Progression, retention and student success

This blog post was previously posted in Fiona Harvey’s blog

I am part of a Student Success and Experience Management group at UCEMand our focus is on supporting our students. With that in mind, I was excited to attend the Supporting Student Success event held by the Centre for Distance Education (University of London) at Senate House. It was split into two streams, and luckily, I was with my colleague Tharindu Liyanagunawardena who attended the other sessions. It was such a useful event, I was so happy and brimming full of ideas.

The session on Progression was led by Paul Cannell, Alan Tait, and Daksha Patel. They have been part of a research project exploring progression as one of the research projects in the Centre for Distance Education. When I saw that this was about progression, I thought it was going to be about where students go on after their studies but it was all about retention and engagement (to me, anyway). They had looked a range of literature and had also started to think about their evaluation and explained that this was in the early stages, they will report their findings in full at the RIDE conference in March next year.

Some of the key messages of this session I have summarised below, mainly for my benefit to help me think about next steps and what we can do at UCEM, but hopefully, they will also be useful for you too, if you are interested in how to better support and retain your own online students.

Despite the wide range of literature on retention of students (in online education) no two institutions are so alike that you can apply what happened at one to another. It is important to apply retention strategies within the context of your own students. What might work for one institution will probably not suit your institution, unless you know your students. That was a really important point for me. Knowing your students is something that we take for granted sometimes. You think you have an idea, from analytics, registrations etc, but you do need to do some research with your students to explore the unique features of your own students and apply approaches accordingly.

Other really important points were that despite what you think you know, communication and language are really important. Language in terms of the way that you communicate. It was mentioned about the way that we talk to students can infer more than we thought. Alan mentioned how in previous research, after interviewing students about a pilot, students mentioned that when they were ‘asked’ to participate in activities on the online forums, they didn’t believe their academics really wanted them to do them, so they didn’t engage. I interpreted that has having passion for your subject and being actively interested in the students learning. That comes into the design of modules and tapping into the academics interests to ensure their expertise comes through.

Communication through design was important, we know that (at UCEM) and we also know that students who engage early on and complete at least one assessment are more likely to engage. This talk focussed on the research project that the team were participating in as part of the Centre for Distance Education. It went further than we had by looking at a cohort of students from three programmes (N=645) they had mapped when they were registered and their patterns of behaviour online. I thought that was really interesting.

Some who had registered for the programme, but then didn’t register on the first module, still completed, they had just not participated in the way that was anticipated. That’s the nature of online learners, they dont’ necessarily follow a linear model. Information they mentioned, and will resonate with you if you offer online programmes, was that online students tended to be over 30 years old, professional students, part-time, etc. Looking at how your students engage (or not) is important as the design of your programme may not be the best model for them. Perhaps some flexibility about how modules are followed and how they participate in the module should be geared in a more bespoke way (I don’t know how we do that at scale, but I’m thinking…)

The final takeaway for me for this session was skills. Skills for our academic staff to be able to be effective tutors in an online context. More importantly, it was about digital literacies skills. Too many of our staff (across the sector) are not digitally capable. Despite a long and enthusiastic wave of digital literacies skills highlighted through a range of initiatives over the last ten years, my feeling is that some institutions think that it is something that has been ‘done’. It’s not a state, its a way of being, always evolving and changing. Underlying it is those ‘soft skills’ resilience, flexibility, open-mindedness, curiosity, problem-solving and the like. I see it as part of lifelong learning, we never stop learning (or we shouldn’t). Therefore, staff development should always be seen as a priority, but essentially, I feel, that if there is a culture of staff being developed, then it is reflected in your institution, from staff engagement to how effective they are in communicating with our students online.

I’m looking forward to taking some of these ideas, just from this session (I also have the other sessions on plagiarism and the PGCert for Online Tutors to reflect on yet!).

A final thought about this event: No matter how busy you are, always take time to listen to others in your sector, working from an informed position on issues like this are extremely valuable and I expect will be more effective than remaining in a bubble in your own institution.