How to manage barriers to online education programs

By Sarah Langmead, Assistant Editor

A majority of higher-education institutions consider online education programs crucial to their long-term success, according to a recent study from Education Sector.

The study also examined key challenges in online education and explained how educators could learn from one successful college system’s impressive online student retention numbers.

The Calling for Success: Online Retention Rates Get Boost From Personal Outreach study closely aligns with another recent report, Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States, compiled by Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson, and Sloan-C. This 10th annual report about the state of online education programs is based on survey data collected and analyzed by Babson and the College Board from more than 2,800 colleges and universities.

The future of online education programs

The survey found that 69.1 percent of institutions considered online education programs a critical piece of their long-term academic strategies. The number of students signing up for online learning opportunities continues to surge, having increased by 570,000 students in 2012 to a total of 6.7 million students. At least 32 percent of students take an online course during their college careers.

Though U.S. students are evidently attracted to online learning, the survey found that 44.6 percent of faculty believe teaching an online course takes more time and effort than a traditional course. Still, 77 percent of faculty said online learning is comparable to face-to-face learning.

Based on the facts and figures, it would appear that most colleges are eager to participate in the online learning movement, yet the survey found that only 30.2 percent of officials believed their faculty accepted the value and legitimacy of online education programs. Many of these instructors are concerned with the numerous barriers that online education presents.

Perhaps the most common barrier to online learning’s widespread success is student retention. Though many students initially are attracted to online education programs, some fail to complete assignments on time and follow course structure. Just more than 80 percent of officials cited a lack of discipline as a major problem area in online learning.

If students are signing up for online courses and not completing them, how can colleges improve student retention rates for online courses?

The University System of Georgia (USG) might have some answers.

Improving online outcomes

USG runs its online courses through eCore, a program that recruits highly qualified faculty members from universities within its system to teach online courses.

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Many students who sign up for classes through eCore are nontraditional students: older than 22, with family responsibilities and job commitments. A common misconception held by many is that online courses will be simplified versions of traditional face-to-face courses, and students who hold this belief quickly begin to struggle to keep up with the rigor of online curriculum.

“The lack of face-to-face accountability—and disapproving professor looks—requires online students to demonstrate more initiative and strong time management skills,” said Mandy Zatynski in EducationSector’s latest ES Select. “And because half of eCore’s students are 25 years or older, chances are school work is one chore on a long list of things to do—and thus, easy to push to the bottom if work or family lives demand more time.”

eCore aimed to confront such barriers head-on, establishing a student success team in 2007 to target at-risk students and aid them in their online experience. The 14-member team mostly consists of full-time university employees who, every week, are alerted by course professors regarding which students are at risk based on poor scores or failure to attend online discussion boards. Team members contact the at-risk students and connect them with tutors and counselors.

Zatynski explained that team members can make upwards of 600 calls a day from the start of a course until midterm exam week.

“This semester, team members made 1,071 phone calls and sent 1,126 eMails to students who hadn’t logged in by day three,” she said. “The primary reason students hadn’t shown up? They couldn’t find or didn’t know their password.”

The student success team targets problems early, and remedies them with equal urgency. Team members understand that some students need more reminders and a greater push than others to succeed in online courses, and they intend to help them do so.

Since its formation, eCore’s student success team has been extremely effective in improving online student retention rates. In 2012, online retention rates reached 83 percent for all of USG’s campuses—an 11-percent increase from the previous year.

“At the University of West Georgia, where the student success team was launched six years ago, rates are an impressive 92 percent, up from 68 percent in 2007,” said Zatynski. “That campus also saw online course retention rates inch ahead of those of face-to-face courses (92 percent to 91 percent, respectively) for the first time this past summer.”

Though online retention rates continue to be a problem in the U.S., colleges and universities could benefit from USG’s student success team’s example.

The impact of MOOCs

Outside of retention rates, the EducationSector survey also asked academic officials about their perspectives on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which made a staggering impact on the higher-ed world in 2012.

Regarding the recent popularity spike for MOOCs, the survey found that most college officials (55.4 percent) remain undecided about whether they will participate in the movement. A mere 2.6 percent of the colleges and universities surveyed were currently offering MOOCs, while 9.4 percent were in MOOC planning stages. Almost 33 percent of schools reported having no plans for implementing MOOCs.

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