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Evolve Analysis: Student Success Online Requires More Than Courses

May 12, 2014

The Evolve Conference sponsored by the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation brought together students, faculty, administrators and policy-makers to discuss what is required for online education to help students succeed. In the introductory post to this series we described how the conference format was unique in its inclusion of students in every panel. In the first analysis post we described the unacceptable status quo and need to focus on student success. In this post we will tackle the theme of student success requiring much more than just the availability of quality online courses.

Last year we wrote a white paper for the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation during the legislative debates around online education – The Right to Educational Access: Using Online Education to Address Bottleneck Courses in California. In the paper we described the implications of focusing on success:

It is important to remember the real goal of using online education to address bottleneck courses here. It is not to offer students seats in courses. It is to get students to complete those courses successfully so that they can complete their programs more quickly. While California cannot guarantee student success, the state can put in place provisions that guarantee students access to the kinds of support that are known to increase the likelihood of student success. This includes taking care to preserve existing campus support networks when bringing in new solutions—particularly solutions implemented by third parties—as well as taking care to provide students with extra support when it is needed.

This led to our recommendation:

Ensure that students have access to support services and academic mentoring – As described by the multiplestudies, a crucial aspect of successful online programs is to provide support and retention services for students taking online courses. This is especially important for any systemwide initiatives where the student’s home institution may not have the knowledge or resources to help the student taking a course originating outside the institution. For example, campus advisors should receive alerts when their advisees sign up for third-party courses as well as when those students are in danger of failing to complete those courses.

This theme came across loud and clear during the Evolve conference, with the benefit of first-hand experiences from students, faculty and support staff.

Tech Savvy vs. Tech Dependent

One of the first topics led to a question of whether freshmen are ready for online courses.

Flores: I took a class when I was a freshman and part of it was online, and I did notice that to get through the class [was difficult] since I didn’t know how to get through it. That added to my frustration – when I did actually get to the work I was already frustrated. Just getting to the work was actually a nightmare.

The discussion led to an exploration about the commonly-held assumption that millennials are  fluent in the use of technology and will easily pick up the ability to navigate through online courses. The students who were already tech savvy through their work or school experience seemed to have an advantage, but other students called out the need for tutorials or training as preparation for online courses.

Adney: People assume that millennials are tech savvy, but he said that really they’re tech dependent, and those are two very different things.

Isa Adney asked one of the students for any suggestions she had.

Darden: One time when I took online courses they didn’t really have online tutors . . . I didn’t get an email for one class until all the way at the end saying “oh, you’re doing kind of bad”. You waited until the end of the year, end of the semester, to tell me that I’m doing bad, and I’ve been in this online class the whole entire time?! I think teachers tapping into students’ lives a little bit more would help.

Panel on Student Support

We also had a panel entirely dedicated to student support, and I think this is worth watching in full (starting at 1:44:27) for those interested in this topic.

  • A description of the freshman experience program at El Camino College, showing difference along economic backgrounds:
  • San Jose State research on the Udacity MOOC program for developmental courses, showing that few students had taken an online class before and few knew about the support services available:

Collins: 44 of those students were from [a charter high school with economically-disadvantaged students]. . . Out of those 44 high school students only four of those students got a ‘C’ or better in any of the classes. As the researchers, what we were studying was how aware the students were of  what services were available on the site for help for [the students], what type of tech savvy or tech experience did they have before they took the course. . . . We found that very few of the students had ever taken an online class before. Most of the students were unaware of any of the services that were offered through the course.

  • Mt. San Jacinto College program on training faculty on how to teach online, focusing on the critical interaction with students along with effective course design as well as using a MOOC on basic writing skills to help prepare students for their for-credit courses:

James: It wasn’t the technology, it wasn’t the materials, it wasn’t the materials, it wasn’t the classroom that made me an effective learner – it was the teacher.  . . . The course design should be transparent, it shouldn’t be in the way of the learning. [snip]

If we’re looking at what our mission is [at community college] – we help students become students at the college level. . . . We accept the top 100% of applicants. We teach them to be college students, and that’s a really important thing; we nurture [students] so our teachers and what they do is very important; and we’re really out there in innovation.

Improved Focus by Public Systems

Given this clear need for student support services to help with student success (and not just access), it is worth calling out the strong efforts by the three public systems to start focusing much more on support services.

 

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The above post–pertaining to developments in the education technology space of mutual interest to the Michelson Twenty Million Minds Foundation, Inc. and MindWires Consulting–represent the opinions and views of the designated authors, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, who maintain editorial independence.