Student Retention | Feature

Distance Education Reaches Out

An Iowa community college is taking a four-pronged approach to using technology as a retention-boosting tool for its expanding distance learning program.

With 30 percent of its students enrolled in at least one online course, Iowa Valley Community College District has seen its distance-learning component grow significantly over the last few years. Unlike traditional students, those geographically dispersed learners pose new challenges that the school wasn't equipped to manage. With few of them ever setting foot on campus, for example, tracking progress and communicating with distance learners can be difficult at best.

"Our distance learning has grown by leaps and bounds, both in terms of our offerings and in the number of students who are taking non-traditional courses," said Chris Russell, chief academic officer for the Iowa Valley Community College District, which operates campuses in Iowa Falls and Marshalltown, plus a satellite center in Grinnell. "Online courses have been a big piece of our growth."

Like any type of growth, IVCCD's distance learning program expansion created an atmosphere where students weren't always engaged, and their progress wasn't adequately tracked and addressed. Russell said the college turned to a consultant for help to ensure the program was "engaging those distance learning students and ensuring that none of them were left behind."

During the consultation and review period, the third party met with key staff members and faculty and surveyed those constituents to find out what their needs were and what expertise and tools were available to fill in the gaps in the school's distance learning program. The consultant then developed an analysis showing exactly how the campus could better accommodate and engage all of its students (both online and traditional).

The end result of that exercise was a four-pronged approach that included online course certification; faculty development/training; an early warning/alert system (for students who aren't meeting standards or progressing as planned); and a first-year retention and engagement program.

The initiative is already underway and was funded by a Title III grant, according to Russell, who said the money has been earmarked for improving the quality of its online services for students. The first initiative involved Quality Matters, a peer review process designed to certify the quality of online courses and online components.

"We'll start by going through the process of certifying all of our online courses," said Russell. The next step will involve faculty training that will help instructors create and/or adapt their courses in a way that "makes the classes the best that they can possibly be," said Russell. Instructors will be trained on how to use a rubric to achieve that goal, he said, with a focus on both the course content and how it's structured for students and staff members to use.

The professional development will also cover the use of tools like discussion boards for engaging students in the most effective manner possible and garnering feedback from students regarding assessments and progress. "We'll be running our existing courses through the rubric to figure out where the strong and weak points are," said Russell, "and then adjusting accordingly."

The third aspect of IVCCD's distance learning overhaul will find the school implementing an early warning alert system developed by Starfish. Russell said the technology solution will help professors identify at-risk students before they withdraw. The system collates and assesses student performance information automatically submitted by instructors, advisors, and campus staff.

The final piece of the puzzle is a student retention and engagement program that will pick up where the early alert system leaves off. Developed by EducationDynamics, the first-year retention and engagement program provides content and peer-to-peer networking that aims to help students handle the social and academic transition to college.

Russell said the program will be deployed to traditional and adult students across all three IVCCD campuses and will include relevant content, self-assessments, and an online community designed specifically for those students.

"Faculty, coaches, and advisors will all have access to the system and will be able to see if a student has been consistently late, or if he or she hasn't been doing well on assignments or tests," said Russell. "Faculty can then make a connection with the student and request an in-person meeting or set up online tutoring."

Russell said all four initiatives have been approved and all related contracts signed and that the new programs will be introduced to faculty and staff over the next few weeks. He expected the early warning program to be unveiled in mid-September, for example, with the first-year retention solution following closely on its heels.

So far, Russell said, IVCCD hasn't run into any challenges with this major undertaking. He said shopping around for the right technology solutions did take some time and that "the best fit for both students and staff" topped the criteria during that process. "Now we just have to wait and see how it will come together and work for our students," said Russell.

Knowing that IVCCD's online learning component is probably going to grow even more over the next couple of years, Russell said he's confident that the overhaul will leave the three campuses well equipped to handle the expansion. "Our goal with all of this is to deliver the best online experience for our students, both from the academic side," said Russell, "and in terms of services like online bill pay and tutoring."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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