When we think of solutions for supporting student retention and engagement, we tend to think of strategies that employ the use of sophisticated technologies, learning management systems, and/or software that are usually informed by equally sophisticated data mining methods such as Purdue's Signals project, University of Phoenix's Learning Genome Project and nudge analytic. While the role action analytic, advanced technologies and 'intelligent' LMS play in increasing student retention is highly critical and cannot be ignored, these initiatives also require a lot of resources and time to develop.
What about the here and now?
As proven by the University of Illinois at Springfield, and Dunlap and Lowenthal of the University of Colorado, Denver, strategies that involve interpersonal interaction can also greatly support student engagement and retention. By effectively enhancing students' sense of connection with their instructors and courses, students are more likely to be motivated and stay motivated. The good news is these strategies harness the resources that most people already have.
In a recent Educause Quarterly Magazine article, Dunlap and Lowenthal share communication strategies for establishing personal one-on-one relationships between online students and faculty. Instead of using high-tech software or sophisticated learning platform systems, Dunlap focuses on low-technology devices that almost all faculty and students now have at their disposal - telephone and email.
A brief phone conversation at the start of the course can go a very long way in establishing a sense of connection and building a foundation for trust, Dunlap explains. This is because a phone conversation about the course usually ends up being a very individualized discussion where students talk about work and families. Through this conversation, instructors might be alerted to issues that might affect the student's performance in the course such as hectic travel schedule, family or job responsibilities. Consequently, it allows instructors to preamp possible distractions and disruptions to the student's progress in the course. A phone conversation also allows the instructor to establish him or herself as a reliable source of feedback and support.
Establishing ongoing, one-on-on communication throughout the course is not an easy feat and may not be practical for some instructors due to their busy schedules. However, this type of support is often critical to students' success. Furthermore, the benefits are clear - opening the gates of communication enhances student retention in the course because it allows instructors to address individual student needs and provide individualized feedback. As Dunlap has discovered, never underestimate the power of building relationships between faculty and students, which can be achieved by using even the most simple and mundane of technologies.
Faculty and staff at the University of Illinois Online program would likely agree with professor Dunlap. In another article in the Educause Quarterly Magazine, the University of Springfield attribute their high retention and complete rates (equivalent to and sometimes even exceed those in their corollary on-campus degree programs) in the online degree programs to the strong relationship among staff, faculty and students.
Program coordinators & peer mentors
In order to build trust and support students, UIS encourages the use of program coordinators in each degree program. Program coordinators play a crucial role in students' success by keeping track of their schedules and progress towards degree completion and intervene when they think the student's progress might be in jeopardy. They support students who face challenges in their courses and advocate for them on administrative and bureaucratic matters.
In addition to program coordinators, UIS also implemented an online peer-mentoring program in which experienced online students act as role models. They answer questions about the course and facilitate discussions. The whole point of UIS mentoring program is for less experienced students to observe and hopefully, model after the behavior of successful online students. This strategy has proven to be effective. In a project to study the effects of peer mentors on student retention, UIS with the partnership of seven other Illinois community colleges, discovered that the non-completion rate in the courses studied was reduced and more importantly, student success rate improved.
As Dunlap and Lowenthal, along with UIS have exemplified, some of the most effective strategies do not always involve complex equations, super-advanced technologies and LMS.