Sustaining Students: Retention Strategies in an Online Program

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Key Takeaways

  • With students spread across 47 states and a dozen countries, the University of Illinois at Springfield faces a significant challenge in promoting student persistence.
  • Program coordinators who know each student majoring in their online degree program keep in close touch with those students to assure that their learning and academic planning needs are met.
  • Online student peer mentors who model best student practices and serve as a liaison between students and faculty members provide effective support in selected classes.
  • These and other approaches have resulted in an online course completion rate that hovers just two to three percent below the on-campus completion rate, and the degree-completion rate among online students is equally strong.

The University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) started offering online classes in 1997 when professors Rassule Hadidi of Management Information Systems and Keith Miller of Computer Science independently tested online teaching. The then-Vice President for Academic Affairs of the University of Illinois system, Sylvia Manning, and her faculty associate, Burks Oakley, director of the newly founded University of Illinois Online program, seeded the founding of an Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning on the Springfield campus. Ray Schroeder, a professor of communication, headed the initiative to foster online teaching and learning beginning in the summer of 1997.

From modest beginnings in a tiny, temporarily unused chemistry laboratory, the online initiative has grown to enroll more than one-quarter of all UIS students in wholly online degree programs and accounted for more than 35 percent of all credit hours taken at the university in academic year 2009–2010. Course completion rates (defined as percentage of the number of students who were in the class at "census" — two weeks into the term — who remained in the class at the end of the term) averaged 96 percent on campus and 93 percent online. Degree completion rates in online degree programs at UIS are equivalent to, and in some cases even exceed, those in their corollary on-campus degree programs. Figure 1 shows the growth of online and blended learning program enrollments from 1998 to 2010.

Schroeder et al Figure 1

Figure 1. Growth of UIS Online and Blended Program Enrollment

This expansion of higher education into online venues faces many of the same issues with student success and retention as encountered on campus. While many colleges and universities segregate online learning programs into continuing or extended education departments staffed mostly or entirely by adjunct faculty members, however, the UIS has successfully incorporated online programs into the fabric of the institution. This past academic year, nearly two-thirds (65.1 percent) of those teaching online classes were tenured, tenure-track, emeritus, visiting, and clinical professors. Another 7.5 percent were academic professionals at the university. The remaining 27.4 percent were adjunct, part-time faculty members chosen to meet specific needs of the online programs. This mainstream approach has gained recognition by some in the field as the "UIS model," which we believe will become the norm as 21st century technologies become integrated into delivery of the curriculum. We also expect that many of the factors that have made the model successful in promoting online student persistence and degree completion at UIS could be replicated elsewhere.

The prominent features of the UIS model are:

  • Online programs are requested and developed by the academic department and approved through the same college and governance structures used by traditional face-to-face programs.
  • Faculty members are supported in their online and blended teaching by the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service (COLRS), which offers technology training and pedagogical support in several formats: group training, online webinars, and one-on-one support sessions.
  • Online workshops and certificate programs are offered to faculty members through the university's membership in the Sloan Consortium.
  • Online teaching development classes are offered to the faculty members through the "Making the Virtual Classroom a Reality" program of online classes from the university's Illinois Online Network.
  • Online program coordinators provide essential support to fully online students throughout their course of study.
  • Class sizes are small. Many online courses are capped at 25, allowing students and faculty to develop close relationships over the 15-week semester.
  • Online courses are developed for degree-granting programs, rather than as stand-alone courses.
  • Advanced data-driven decision making has been enabled through the services of professionals in IT Services, COLRS, and Institutional Research who mine the rich data collected by the Banner enterprise reporting system.

In this approach, the online programs are integrated as much as possible into the mainstream of the campus. Faculty members attend to online classes as a workload priority, not as add-ons, and administrators see the online students as core members of the university. Online program coordinators and peer mentors further contribute to academic success and retention of online students throughout their course of study.

Faculty, the Foundation of Success

Central to online and on-campus learning is the relationship between the faculty and the students. Since the inception of the Springfield campus as Sangamon State University in 1970, an upper-division and Masters University without freshmen and sophomores, faculty members have taught nontraditional students. Those commuting to the campus in the 1970s had much in common with the online students today. For the most part, they were older working professionals paying on their own for the advancement of their education with the promise of expanded career opportunities and a richer life experience. Entire generations of faculty members at UIS over the past 40 years have been steeped in the best practices of engaging the type of students who populate the online program. The average age of the undergraduate online major student at UIS is 34; the average age of an online graduate student at UIS is 35. One-half of the graduate students at UIS are online degree majors.

Professor Keith Miller talks about engaging and retaining online students:

The faculty ethos at UIS includes a respect for the career context of these students and a social constructivist expectation that faculty members will actively support and encourage students in building knowledge relevant to their lives and careers. While the readings in a given course may be the same as at a university where the students' average age is 21, the class discussion at UIS is seasoned with life experience and career perspectives. Faculty members draw upon those experiences and perspectives to engage students in rich and relevant activities and discussions to best build knowledge.

COLRS provides faculty with ongoing professional development in the pedagogy, technology, and best practices of the field of online learning. As well, COLRS draws support from the programs of the Sloan Consortium and the Illinois Online Network. Collaborations on online learning with faculty at nine other institutions are cultivated through the monthly faculty development programs shared through the UIS-led New Century Learning Consortium, which links UIS with the University of Southern Maine, Southern Oregon University, Empire State College (SUNY), Louisiana Tech University, Hampton University, Chicago State University, Oakland University, Sam Houston State University, and California State University East Bay. These associations and development opportunities provide a fabric of support that encourages faculty members to engage learners and to employ best practices in building student learning success.

Online Program Coordinators

From the inception of the online programs at UIS, the use of a program coordinator in each degree program has been encouraged. Program coordinators are academic professional staff members who serve an important role in assuring student success. They have a role in:

  • Recruiting students
  • Tracking of student schedules and progress toward degree completion
  • Encouraging and facilitating communication between students and faculty members
  • Advocating for students in administrative and bureaucratic matters
  • Supporting students who confront individual challenges in moving toward degree completion

Online program coordinators are masters of communication and facilitation. They intervene in cases where they see student progress might be in jeopardy. Coordinators have the respect of both the students and the faculty members, and they carry a level of trust in their relationships. Conversations with students are held confidential unless the student releases the program coordinator from that confidentiality.

Online program coordinators Andy Egizi, Barbara Cass, and Tyler Tanaka explain their responsibilities to students:

Each year, prior to the campus-based commencement ceremonies, a brunch is held for online degree program students who are graduating. Many students travel across the country and even from other countries to visit the campus and receive their diploma in person. It is vividly apparent at the brunch that the students value their relationship with their program coordinator above all other relationships they have cultivated in the online program. The longest hugs and the most tears are reserved for those first-time meetings with the program coordinators who have counseled the students through the challenges of completing a rigorous degree program at a distance.

Student Peer Mentors

Faculty members teaching online spend significant time acclimating students to the rhythms, routines, and expectations of an online course. Though time-consuming, this support is often critical to their students' success. To fill this gap in the online classroom, UIS implemented an online peer mentoring program in 2002.

The concept of online student peer mentoring was pioneered by the Online Campus, originally called "Wizards," at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 2000. The school received the 2002 Sloan Consortium award for "Online Learning Effectiveness" for their work in this area. The concept of the online peer mentor is straightforward and easily adapted to many courses, teaching methods, and learning styles.1

Online peer mentors are experienced online students. Their duties include:

  • Facilitating discussions
  • Tracking participation
  • Training on classroom technologies
  • Answering questions about the course

Most importantly, though, they model the behavior of the successful online student. Less-experienced students observe the importance of logging in to the course frequently, engaging in class discussions, and writing in an academic style. Students become more self-directed learners, freeing the instructor to focus on course content and facilitation rather than routine tasks.

In 2007, UIS partnered with the Illinois Community Colleges Online (ILCCO) to study the effect of peer mentors on student retention. Seven Illinois community colleges each identified two "problem" online courses in which student completion rates were low. These instructors then selected former students to become peer mentors in their courses. Prior to the program's implementation in the spring 2008 semester, both instructors and mentors participated in UIS-led training on the role of peer mentors and methods for incorporating them into courses. The non-completion rate in these courses was reduced by 3.48 percent in one semester. More significantly, though, student success improved. The number of failures was reduced by 3.28 percent, while the number of A and B grades increased by 7.20 percent.2

Closing Thoughts

Sound empirical studies in this area are few because comparing on-campus students and online students is complicated. Online students generally are older; juggling careers, families, and college; highly focused on earning their degree; and paying most of the tuition with their own money. On-campus students generally are younger; although many work, fewer work full time; fewer are the breadwinner for families; and many have significant financial aid from sources including their parents. These varying factors may have an effect on persistence and time to degree completion. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence and the limited studies that we have conducted lead us to believe that three factors — a faculty culture encouraging and supporting engagement with students and their careers; the individual support and attention provided by online program coordinators; and the availability of online peer mentors — encourages student retention in the UIS online program. We expect future studies to verify this conclusion.

  1. Sloan-C, "2002 Sloan-C Awards," 2002.
  2. For more on peer mentoring, see external evaluator Len Bogle's report, "Higher Education Cooperation Act Fiscal Year 2008 Final Project Evaluation," (January 31, 2009), on the project "Increasing Retention In Online Courses Through Peer Mentoring," headed by Jeff Newell.