Keeping Students on Board: Implementing a Research and Development Approach

Article excerpt

STUDENT RETENTION IS A BIG problem that doesn't get the attention it deserves. About one-third of college students fail to obtain a degree six years after taking their first college course, and the United States is no longer in the top 10 list of countries with the highest graduation rates, according to the College Board. The drop-out rate affects long-term economic prosperity nationwide. This is particularly true in an age where knowledge, creativity, and innovation are key drivers in a globalized economy.

The good news is that there are ways to meet this challenge if we as educators are willing to mirror the innovative spirit that drives successful research and development (R&D) efforts. We're taking that approach at OC Global, the online learning program at Odessa College in West Texas, where we develop and test new strategies to maximize student success. With drop-out rates well below the national average, we've found a formula for figuring out what works. But the key to long-term success is continual research, development, and innovation.

OC Global approaches distance learning from the student's perspective. We identify barriers to success and find ways to overcome them. Here's what we've learned to do.

* Be accessible. We design courses with accessibility built in. Students have a variety of learning styles. We continuously study new learning models and technology tools and choose the best elements of each to design courses accessible to traditional students and those with learning disabilities alike. For example, our learning management system features text-reading software.

* Be supportive. Distance learning students can feel disconnected, which can translate into high drop-out rates. OC Global creates a learning community for distance learners that was previously available only to students on campus. Besides our fully functional online student services organization, instructors provide support via chat and webcam.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

* Stay flexible. Rigid course scheduling is a real challenge for many students. We experimented with a four-week course start-date model rather than the semester-based approach. In some cases, it worked very well. Other courses required more structure in the enrollment process. …