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Are Students Online Ready? How to Boost Student Success and Completion Rates

A Brief Q&A with Delgado Assistant Dean Rene Cintron

Thrust into online learning at scale in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina--a disaster that put 45 percent of its physical campus out of commission--New Orleans-based Delgado Community College experienced the aftershock of realizing that many of its students were not "online ready." Success rates--and therefore retention and completion rates--suffered just because of a student skills gap in online education.

A self-guided online learning module, DORM--Delgado's Online Readiness Module--has made a big difference even as a doubling of enrollment since 2006 has put further pressure on available classroom space at Delgado. CT spoke about DORM with Delgado Assistant Dean Rene Cintron (photo, above), who leads institution-wide planning and research activities relevant to student success and retention under the college's Quality Enhancement Plan.

Mary Grush: Are students today really not prepared to hop right into online learning without some type of training?

Rene Cintron: They are really not prepared. A general knowledge of how to use computers and some experience being online helps, but does not necessarily prepare them for success in an online learning environment.

Grush: How did Delgado determine that?

Cintron: In a very dramatic way, in the beginning. In 2005, nearly 45 percent of our physical campus was destroyed or rendered non-operational by hurricane Katrina. Of course this resulted in a sudden lack of classroom space, and we were basically forced into online learning to make up the difference. It was a big shock at the time, to see how ill-prepared students were for this transition.

Since then, we've also faced a huge growth in enrollment, which has compounded our classroom space issues. Enrollments grew from nearly 10,000 in Spring 2006 to more than 20,000 in Fall 2011. We are still offering a lot of online courses to address our issues with the availability of physical classrooms, but since Katrina, we've taken the step of building the DORM module to address student preparation for online learning.

Grush: How has Delgado tracked the success rates of online students?

Cintron: We discovered in the fall of 2007, that our success rate for online education was less than 60 percent--with "success" defined as passing an online course with a grade of "C" or better. Since the implementation of DORM in 2010, we’ve raised that success rate overall: 77 percent of the students who completed the assignments in DORM successfully passed their credit-bearing courses with a final grade of "C" or better (almost as good as the pilot, which reached an 80 percent level); the rest, those students who did not elect to do the DORM assignments, had a 71 percent success rate using the same criteria.

Grush: Is completing the DORM readiness module optional? It looks like you might be reaching a significant percent of the students who really need DORM.

Cintron: It's optional at this point. About 65 percent of our new online students access the module. And yes, I think you can see from the numbers that we are reaching many students who know that they need to bring their online readiness skills up.

In 2008, 30 percent of our online students reported that they needed help with the course management system that we use (Blackboard). Our further research confirmed that students not "getting" the technology was the main stumbling block in their success or failure in online courses. That was when we decided to develop DORM as a self-help option for students, with a self-assessment readiness test. The pilot was conducted in 2009, and DORM was fully implemented in 2010.

All new online learners are enrolled with the option of choosing whether to complete the modules or not--it's a non credit-bearing course, so what they do is up to them. While DORM is not mandatory for students at Delgado to complete, more than half of the students enrolled in the module do complete it.

Grush: What are the major components of DORM?

Cintron: The DORM module provides students with information and applications in two major areas: (1) study skills for online students, including pointers to extensive resources at Delgado and (2) course management system-specific knowledge. The DORM course deliverables that must be completed in order to successfully complete the module are: (1) a written assignment, (2) a discussion assignment, (3) a send-and-receive e-mail activity, and (4) an "Am I Online Ready?" quiz. The assignments have clear instructions on how to complete them as well as directing students to three places where they can get help: (1) the Course Management System Skills folder in the Course Documents tab (2) the Delgado Live Web site under the Help button, and (3) an Ask the Instructor section.

Students can continue their credit-bearing online courses while they work on the DORM module over the first two weeks of class in a self-paced manner. The module is staffed by instructors that answer questions, guide discussion, grade assignments, and provide Socratic-style feedback every 12 hours. Of course this is in addition to all the other resources students can access at Delgado, including a 24/7 telephone help desk. Students can continue accessing DORM for the rest of their college life at Delgado.

Grush: What are the college's plans for DORM and your studies of student success online?

Cintron: DORM continues to help students acquire the technical skills necessary for online learning success, which of course helps the college with retention and success rates in general. Our focus to this point has been the successful student and simply fixing this problem of a gap in online readiness. Now, as we continue to collect data surrounding student success in online courses, and data on DORM use, we are shifting to further analyze the unsuccessful student. For example, we will explore the correlation between those who ask questions in the DORM module and those who are not successful in online courses. Another area of inquiry will be within the data based on developmental status and course content. The next step for DORM itself involves expanding this tool to flex and hybrid courses with the intention of having all students enrolled in the Delgado Online Readiness Module by Fall 2012.

[Editor's note: Rene Cintron and DCC co-presenter Jennifer Lang will present "Are Students Online Ready? Preparing Successful Students with DORM" at Campus Technology 2012, July 19-22 in Boston.]

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