Online education doesn’t lack innovation—clearly—but what is innovation without long-term impact? A 2013 survey of chief academic officers shows that despite a decade of exponential growth in enrollments in online education, many still have concerns about the “value and legitimacy” of this form of learning. Almost 90 percent of academic leaders say that students need more discipline to succeed in the online world, and more than half of them identify low retention rates as a significant barrier to the growth of online education, according to the survey released last week by the Babson Survey Research Group.
What if universities could mitigate these concerns? Well, they can—and some of them already are. Many institutions are implementing orientation programs that both assess students’ readiness for online courses and prepare them for the more individual nature of the work. Other schools, like those within the University System of Georgia, have created live systems that provide the tailored support that online students need to succeed. This personal outreach has led to an 83 percent retention rate for online courses within Georgia’s system. That is 11 percentage points higher than in 2006.
I highlight this program in Education Sector’s latest ES Select, Calling for Success: Online Retention Rates Get Boost From Personal Outreach. Seven years ago, Melanie Clay, dean of Georgia’s online curriculum—called eCore—created a small team of university employees to start calling students who were falling behind. Today, 14 full-time employees and graduate students make as many as 600 calls a day, particularly at “high times,” or the start of the semester or around midterm exams. Now they’re trying to target students before they fall behind: Each week, professors report any students who missed an assignment, failed an exam, or haven’t logged into discussion boards. Then team members step in. They connect students with live or virtual tutors or with counselors who can help them manage their time. And with surprising regularity, they simply show students how to reset their passwords. It seems a silly excuse for not doing school work, but advisers says it’s the most common – and the most detrimental: If students aren’t logging in, they don’t even know what they’re missing. At the University of West Georgia, where Clay and her team are based, online retention rates have reached an impressive 92 percent, higher than the campus rate for face-to-face courses.
Not all students are meant to take an online course “out of the box,” as Marie Fetzner of Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., told me. But clear expectations and tailored supports like these give them a much smaller chance for failure.