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As Student Engagement Falls, Colleges Wonder: ‘Are We Part of the Problem?’

As the pandemic progresses, professors are sharing stories about what feels to them like widespread student disengagement. In their anecdotes, fewer students are showing up to class and turning work in on time (or at all). Many instructors describe accommodations they’ve tried, like loosening homework deadlines or offering asynchronous alternatives to class conversations, but some now wonder whether this kind of leniency actually makes the situation worse.

Some of this perceived disengagement undoubtedly is a symptom of the ongoing health crisis, which exposed many students to new degrees of illness, stress and competing responsibilities in their personal lives.

“What we are hearing is students are personally overwhelmed, emotionally overwhelmed—and facing financial hardship, technology issues and difficulties with child care that are preventing them from logging on,” says Tim Renick, founding executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University.

But declining student participation may also stem from the challenges inherent to remote and hybrid learning.

It’s often said that online courses offer students increased flexibility—supposedly a positive quality. Yet another way of putting it might be to say that online courses shift the burden of creating structure off of institutions and instructors and onto students themselves. Experts say that classes that are self-paced, asynchronous or technically possible to tune into from a shared space full of distractions often require students to exhibit more self-control, more intrinsic motivation and better time management. This can be a real challenge for procrastinators, multitaskers, responsibility jugglers and anyone tempted to half-listen to a lecture while scrolling through social media—in other words, many people.

Leaders at institutions that specialize in online higher ed know this. And so they’ve designed systems, strategies and tools to better hold the attention of their students, many of whom are working adults. These techniques include human outreach, like employing teams of mentors and advisers who proactively check in on students, as well as automated tools that help keep learners on track.

That’s a sharp contrast to how most residential colleges operate. And so the online and hybrid courses these institutions spun up during the pandemic came with little of the scaffolding that experts recommend.

“What those campuses don’t have is the student-lifecycle infrastructure for that kind of education, to support that kind of flexibility,” says Marni Baker Stein, provost and chief academic officer at Western Governors University, an online institution that offers self-paced courses. “It’s one of those things—you don’t know that you even need it until COVID.”

As residential colleges grapple with decisions about whether and how to continue offering online and hybrid courses, they may benefit from taking a look at student-engagement practices commonly used by their online-only counterparts.

They may also consider experiments that fellow residential campuses are trying aimed at providing students with more support before they ask for it. For example, a new randomized controlled trial out of Georgia State suggests that behavioral nudges from a chatbot—the kind colleges increasingly use to help students complete administrative tasks, like turning in financial aid forms—can help students stay on track academically in virtual courses.

“This is almost replacing the high-touch engagement students are used to having in high school,” says Katharine Meyer, a researcher at Brown University who helped to run the chatbot study. “It just helps to have that additional guidance, support and partnering with a student, to help teach them how to manage their time.”

‘Community of Care’

Keeping students engaged online often requires educators to, well, engage with students on a personal level. That means asking struggling students what they need and responding with compassion, says Molly Ansari, an assistant professor in Bradley University’s online master’s of counseling program.

“Over the last two years, I have sent more emails to students than I ever have just checking in,” she says. “I learned over the pandemic that a personal email to a student that says, ‘Hey how are things going?’ rather than, ‘Turn this in,’ is more meaningful.”

Of course, professors who start asking their students why they’re falling behind may be overwhelmed by what they hear. It’s a lot to ask for an instructor to run a course and simultaneously serve as a sort of case manager for personal concerns ranging from food insecurity to a COVID-19 diagnosis.

So some online-only institutions have created systems of “disaggregated faculty,” or teams of coaches, advisers, mentors and instructors who work together to provide wraparound supports for students.

“I call it the community of care,” Baker Stein says. “We pretty much have 360-degree case management around each of our students.”

These interventions are informed by more than just human compassion. Often they’re backed by internal research about what specific institutional actions increase student persistence.

“There’s a lot to learn from the totally online environment for the on-the-ground campus, about how we can use data and some of these digital interfaces to see students maybe even better than when we’re staring them right in the face,” Baker Stein says.

Students at Western Governors start their experience with a consultation with an enrollment counselor. Once they sign up for courses, an assigned mentor is supposed to check in on them regularly—sometimes even weekly—through a call or text or video meeting. Instructors keep track of students’ academic progress and let mentors know if they notice someone falling behind. And if a student fails an assessment, their mentor and instructor receive notifications prompting them to reach out.

Because courses are self-paced, this kind of guidance is critical, Baker Stein says. Mentor check-ins help students realize when “that goal you set for yourself was crazy” or “maybe you could go a little faster,” she explains.

Mentors keep track of their interactions with students to better understand what is and isn’t working, in order to continuously refine their efforts.

“It gives the mentor the reins as the learning scientist in the room,” Baker Stein says.

Champlain College Online uses a framework and philosophy called appreciative advising, which starts when an adviser asks a new student to reflect on his or her goals and what brought them to the institution in the first place, says Gary Washburn, director of academic advising and enrollment management. The adviser draws on that information when he or she follows up with students over the course of the semester—and for new students, that can be as frequently as every other day for the first two weeks.

After that, the dozen-person advising team uses data from the learning management system to figure out which students to prioritize with offers of support or conversations about managing their time. Students who are in their first year, or who haven’t logged in at all, go to the top of the list.

“It’s important to reach out in the beginning,” Washburn says. “The last thing we want is for the student to fail and get discouraged, because then they’re going to quit. You want to avoid that. You have to be proactive up front.”

These institutions may pay attention not only to ordinary life circumstances that can derail students but also to emergencies like the pandemic. At Western Governors, which has students from all over the country, there’s an “environmental barriers team” that monitors tornadoes, fires, floods and other disasters and reaches out to students who may be affected with offers of support.

“When COVID hit, it was like tornadoes everywhere all at once,” Baker Stein says. “We were tracking the cascade of impacts from COVID and seeing at scale: Why are these students disengaging with us? It was fascinating and sad and important to start understanding what services do we need, what interfaces do we need, for these students to do better? Are we part of the problem?”

Those same questions prompted leaders at Georgia State to adopt some practices common to online-only institutions in spring 2020 when classes moved online. If a student didn’t log into the learning management system for three consecutive days, an adviser would reach out and help direct that person to whatever supports they needed. The institution ended up making about such 30,000 interventions that year.

“Maybe we need to communicate more clearly, need to advise more proactively, and need to be responsible for helping students navigate bureaucracy,” Renick says. “The difference is delivering the support to the student as the default, not the exception.”

Nudging Students to Academic Success

Help doesn’t only come through human-to-human connection. Sometimes a well-timed automated note can do the trick.

That’s what online-course provider StraighterLine has figured out through its use of behavioral nudges designed to keep students focused on making progress. Its system is programmed with more than 100 nudges to respond to student actions or inactions, according to Summer Martin, director of brand and PR for the company. For example, if a student hasn’t logged into the learning platform for seven days, they’ll receive an email notification to resume their coursework.

The playbook for such nudges is changing. Today’s college students who enroll right out of high school are less likely to open emails than they are to look at text messages, experts say. And so some colleges are adapting by turning to chatbots programmed to deliver information and respond back to students via text messages. So far, most of those conversations have focused on helping students turn in administrative paperwork or alleviating the barrage of common questions administrators and instructors face every day.

Helping more students succeed academically in tough classes seemed like the logical next problem to tackle with a chatbot, Renick says. To test this out, the institution partnered with researchers from Brown University and edtech company Mainstay to select an online political science course that has high enrollment—and high rates of failure—because every student is required to take it. In randomized controlled trials in fall 2021 with 500 students and spring 2022 with about 480 students, half received chatbot messages and half did not (but the control groups did receive typical email communications from the professor).

Because many students who take this particular course are freshmen, the text messages were designed to “offer very clear instructions—this is how you college,” says Meyer, the Brown researcher.

In practice, that meant each Monday, text messages were sent reminding students about assignments due that week, along with estimates for how much time each task would likely take. Later in the week, additional messages were sent offering encouragement and reminders that students needing help could reach out to seek support. Students could access chatbot quizzes ahead of exams to help assess their level of understanding. And as the semester progressed, messages became more customized for students who were doing well and students who were missing deadlines.

Meanwhile, a human teaching assistant monitored any replies that students sent back to the chatbot. About half of students texted back at some point, some with specific concerns that needed further aid to address.

The results of the trial are promising, Meyer says. Students receiving the text messages were more likely to earn a B or higher in the class; 60 percent of the control group earned at least that grade, compared to 68 percent of the intervention group.

The effect was even greater for first-generation students; about 45 percent in the control group earned a B or higher in the class, compared with about 61 percent in the intervention group. This was in part because first-generation students who received texts were more likely to complete assignments and participate in a required in-person field trip, they spent more time reading the digital textbook and they scored higher on exams.

“The fact that we see the greatest benefit for first-generation college students suggests it’s effective for students who are still learning what it means to manage a college class load,” Meyer says. “Who maybe don’t have an adult in their life who has gone through college who can share things like, ‘It’s important to stay on top of readings, here’s the amount of time you should be setting aside.’”

Students largely responded positively to the chatbot: In a survey at the end of the semester, 77 percent said they found the messages very helpful, and 92 percent said the university should keep using them.

Based on these findings, Georgia State has plans to test the chatbot with in-person classes.

Too Much Help—Or Not Enough?

College administrators acknowledge that neither proactive advisers nor chatbot nudges can keep every student on track or overcome every challenge a person might face. And there is a fine line between solving problems for students and teaching them to advocate for themselves, Washburn says.

Yet even if colleges can’t solve every student problem, these leaders argue that most institutions can probably do more to help more students succeed academically.

“Understanding why they’re not engaged in any point of their educational journey is super important,” Baker Stein says. “Understanding what you as an institution can do about it is very important.”

Skeptics may criticize more-aggressive advising and communication outreach as unnecessary coddling. But Meyer believes it’s reasonable for students to need extra guidance when they make the transition from small high school classes with highly involved teachers to large college college classes that offer less instructional support. And Renick points out that it’s still up to students to actually do their assignments.

“The chatbot is not doing the coursework for the students. It’s not getting them the answers when taking the midterm exam. It’s not writing papers for them,” Renick says. “It is delivering information to students when they need it, in a timely fashion.”

Because the chatbot experiment at Georgia State disproportionately helped first-generation students, Renick believes it’s the kind of student-engagement practice that can help to close educational equity gaps between students who have strong support networks and those who are navigating college on their own.

“We underappreciate how our systems favor students who have that invisible support and disposable, not just income, but availability of time and bandwidth,” Renick says. “What we are trying to do is not disengage students because of the luck of the draw.”




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