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Support Services For Online Learners to Build Retention and Student Success

As distance learning (DL) becomes a more popular and accessible mode of educating students, adult education programs are seeking innovative ways to support and engage their DL students and create modes of accessibility for students in rural or outlying adult education programs. Some DL concepts also include strategies and options for providing online support services. Join LINCS on April 24th and 25th for an asynchronous interview with Andrea Guerrero,  PhD., Director for the Illinois Online Network, will engage in  program administrators, support staff, and instructors with a sound rationale for addressing the “how to” questions when developing strategies to implement support services for their DL students. Some examples of support services to be discussed include:

  • creating online job fairs,
  • facilitating career and academic advising using web conferencing software,
  • recording or live streaming special events and guest speakers, and
  • online tutoring sessions.

I hope you join the discussion here, starting at 8:30 a.m tomorrow morning,  share your questions, comments, and ideas... and mostly, walk away with ideas about how to integrate support services for your distance learning programs. 

Sincerely, 
Kathy Tracey

 

Comments

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Colleagues, 

Much of our discussions in online learning relates to the classroom instructional experience, the role of the instructor, and ensuring your practices for student placement and orientation are based on best practices. Yet we know students need to be connected to both the institution AND the classroom to persist. As distance learning options are required as a part of WIOA implementation, programs need to develop strategies to provide support services online to these distance learning students.

Dr. Andrea GuerreroDirector of the Illinois Online Network will dive into the discussion about student support services for online learners; identify how online student support services are connected to student retention; and help program administrators develop a plan for implementing distance learning support services.

Examples of support services discussed include, but are not limited to, exploring the role of the educator, creating online job fairs, facilitating  career and academic advising using web conferencing software, recording or live streaming special events and guest speakers, and implementing online tutoring sessions. While these activities are cost effective to implement, providing a sound rationale and addressing ‘how to’ questions will help program administrators, support staff, and instructors develop strategies to implement these services with their DL students.

To get started, let’s start with an overview of trends in online learning. One of the primary goals of adult education is to ensure our learners have the skills they need to enter and succeed in the workforce or postsecondary education. In addition to preparing adult learners to succeed academically, what are the technical skills learners need to possess? And what does the future of online learning look like?  

Glenda Rose's picture
One hundred

One of the things that I have noticed is that teachers sometimes spend too much time on learning a specific program instead of teaching the critical thinking and problem-solving skills behind using any new program.  Has anybody ever been frustrated when a product you know very well suddenly changes the user interface?  I know I have.  Teaching students how to effectively do a Google search, for example, or decide if an automated translation is correct is more important than teaching them how to make text BOLD in one program.  Unfortunately, to accomplish this, the teacher needs to be able to model, do "think-alouds," and ask guiding questions, and some of our teachers are equally, if not more, challenges as our learners.

Applying the ISTE Standards for Students and Standards for Educators may be a good place to start since they focus on the "why" and "how" behind using technology rather than the software or hardware in and of itself.

Thanks for asking a great question.

Glenda

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

Glenda,

Yes, I think the standards are noteworthy. However, in student support in an online context, I would argue that technology skills and navigating systems (the actual technology being used) are needed to get the students and teachers to have the opportunity to work in the standards. I would suggest using the standards as a framework, in the context of student support, there needs to be scaffolding or upskilling the learner so they can adapt to using different web-based resources.

Thanks for your comment!

Andrea

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

Most teachers teach as they were taught, and most universities are still offering support services in the way they historically have. However, quality education and efficacy in the delivery of the online programs are essential to the continued growth and sustainability of not only academic degree programs, but to professional development, certificates, and community interest courses. As programs diversify their portfolios, support services will be needed to assist in retention and attracting learners.

Technical skills for adult learners will need to be taught. There is an inherent assumption that students come to us with academic and work skills in the areas of technology; however, this is a poor assumption. Daily use of technology does not always match the classroom skills, like navigating the LMS. I like to compare it to writing. There is casual writing for quick family notes, tasks, or even text messaging, and then there is academic writing that requires proper punctuation, word choice, tone, and so on. We know how to write or use technology but when we change audiences or forms from casual use to academic or workplace use, do we have to be taught? Digital literacy combined with strong reading and writing skills will be necessary. Students have to learn to self-regulate and self-manage with scaffold supports as needed. Also, the individual will need to be able to practice persistence along with problem-solving and time management.

As for the institution, current statistics support the need to examine, grow, or even re-imagine institutional online programs. Sixty-eight percent of public institution students are enrolled in at least one distance education course. Despite overall higher education enrollments being down since 2012 and online courses have been on the rise. Students enrolled in at least one distance education course nationwide account for 30 percent of all higher education enrollments as of fall 2015. In the first part of the decade, it was being predicted that by 2020 there would be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning and a transition to blended learning environments. I think the Perkins act revisions (https://cte.ed.gov/legislation/perkins-v) and adult education expectations for moving students into postsecondary education will only fuel the acceleration of this trend and has an opportunity to set a standard for the supports students not only get but need.  

The future of online learning is student-centered, robust, cost-effective, and will require the educational system to push outside its standard systems of operations. It will not only be rewarding in its potential but challenging in ways we have yet to imagine.

 
Jackie Saindon's picture
First

I'm engaged in two community adult ed organizations.  One is a formal and grant funded non-profit and one a totally volunteer program that takes place in our regional library.  The library group, Everyday Readers, focused on native speaking non-readers, but recently we've had adult ESL students join our group.  It's interesting to see the two groups interacting and learning with each other.  More later as I get into the discussions.

 

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Hi all,
As I reflect on these comments, I see the common theme of change and with the changes in education, the one common denominator is that our students need us to be prepared to lead. Our ability to adjust to trends is critical. I have also been frustrated with change. There are times when I don't want to learn more...but then I take a deep breath and move forward.

So what does all of this mean for student retention? As technology is advancing and online programs are becoming an expected component of adult education programs, what do we know about student retention?

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

First where is online education? A summary report I recently read in Inside Higher Ed, showed an increase in 4-year exclusively online student enrollments from 2016 to 2017 to be .7 percent. But students who are taking on-ground courses combined with online courses increased by 2 percent.  According to the NCES report, 2-year public institutions have 5.1 percent of their students in exclusively online programs, and 7.7 percent enrolled in some but not all online courses. I think we will continue to see this trend increase as students need more flexible options in attending education courses. I think in adult education opening up to have online education allows for flexible delivery systems that are student-centered, allowing those who may not have the opportunity to attend a brick and mortar location an opportunity to continue their education.

As for retention, there is not a magic bullet. Working in public education for the past 19 years often the response in the education community is to put a program in place. I don’t believe this is always necessary. Bootcamps, calls to accountability and success courses have a place, but they don’t change the core of how business is being done, especially for the online learner who is often a non-traditional student and whose profile does not necessarily fit that of the on-campus student.

How online leaders and instructors talk about this non-traditional online student and online learning can impact the quality of services provided and perception of need. While the needs of the adult or non-traditional student are not identical to traditional-aged residential students don’t they warrant advising, tutoring, career counseling, wellness programming like other traditional students? Penn State has adopted this self-talk program where the commitment to online learners is the same as “real” students.  To achieve quality it is not just adding another duty to staff and faculty, it requires thought and intention. Furthermore, online is another way to offer adult programs to extend the reach to students who may not be accessing these resources. The approach needs to be complementary to on-ground services, and often they are integrated. Any student should have access to both methods of support. They are not isolated programs.

 
David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hello Andrea,

I am not aware of any research in adult basic skills education that looks at retention and completion of courses for pure distance learning students as compared with blended learning students. I am often asked if a blended model leads to higher persistence/retention and/or completion. Is there research in higher education that suggests that a greater percentage of adult learners enrolled in college online courses persist and complete than do pure distance learners in post-secondary courses? Could you provide links to these studies? If evidence suggests that blended models -- with their face-to-face component -- lead to better retention, is there research evidence that suggests what the supports are that are provided in the face-to-face component that account for the higher retention and completion rates?  Thanks.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating technology and Program Management groups

 

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Sorry, my question should have read: "Is there research in higher education that suggests that a greater percentage of adult learners enrolled in blended college courses persist and complete than do those in pure distance education post-secondary courses?

David J. Rosen

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

David,

I will search but off hand, I don't have articles specifically on Blended Learning beyond an instructional practice. Let me see if I am reading your question correctly: if you mean by blended learning taking the same class/course where there are some online components and other components on the ground for the same course.

The research typically splits, as does the reporting I referred too, between fully online enrolled with an online program, online and on-ground enrolled (meaning one course online, another on-ground) where the enrollment typically counts as on-ground enrolled, and fully on-ground enrolled. 

Great question.

Andrea

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hello Andrea,

Some define a blended learning course as a combination of face-to-face and online learning. I prefer to describe that as a hybrid course, and to reserve for "blended learning" a course model that integrates what happens in the online component with the face-to-face (on the ground) component. However, I would welcome seeing research that was done using either of these definitions of blended learning and comparing the retention and completion rates of adult learners in these models with pure distance learning models.  Thanks for any light you can shed on this from research.

David j. Rosen

 

JenVanek's picture
One hundred

Hi David 

There are a few member states in the IDEAL Consortium that have reported their blended/hybrid students do better than those students who either study solely at a distance or those who study solely in person. I think that MN, AZ, and TX all have data suggesting this.  

Jen

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Hi Jen, 

I am aware that the current data suggests that students engaged in blended learning have higher levels of retention, but I wonder if that is because the support services are provided in the 'on ground' network and not available to distance learning students. My point here is that we can't truly measure the differences in attrition when we are not comparing similar points. 

  • Does a blended learning student have access to tutoring and the distance learning student does not? 
  • Does a blended learning student have access to social integration points such as special events and the distance learning does not have the same support? 

These are critical questions to ask and until we consider these questions, students who have access to support services are always going to have higher retention. 

Kathy 

 

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Kathy, Andrea, Jen or others,

Do you know of any examples of distance education programs that provide the kinds of support services that face-to-face and blended learning programs provide, and if so which services? Advising? Counseling (if so, what kinds of counseling services are provided at a distance?) job-placement and/or retention services? Other services?

Thanks.

David J. Rosen

 

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

David and all, 
I am not aware of adult education programs that are effective models of online student support. The models in higher education include Purdue University Global. Notice they have support teams for mentoring and student support as it relates to the entire enrollment and instructional process. If you look at Colorado Community Colleges Online,you can find information on how to enroll, even their library with resources at the students fingertips. 

Moving on to Arizona State Online, you see a similar approach. My point here is that student can access more than their online course - they can access libraries, mentors /instructional support, enrollment information, and a wealth of support at their fingertips and it extends beyond the single online course. 

When these resources are included in the online experience, student retention increases. We need to think beyond offering an online course, or courses, to the entire spectrum of services. 

Kathy 

 

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

Hello Jackie! Yes, ELL has some added layers as approaches may need more scaffolding than what I was planning to address today. Although I have an ELL experience at the K12 through Graduate and professional language schools, in both on-ground and online environments, it isn't the exclusive focus on this more generalized conversation. I will be mindful to attempt to add in information on this topic of supports where I can.

For starters, in terms of retention, I would make sure that the program placement system is working in that the advisors are aware of some ELL basics and an internal communication system is set up to help identify and support the ELL participant immediately. Also, knowing your local partnerships that can offer support or understand your populations need to help focus and identify supports for your online ELL program population.

 Thank you for participating, I look forward to your experience and comments to enrich this discussion!

Andrea

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

As I read through these comments and responses, I understand that we, as practioners, need to fully integrate a level of support that goes beyond instruction, but includes a variety of additional resources such as academic counseling, career counseling, tutoring, and wellness. Can you provide more details and insight into what this might look like?

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

Student support in an online environment does circle back to the faculty and staff. Research repeatedly demonstrates student support starts in the classroom through instruction. The experience of an online teacher can impact the quality or lack of quality of the course, but it is not isolated just to time teaching online, but experiences as an online learner and formalized training offered by the institution to its faculty. In the early 2000s, Susan Crichton research uncovered that experiential learning of online educators, specifically in an online environment,  can successfully help in changing successfully changing teaching practices for the online setting. When I connect those findings to Vincent Tinto’s work on student retention and the need for the relationship, which can be developed with feedback and support, the instructor is at the center. They are the center for the student, as in that instructor is the point of contact and the representation of our institutions, programs, and daily work. In an online environment, that teacher often becomes “the voice” so they need to know not just the content but how to engage students or connect them to the campus.

I do want to note that highly qualified faculty alone does not guarantee high-quality instruction, but effective professional development programs may help to ensure that faculty at all levels deliver higher quality instruction under circumstances riddled with variables.

Moreover, as the academic labor force changes its important to address the contingent faculty’s role and training. What does the socialization look like for online faculty? How can the contingent faculty be trained on student-centered instruction versus trial by fire, ‘on the job,' learning that takes place through personal experience as the staff tries out approaches to student learning. Illinois Online Network offers a systemized online teaching program which connects the faculty to the learning context and faculty need. Also, having a teacher experience taking an online course provides them a context to draw upon from the student's point of view. Other approaches could be using teacher knowledge of Universal Design not only to reach out with learners with disabilities but also for those students who are relying more and more on their mobile device for connectivity to the online classroom. Having an online learning model experience as a faculty will assist in establishing a baseline or standard for practice.

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

David,
You possibly a great question when it comes to retention between students enrolled in blended versus at a distance learning. My hypothesis is that programs that have support services integrated into their program have higher retention rates. Most programs don't have fully online support services, therefore there is an impact on student attrition.

I believe blended learning has higher retention because there are traditional support services in place and distance learning often lacks this support and therefore has higher attrition.

The question might be posted as what support systems improve retention for solely at a distance learner.

Thoughts?

Kathy

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

David, I am going to keep a list here as I search for some reference points on blended learning regarding your specific question. 

The Learning House (2015) and Aslanian Market Research study "Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences," page 8, Finding #9 has a brief paragraph about student preference https://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/OnlineCollegeStudents2015.pdf

This article by Grahm, Woodfield, and Buckley Harrison (2013) in The Internet and Higher Education Journal is on institutional adoption of blended learning.  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1096751612000607

This is an older article also in The Internet and Higher Education Journal (2007) by Bliuc, Goodyard, and Ellis on blended learning in higher education, it reviews blended learning research. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1096751607000516

 

I will keep looking, but I am off to teach class! - Andrea

S Jones's picture
One hundred

Creating connections and persistence online is such a challenge!   I provide face to face support and help lots of students in online courses and ... some of the courses are structured really well and the students cruise along in them.   Other courses are technically hard to navigate, and ... sometimes I'm just not sure what the difference is.   (I'm going to an Illinois get together Friday about online ed and maybe will learn more...) 

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Colleagues, 

To recap today's discussions, we really highlighted the role of instruction on student support and briefly touched on the difference in blended versus distance learning. I hope you have a chance to review the full day's conversations. 

I want to share a LINCS Resource, Improving Adult LIteracy Instruction: Supporting Learning and Motivation which describes principles of effective instruction to guide those who design and administer adult literacy programs and courses. The guide also explores ways to motivate learners to persist in their studies, which is crucial given the thousands of hours of study and practice required to become proficient. The booklet concludes with a look at technologies that show promise for supporting individual learners and freeing busy adults from having to be in a particular place in order to practice their literacy skills.

Tomorrow, we will continue our conversation on more detailed examples of support for at a distance learners. Feel free to post questions, comments and resources. 

Regards, 
Kathy Tracey

 
Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Yesterday, we focused on trends in online learning and the need for professional development to prepare educators for this changing landscape. We also started talking about how the educator's digital skills were an essential component of student retention.

I would like to start today's discussion focusing on student support services for at a distance learners. What does this look like?

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

I think it’s important that as leaders we realize that support services are not often praised by students and the presence of services is not generally appreciated, but when support services are not offered the absence is noticed.

In on-ground learning, two generalized systems of support are academic or non-academic. Academic support looking as what assist learners in learning- content, assessment, managing workload, helping learners become independent; Non-academic support is helping learners retain interest and providing assistance in social integration. This is often fractionalized. So, as far back as 1999, it was suggested that online learners have an anchor or one point of contact for all services. Some questions to ask are:

  • What is the day-to-day learner support of your institution or program? Is there an immediate response or feedback? Is there counseling and advice available? How is it delivered?

  • What do student induction and learner integration look like? Are there study skills development? Are programs offered over the weekend or during non-traditional university business hours? What is the tutoring system? Is technology integrated? Do students know how to use technology?

  • Are faculty and staff aware of the online student support services? How are we communicating these services to faculty and staff? How are faculty and staff reinforcing the message to students about available services?

Some student support services offered in the traditional on-ground program that need to also have an online component include academic tutoring; transition services for moving into postsecondary academic courses or pathways; information for students regarding apprenticeships; assistance with completing financial aid applications if they are transitioning to a 2-year or 4-year program; counseling services to improve students’ financial and economic literacy; assistance career services; and job fairs.

Also, support services are rethinking about counseling services, exposure to cultural events, academic/mentoring programs; grand aid, or those youth who were homeless or aged out of foster care and enrolled in online programs. All the while making sure your faculty and staff are aware of an internal referral system, what supports are offered to students, and where to locate those supports. And then lastly, how are those services communicated to all parties and how what does that look like? It’s not just about having the resources, it is also about being able to access the resources.

Just one more note on transition services. There are transition services for persistence and completion into post-secondary but what about for those students who are adapting to online schooling who may be limited in digital literacy compounded with academic challenges. Are these students being dismissed as “not the right fit” for online education or are we producing equity through student service programming? If we are not sure how are we measuring equity or how are we going to measure equity as an institution? Also, is there student support training for our faculty and staff to assist with recognizing student challenges in the online environment.

 
Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

You talk about on ground versus online and the idea that students aren't really selecting programs based on these services, but their attrition rate may be due to the lack of these services.
So, how does an administrator unpack this entire conversation? Where is their starting point?

Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

Understanding why your program is going online needs to be defined, and go beyond the answer "it's mandated" or "that is what will generate revenues". Think of the pros and cons of going online. From that list what are things you can control as an institution, leader, or faculty/staff? Start to really look at the purpose of moving online. Also, long-term planning such as costs, supports, training, and institutional culture. Here are some additional basics questions to ask:

  • Is it the extend the capacity of online curriculum beyond the physical campus?

  • Is it to respond to student request for online experiences before they graduate?

  • Is to the build upon the already existing online programs or infrastructure?

A significant factor in online student support is institutional commitment beyond verbal recognition that a change needs to be made. Plan to invest in online learning. It is different and needs different resources. What resources to do you have to use and are these long-term resources?  How can I make decisions for the online program? What is the process going to be for staff, student, and faculty feedback? How will this impact special populations? How will accessibility not just to services but within the courses be addressed? 

Just like for on-ground programming Thinking of 1-2 year goals, midrange 3-5 year goals, and long-term goals. I like using the FIRRST method. Cavanagh and Thompson explain this method in the context of eLearning  in “Leading and Managing e-Learning” (https://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319617794) following this pattern of thought:

Follow the Energy

Invent the Future

Research and Make a Decision

Recognize Resource Limitations

Solve the big problems

Take action

All of this while considering your programs mission, students needs, and work culture! It can be so daunting but addressing and reflection on student supports can make the experience a positive one for your students, staff, and faculty!

 
Andrea Guerrero's picture
Ten

Thank you all for your input and comments. I wanted to emphasize the point that student retention connects to the professional development of instructors, especially when we are working in online environments. Regardless of trends and enrollment needs, it is paramount to note that instructors are the crucial variable for student engagement and the changing role of the online teacher or professor.

As leaders and emerging leaders in online education, it is important to reflect on how are we or the institution improving the teaching profession and how are we as institutional leaders supporting faculty in moving from the ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’. In adult education with online initiatives, the growth of adult learning online has the potential to outreach higher education growth. I would propose to look at the higher education model so upon implementation into the adult education programs a proactive approach can anticipate the challenges in online learning to create nimble systems that are not dependent upon reactionary services- leading to increased costs or underfunded programming.

For example, one of the many challenges is re-thinking the device, and how it was implemented in most k12 and post-secondary institutions; heck, even the workplace. Its defining digital fluency within individual contexts. That is, what is digital fluency (not just knowing how to use the device)- that is, are we integrating technology or leveraging tech in a meaningful way that is not distracting to the learning. To do this we need to upskill our teachers in technology while increasing their knowledge in heutagogy and andragogy for online learning. The context of online learning is different from the on-ground classroom and this needs to be respected and acted upon versus appreciated and admired--as professional educators, we need to learn how to effectively translate our on-ground skills to online for design, assessment, application of learning theory, and how we build relationships. A systematic plan, including professional development, needs to be in place to support our staff, which in turn will support the students.

As for students, we need to recognize not all students are ready for online learning, but that doesn’t mean they never will be. Student support services can assist with helping students but I think incorporating a self-reflection prior to entering an online program will help as well. Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina has a great free tool to use to measure student readiness https://free.elearnready.com/ and they are currently developing a faculty self-evaluation as well. I think having all parties be reflective on their readiness for online learning can assist with building a strong online program upfront.

 

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