Managing Online Program Growth and Retention at the Department Level
In 2011 Central Washington University began offering its information technology administrative management (ITAM) program in an online format, aimed at working adults who were both place- and time-bound.
The program serves as a complement to two-year technical degrees and is the only university program in the state that accepts 100 percent of the credits earned in these degrees toward a bachelor of applied science degree. Knowing that online programs often have lower retention rates than on-campus programs, the department built in ways to ameliorate some of the factors that can negatively affect retention.
One factor that commonly hurts retention rates is students’ being unaware of the process and schedule for course registration. Unlike their on-campus counterparts, online students do not participate in informal before- or after-class conversations that can help disseminate knowledge of the registration process.
To address this issue, the department began including contact information with all communications with students and providing a dedicated email address for students to use to ask questions about registration. “We found out that no matter how many times you write it in a website or in an email or send out pamphlets to people, they still need to reach out and touch somebody. They will still call and ask the same questions that you already answered by posting in a banner on the learning management system. So we realized there still have to be these touch points,” says Laurie Stehle, director of ITAM online programs.
A staff person monitors and responds to emails at various hours, not just during typical working hours. Registration information is also available in the “information center” within the learning management system. Students also can call the department during regular hours.
Simplified advising sheets
Another factor that affects retention is students’ having difficulty tracking their progress within a program and knowing exactly which requirements they need to fulfill. Central Washington University provides an academic progress report that students sometimes find difficult to read. To address this issue a staff member in the department creates a one-page, cloud-based advising sheet that lists prerequisites for each required course, when the course are offered, the modality of the course (online, in-class, or distance education), and other useful information.
Students get this advising sheet one week before registration. The student’s advisor uses this document during the advising appointment, which can occur via Skype, telephone, or email, and to focus advising “more on how the student is doing in classes and his or her career aspirations rather than on the nuts and bolts of credits and requirements,” Stehle says.
Consistency in an online program can increase student retention. This becomes a bigger issue as an online program grows and needs to rely on more adjunct instructors. To address this issue, the program uses courses created by master teachers (tenured or tenure-track faculty) across all course sections with the expectation that each instructor will use at least 80 percent of that master course in his/her course. “Having multiple sections of one course all taught with basically the same content really helps our new people coming in concentrate on providing the best teaching they can rather than creating three new courses for the quarter,” says Lori Braunstein, ITAM professor. The master teacher is also in charge of training and mentoring the faculty using the master courses.
Even with the use of essentially the same course content, instructors use the other 20 percent of the master course to build in their own presence through audio, video, and be responding in a timely fashion to students. They also might modify course activities to foster social presence or support a particular learning goal. For example, an instructor might change a journal assignment into a discussion board assignment, Braunstein says.
In addition, all the master courses use the same navigation menu, which saves students a lot of time and stress associated with trying to figure out where things are.
Consistency also extends between the online and on-campus programs. The vast majority of faculty teach both face-to-face and online. “We made the conscious decision a few years ago that we wanted our faculty to always have face-to-face contact with our students. We didn’t want to have only online faculty. We don’t want somebody sitting in Georgia teaching only online classes to our students. They don’t know our students. They don’t know our department. They don’t know our university,” Braunstein says.
Leave of absence
Online learners are often working adults and tend to have responsibilities that can prevent them from being able to take courses consistently term to term. In the past, if students did not take courses for one quarter (excluding summer), they would need to reapply to the university. “We were finding that online students didn’t know about that policy. They would end up not coming for a quarter and basically get kicked out of the university,” Braunstein says. “So now every 10th day of the quarter, we run a report that shows all the students from the previous quarter who did not sign up and contact them personally and find out why. And if it’s an emergency, we can actually file the leave of absence for them to keep them retained at the university.”
Instructor presence in the online environment is vital to learning and student retention. “When you’re looking at hiring and developing faculty, they have to understand that online teaching is not an 8 to 5 job,” says Laura Portolese Dias, ITAM assistant professor. “Students may need you at 11 p.m. on Sunday. You’re not necessarily checking email from six in the morning until midnight, but enough so that students feel that their instructor is present and that they’re not going to have to wait three days to get a response.”
Braunstein adds: “Instructor presence goes beyond simply responding to emails and questions in our department. We want our students to also know us as people. One faculty member posts a ‘Go Hawks’ video in his classes before a Seattle Seahawks game. Another faculty member will post that he will be at a specific Starbucks on a certain day/time and invites his students to join him for coffee.”
Braunstein, former department chair, attributes the ability of the program’s growth—from 225 to 1,000 majors and minors (half online and half on campus) in eight years—in part to the program’s autonomy. The program does not routinely use resources from a centralized distance education office, continuing education, career services, or advising. “We maintain control as much as we can,” Braunstein says. “We’re very innovative, and we know what we do right. … One of the things that both our current department chair and I recognized is that to have a successful program you have to have the infrastructure to back it up, and we refused to continue growing until the administration allowed us to start hiring staff people to help run these programs, freeing up faculty time to teach. In the last eight we have added five staff positions, people who work with advising, answering questions, and creating and maintaining our website and social media presence.”
Changing chair roles
Braunstein initially got release time to handle the duties associated with developing and running the online program, but she was later able to delegate some of these functions to recently hired staff members to enable her to teach and focus on faculty mentoring and higher-level planning.
Planning and budgeting have become more important as public funding for higher education has decreased. “The position of department chair has changed drastically in six or eight years, particularly in Washington State,” Braunstein says. “We used to have 50 percent state funding for each student. That’s fallen to 13 percent. … Chairs have to really understand budgeting. They’re becoming much more business-oriented, trying to bring in new enrollments and retain students. We all know it’s cheaper to retain students than it is to bring in new enrollments.
“And while the role of department chairs is changing, I personally think it is an exciting time for department chairs to exercise their innovation, leadership, and business skills. One thing that will never change in our department: we will always focus on student success!”