Course Design and Student Retention

I think I’ll go back to the trends in online education theme with this week’s article share if you don’t mind.  I think it’s safe for all of us to say that Online has become an entrenched institution in  Higher Ed.  With the growth of degree offerings and growth of students and employers willing to equate online degrees with their face to face counterparts, a lot of the original issues Online has been dealing with for the past decade can be safely said to be overcome.


With that in mind, there remain areas where I believe online can (if not done properly) be considered inferior to face to face.  The one I’d like to focus on this week is student retention.  In this case I’d like to focus on two articles outlining the problem and throw out some ways good course design can help.  I’ve also spoken with one of our Student Success Coaches who is putting together some resources we can share from a more strategic level, but for now I’d like to build a better mousetrap and those will be coming later on.  The articles I’m referencing this week are below:


The New York Times: The Trouble with Online College

NPR:  The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course


I’ll let you read the articles, but the two key challenges to student retention they mention are the difficulty in identifying and addressing student misconceptions and establishing an instructor presence in the classroom.  It’s common knowledge that feedback and interaction with a more knowledgeable other (be it a computer or person) are key elements of student success (Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory lays this out much better than I can) and finding ways to replicate those interactions online are important to developing an environment conducive to learning.  With that in mind, here’s some strategies I’ve advocated for with faculty and have seen faculty put into motion that serves to address those two issues.


  1. Chunking out major assignments and projects over a period of time so that students can receive feedback as they go.  This works really well for statistics projects and business plans, as well as large essays.
  2. Putting together group presentations (using Jing, Powerpoints with Audio or plain old videos) that allow students to become the teacher and share work with each other – creating a stronger community bond
  3. I know I complained last week about the misuse of automatically scoring assessments, but this is another place where they can shine.  Practice quizzes for students are a great and simple way for them to get feedback on their work without even having to contact the faculty.  Moodle allows for faculty to program in either answer specific or general feedback for each question which, if done properly can help them go back and review their learning resources.
  4. Having the instructor create a weekly video introduction using a webcam or screencast tool is helpful as well.  As soon as we see somebody’s face, we immediately start buying in more.  Just including audio-embedded powerpoints (so that we can hear voice) allows students to get some of that buy in.
  5. Using interactive (media, web tools, games) are great learning activities.  The great thing about games is that you get the feedback and can usually retake it to try and increase your score, which are good ways for students to engage with content and master it.
  6. Providing examples of proficient work and rubrics so that students understand faculty expectations from the get-go and don’t feel like they’re muddling about in the dark.
  7. Finally, and I’m sure you’ll agree because this is the same for face to face courses, online courses, and everything in between, there is no substitute for engaged, knowledgeable and well trained faculty that care about their students and spend time providing regular feedback and support to help them grow.  As an instructional designer, I can build you a Rolls-Royce of a course, but if your faculty can’t drive stick, we have a problem.  Placing the onus of learning on the student should not lessen the amount of time faculty spend teaching, it should break the shackles of the podium and enable them look over their student’s shoulders.


Hope this helps!  Let me know if you have any questions!


Online Learning and the Liberal Arts

That’s about where we stand this week.  For my weekly resource share, I hope you don’t mind if I stand on a soapbox for a bit.  I’m a biased person so feel free to ignore me as well.  There’s been talk for the past few decades about the decline and eventual death of the liberal arts in higher ed and I know may institutions are scrapping LA and Humanities Programs all together.  The logic, of course, is that there’s no money in this learning, for the institution or the student after graduation.  This isn’t surprising, in fact many employers complain that students are graduating ill prepared for the modern job market.


I don’t question this.  I was born on the front end of the lost generation, and I recognize the need for the students coming behind me to be trained as competitively as possible to fold into a career.  That said, I believe the skills that have carried me throughout my (burgeoning) career are rarely the ones I gained from my Master’s degree.  Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t do this job without my education degree, but when you see my interactions with you and your faculty, I believe my liberal arts grounding I received in undergrad shines more brightly.  Liberal arts gives students the ability to adapt to any career, to any situation – and if the current market trends continue, some worry that the skill set may be relegated to the economic classes of students that can afford to study it.


This isn’t really a new debate I suppose, LA programs have been on the decline for decades, and in online education they’re the lowest field in demand.   A professor of mine at U. Louisville’s School of Ed said something in grad school that stuck with me “so long as your students become readers, writers, mathematicians and processers of information, they’re going to be able to take anything you throw at them.”  To me, the future role of Liberal Arts is to instill those intangible skills that distinguish a school’s graduates from the fold and creates a reputation that follows future graduates.  But how do you integrate the liberal arts (if you should) with a program that will prepare students for their chosen career?


With that in mind, I thought I’d share some cool articles regarding how institutions are trying to redefine what liberal arts education means in the 21rst century.


Rebecca Chopp – President of Swarthmore College: Liberal Arts in the 21rst Century

Nannerl O. Keohane – A commentator for the Chronicle: The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century

Mauri Ditzler – President of Monmouth College: Faculty Triads


You’ve obviously wondering why I brought this up.  I’m wondering how you think LA education translates to the 21st century, do you feel that it has value, or do you feel as though it’s in the way of career oriented education that prepares students to make a return on their investment?  Something else?  Most importantly, how do you feel Liberal Arts can translate (if it can at all) to online?  I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject.

Survey of Potential Online Students

My weekly share this go round is more shameless self-promotion, but I definitely think it’s worth sharing.  Each year we partner with Aslanian Research to put together a study of the demands and preferences of the online education consumer.  We use this to drive our business and advise on the strategic planning of our partner institutions.  I figured I’d provide you with a few relevant takeaways for what schools are going to have to worry about to stay relevant in the shifting market.


  • Career Relevancy (pp. 8) – online students are almost always trying to further their career and prefer professionally oriented programs over the classic liberal arts.
  • Placement Rates and Reputation (pp. 6, 15) – tying back in with above, but building rigorous courses and gaining a reputation for strong students will be key as that translates into high job placement – a primary concern for online students.  The first thing students cared about was whether their institution was accredited so I obviously focused on what students cared about should the school already be accredited.
  • Students are looking further and further afield for their ideal institutions (pp. 12 – 13) – we may want to be cautious of geographically contingent instruction in the future (though I’m a sucker for hybrid courses)
  • The popularity of synchronous sessions is dropping (pp. 14) – this makes sense as students tend to take online for the flexibility, not the “face to face” aspect.  The more we focus on instilling faculty personality in other ways (video lectures, forums, authentic assessments) the better.


It’s an interesting read and, while it’s geared primarily towards how institutions are selecting and marketing their products, rigorous course design remains a cornerstone of that product.  Somebody has to build the things first after all.  That’s why I appreciate working with you so much.  Your commitment the quality of your school’s product is clear to me and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy my job.


Have a great day and let me know if you have any questions about the above!