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!


Best Practices in Auto-Scoring Assessments

My weekly share this week is a little more on the simple side and away from the strategic level, but equally important.  I see a lot of tests go through my servers (thousands and FSS sees more!) so I’ve always been worried about how they’re used.  Everybody’s always worried about fraud, but I’m more worried about application.  It’s a commonly held tenet in K-12 that extensive standardized testing is counterproductive to the mission of education.  I’m inclined to agree as well when I look at online higher ed.  There’s just no guarantee your student doesn’t have the book out or doesn’t have their friend taking it and frankly you can get the same assessment data with more authentic projects and activities.  As an professor that deals with instructional technology, I’m sure you have similar experience.


Where auto-scoring assessments truly shine, and I mean shine, is self-check activities.  You set up the expectation that students take the quiz prior to getting started on their other assessments (it’s as simple as making the visibility of all other assignments for a week contingent upon completion of the exam) and then they get feedback on where they stand in regards to that week’s learning objectives before they even have to do something graded.  That gives them the opportunity to go back to their learning resources and review.


“All well and good,” I often hear faculty say, “but what about rigorous questions?”  Well, the resource I want to share is an answer to that question.  This piece was shared with me by a colleague and it’s a good item to disseminate to your faculty (or review for yourself) if you’re interested in higher order thinking questions for quizzes at your institution.  Rigor, after all, is not how hard we’re making students work, but how hard we’re making them think.

Competency Based Education

As for my weekly share, I was on the phone with somebody yesterday and we got down to discussing what shape primarily technical courses should take.  One of the ideas I brought up was Competency Based Education (CBE), which is basically dividing a degree up into self-paced modules that students can pursue 100% asynchronously.  It steps away from the facilitation model in certain respects because it’s self-paced, so I wouldn’t advise it for more liberal arts oriented or discussion oriented courses, but at the same time it could be possible if done correctly.   Here are some cool articles I found on the subject you might enjoy looking over:


ELI: 7 Things You Should Know About Competency-Based Education

Meeting Students Where They Are: Profiles of Students in Competency-Based Degree Programs

All Hands On Deck: Ten Lessons From Early Adopters of Competency-Based Education


How would you consider this instructional method’s integration with your programs?  Do you feel like it has a place at all?  I see it really holding its own in technical and “one-right-answer” style programs such as accounting or learning how to operate computer programs.  You could charge a set rate, make the majority of the assignments automatically scoring, and take the burden off your faculty beyond looking at the necessary artifacts that prove proficiency and living in a more general discussion forum to facilitate conversations.


At the same time, this model flies in the face of what I spoke about last week.  Liberal Arts is the grounding of my education, but it won’t be for everybody.  For those who are seeking endorsements and certificates, CBE may be a model worth toying with.

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.

Mobile Learning

As for my weekly resource share, check out this article.  I know I harp on Mobile Learning a lot these days, but it’s a passion of mine so please bear with me J.  This article is pointing out some of the key interactions that can take place on mobile.  I’m not saying it will ever replace the LMS, but at the same time it will probably become a way for students to access content.  One of the key takeaways I found is that mobile integration allows students to be constantly “immersed” in a learning environment.


I was the product of an immersive liberal arts college and one of the key building blocks of who I am now came from being able to eat, drink and breathe my education for four years.  One of my major concerns with online is that it’s something you just turn on a few times a week, with clear stopping and starting points.  While that’s fine for instruction, I find it hard to develop a sense of academic culture.  By the time I had graduated, I spoke Political Science like it was my mother tongue.  When I got my Masters, I was spending 10 hours a day in an inner city school and a lot more time working on my assignments from grad school.  That immersion is something that can’t always be replicated and I understand that, but I’m sure you agree that it’s a key factor in the college experience – one that’s hard to replicate online.


Imagine your faculty being able to push articles to your students through Twitter or Facebook, or keeping up a social network using LinkedIn that allows students to interact outside of their courses.  Imagine your students, instead of pulling up “Buzzfeed” when they need a break from work, pulling up mobile resources on their phone aligned with their program of study and interacting with each other beyond the prescribed discussion boards.  Good online education may no longer be the content delivery system, it may have to become the distraction as well.  What do you think?  Have you given any thought to how to provide an academic culture to online students?  What are the challenges and how can they be addressed moving forward?


Thanks for your time today, sorry I got long-winded, this stuff’s been on my mind a lot as of late and I appreciate your attention.

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!

Social Media Integration – Networking

As for my weekly resource share: One of my higher ups just shared an interesting article regarding the future demand of online education.  I think the most interesting part is the indicator regarding the use of social media in a course.  I also recently read an article about a library science program in California that used that used social media to re-open opportunities for networking with faculty and each other that online students usually lose.  One way or another, social media’s going to be integrated into online programs in the future.  How do you see it fitting in at your institution?

The Minerva Project – Online and Experiential Learning

While I have you, there was a really interesting debate in Mid-April on NPR about what shape online learning will take in the near future and one of the debaters was creating a school called “The Minerva Project” which he’s trying to leverage into the online version of Harvard or Yale.  It’s affiliated with the Claremont Consortium in California and I think the program’s pretty cool.  Not sure if you’d heard it or not  and this is more for fun, but I thought you might be interested in what they had to say and what other people in the industry are thinking about in regards to what we do. – For the debate – for that school’s pilot program

Student Feedback and Discussion Forums

I found an interesting piece regarding providing feedback to students.  Generally in instructional design, we strive to provide three major types of interaction: student to student, student to content and student to faculty.  While all three are vital, the element that research has shown that student to faculty interactions are the ones that provide sustained growth in student performance.  As such, I figured I’d share something I found regarding providing proper feedback for online students.


Additionally, the forum is where the majority of these interactions can take place.  One of the reasons why we push so hard for their use in every module.  It’s not just the medium for interaction that’s important, it’s the type of thought required in that medium as well.  Tyler Hart, an associate of mine, found a really cool resource for writing discussion forums the other day that I thought I’d share too.


I think that’s all of what we’re working on right now.  Let me know if I’ve left anything out or if you need anything else!


As part of my weekly side article segment, I figured I’d point out at this time I play a lot of video games (while managing to maintain some semblance of a social life) and one of the things they do a lot of is “badging.” For example, if you complete a particularly difficult challenge, the game will spit out a badge saying you completed it, which you can show to your friends.


That concept is in play in education these days as well, but for more relevant purposes.  Imagine being able to show a granular assessment of  your skills to an employer or a faculty member writing your letter of recommendation?  Or finding people who have competencies you want and asking them to mentor you?  Eventually, some schools are looking to replace their turn of the 20th century era grading systems with this.  It’s still in the works, but I thought these articles were really cool reads.


I think that’s everything I have to share on my end today.  Let me know if you need anything else or have any questions!