A student’s initial introduction into higher education can be exciting and frustrating, especially when the student is enrolled in their first online class. This year I taught a newly created first-year experience course at a vocational based higher education institution.
The course had initial enrollments of 25 and 63 students respectively across the two-semester period. Now, I know these numbers are high (especially the course with 63 students), but after the first seven days of the add/drop period, the class size diminished. The course drop rate was 20% (5 students dropped out of 25) and 23.8% (15 students dropped out of 63) after the add/drop period of each semester. From observation, many factors contributed to this course attrition. For instance,
- account balances that are not rectified by the final tuition payment date;
- schedule change/conflict or course cancellation;
- difficulties maintaining a healthy work/life/school balance;
- limited perception of learning requirements needed for online courses.
Any of the four factors stated above can contribute to retention issues, but for the purpose of this article, I will share my observations and recommendations regarding the things faculty can do to enhance the online learning experience for their students.
First-year experience courses are generally designed to help students acclimate to college life. I covered topics such as, time management, note taking, study tips, and job hunting. Since a large majority of my students were entering their very first semester, I knew the Blackboard environment would be unfamiliar territory, much like a sprawling college campus is for new students. Another component that I factored in was the type of college—a vocational institution with a mixture of adult and traditional-aged college students, many who are trained from a constructivism approach.
I decided to transpose the same tasks that classroom instructors would perform into my online class. In face-to-face environments, the instructor introduces students to the curriculum and expectations, so I mirrored this by creating an introductory page in Blackboard. This page contained the course title, welcome message, course objectives, getting started guide, and a graphical layout with explanations of the navigation menu. I also encouraged my students to attend the Blackboard training provided by the college’s Instructional Design team. The training covers the mechanics of how to navigate the learning management system and helps students become familiar with the online classroom.
Bridging the gap
Think back, we have all seen the blank stares from students as they enter a class on the first day of the term. As online instructors, we cannot see the blank stare, but we can sense the feeling of isolation, frustration, and aggravation (Ali & Smith, 2015; Sadera, 2009).
An online class introduces boundaries for some students. Dr. Amanda Wyrick’s (2017) article reminds us that boundaries too lose or rigid negatively influence the learning experience for the student. With that said, my remedy was to make the navigation menu as user-friendly as possible. For instance, I made sure the links were clearly labeled and intuitively named:
- My Grades: Allows students to see their grades.
- My Calendar: Displays assignment due dates and lets students add their own events.
- My Reminders: Allows students to view my class announcements.
Engaging Your Audience with a Personable Touch
With each topic covered in my online class, the first thing I did was to get my students involved with the curriculum expectations. In doing so, I reflected on step 1 of Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction (Gökdemir, Akdemir, & Vural, 2013), which is to get the attention of your students. With this premise in mind, imagine that you are having a dinner party at your home. As guests arrive, you extend your hospitality by providing them with an overview of the menu, show them to the drinks, appetizers, and where other guests are congregating, and let them know where the bathroom is located. This promotes inclusion of all guests, lets them get acclimated, and helps reduce feelings of isolation. Let’s face it, the more guests at a party, the harder it is to navigate and have one-on-one interactions. In Blackboard, inclusivity is exhibited with a schedule of topics to be covered along with the learning resources (i.e., PowerPoints, video/audio recordings, book/article readings) and learning deliverables (i.e., tests, discussions, essays, or wiki/blogs). The idea is to give students a course roadmap so they can have a visual guide of course expectations at the beginning of the term.
A Prognosis for Retaining Online Students
As enrollment in online courses continues to grow, I want to encourage all instructors to self-observe their classroom hosting skills. Reflect on what’s in it for me (WIIFM) from a student’s perspective to determine if the layout and design of your online course promotes inclusion or isolation.
Keep in mind that online classes contain additional barriers for students with limited technical skills. As the director of instructional design, I meet daily with students who express to me their lack of computer skills, yet they are enrolled in online classes. This lack of computer savvy inhibits students’ learning experience AND your retention goals (Ali & Smith, 2015). If growth of online enrollment is part of your institutions strategic plan, consider performing an online readiness assessment of students before registration so they have an opportunity to review their strengths and weaknesses and how those weaknesses might affect their ability to learn in the online format. This will reinforce the importance of student success at your school and why your institution is right for them.
Ali, A. & Smith, D. (2015). Comparing Social Isolation Effects on Student Attrition in Online Versus Face-to-Face Courses in Computer Literacy. Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, 12, 11-20. Retrieved from http://iisit.org/Vol12/IISITv12p011-020Ali1784.pdf
Gökdemir, A. Akdemir, O., & Vural, O. F. (2013). Using Gagne’s Nine Events in Learning Management Systems, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 106, 3268-3272, ISSN 1877-0428, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.12.376
Sadera, W. A. (2009). The Role of Community in Online Learning Success. Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 277-284.
Wyrick, A. J. (2017, June 19). Professor Goldilocks and the Three Boundaries. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/professor-goldilocks-three-boundaries/
Kristi Garrett is the Director of Instructional Design at Atlanta Technical College. She holds a PhD from The University of Alabama in instructional leadership with a concentration in instructional technology. She is the managing editor for the Social Studies Research and Practice Journal.