assign program faculty as academic advisors. Contact between advisor and student should occur regularly (e.g., every semester) and provide students with information on topics such as registering for courses and progressing toward completing their degree.
Have more support and touch points for older students. The research is a bit mixed on this, but some studies suggest that older students need more support services as they enter and progress through an online degree program. Older students may be anxious about starting school again, especially if it has been many years since they last were students. Older students may also be less familiar with and even fearful of using technologies required for online learning. So providing additional resources for older students and having more contact or touch points with them could have a positive impact on retention.
Implement higher admissions standards. Admission requirements for online degree programs can vary greatly. Students may have to achieve a minimum score on a standardized exam, have completed a previous degree, compose and submit an essay, or show that they have certain previous work experience prior to being considered for admission to a program they are interested in. Increasing or expanding current admission standards and requirements can be a way to help ensure high-quality students are entering a program and that students are a good fit for the program.
Ease re-enrollment. There are a variety of reasons students may need to take a break from school for a semester or two. These may include illness, a career change, a move, caring for an aging parent, and so on. Programs should strive to have processes and procedures in place that are not complicated and onerous for students, so that re-enrolling in a degree program is smooth and seamless. This will decrease the chances a student will be frustrated trying to re-enroll in a program and decide not to return to school.
Keep students connected with the institution. At times, being an online learner can be an isolating experience. However, programs can take steps to help online learners feel like they are more connected to their institution. Two ideas for achieving this are creating program social media groups (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn) that include current students as well as alumni of individual degree programs, and livestreaming campus events such as distinguished speakers presenting on campus; commencement ceremonies; and even music, theatre, or athletic events.
Employ early alert systems. It is becoming more common for institutions to utilize early alert systems in online courses and programs. At the course level, this may include identifying and reaching out to students who fail to log in to their online course in the first few days or receive a low score on a course assignment. At the program level, this may include identifying and reaching out to students who are not making adequate progress in regards to completing their degree. Whether at the course or program level, identifying students who need help may increase the likelihood they receive it.
Provide orientations. Orientations are an excellent way for instructors and program personnel to share important and relevant information with their students. Course orientations may include an introduction from the faculty member, information on an institution's LMS, a review of the course syllabus, netiquette guidelines, university policies, and workload expectations. Program orientations may include information on registration, financial aid, advising, the curriculum, progress through the degree, and graduation requirements.
Provide strong technical support services. Students today are often referred to as digital natives. In a nutshell, this means they have been surrounded by and using technology most of their lives. However, as many online educators have learned, sometimes even today's students struggle with technology, whether it is learning to navigate an LMS or creating video projects for class. Due to family and work commitments, online learners are often engaged in their courses in the evenings and on weekends, so having technology support available during these times can help them succeed.
Brian Udermann will offer the online seminar “Practical Strategies to Improve Student Retention in Online Courses” on Tuesday, August 22. Learn more at: http://bit.ly/2udSSrl.
Brian Udermann is the director of online education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.