When students are the first in their family to go to college, they — like all incoming students — have great hopes. The unfortunate reality, however, is that first-generation students often don’t graduate. A longitudinal study by the Pell Institute showed that just 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students are likely to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years.
It’s not for lack of effort; students who are the first in their family to attend college often don’t know what to expect when they get there. They may be unprepared for college-level work or fail to recognize when they are falling behind.
For many first-generation students, online or blended classes help to mitigate some of these challenges. Online courses that use adaptive learning software offer students a personalized learning experience by tailoring a course to their needs and providing immediate feedback on their work.
An online experience can also circumvent social pressures. By being able to consume content at their own pace and ask the instructor for help without the weight of everyone else’s gaze, many students more easily get a foothold in this new environment.
However, although online courses are particularly appealing to first-generation students, those courses alone can’t ensure a vulnerable student will finish his or her degree. Resources designed to address challenges that exist outside the classroom (whether virtual or physical) must be available if a student is to be successful.
Related reading: How Does the Degree Attainment Gap Affect Pell Students?
These support services and resources are available. The challenge is making sure the right students know about them, because interventions that connect struggling students with support services early in their academic career are more likely to turn around their performance.
On campus, students encounter these resources organically as they walk past posters and pamphlets and names on buildings. But online, college administrators must think more critically about how to extend this help to online students. This means designing quality courses that connect online learning to campus resources.
Student support leads to student success
Provosts and chief academic officers have recently taken a more nuanced approach to online education, according to two recent surveys that document increased academic funding directed to online courses and growing concerns about the quality of those courses.
According to a 2016 survey of online learning providers by higher education research group Eduventures, institutions are now more interested in student satisfaction and course quality than any other metrics when it comes to online learning. Respondents said they want to improve both student success and “the overall quality of their online program offerings.”
But course quality isn’t enough to attract and retain online students, they acknowledge. Institutions of higher learning want to create sustainable online programs that also serve the needs of local students, according to the survey. Academic officers are asking their program management companies to create online programs that integrate with on-campus student services.
Recent advances in learning design and technology have made it possible for institutions to do that, moving beyond the formulaic e-learning of the past. Today’s online courses — specifically if they use adaptive platforms built on principles of learning science — can collect student data as learners move through the course and adjust the material according to the data. Tailoring learning to the student doesn’t just better engage the learners; the process itself reveals vital information to both teacher and student.
By collecting student learning performance data, adaptive platforms allow instructors to see at a glance which students need help on which skills, and which students need support. Data may reveal a weakness in basic math or reading skills, while patterns of homework completion (or lack thereof) may suggest an issue with housing or internet access. The instructor can evaluate the needs of the student and intervene, nudging them toward the services that will help them most, and improving their chances of graduation.
Creating community for online students
This is significant news for struggling students. Traditionally, student support services have operated independently of academic departments. Tutoring centers, counseling, academic, and career-advising services have all worked in their own silos, and institutions have expected students to seek out those services on their own. But this model doesn’t work for a first-generation college student who is less likely to seek out help than other students.
A 2012 study by professors at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that a university culture that focuses on student independence and expects learners to “pave their own paths” doesn’t serve first-generation students. However, creating an interdependent university culture — a community for students — allowed all students to thrive.
While it may seem difficult to create a sense of community in an online setting, several institutions are doing so. Western Governors University (WGU), for example, is a completely online institution that offers a sense of community through a student portal.
Students of WGU are automatically enrolled in learning communities that connect them to other students in their programs and fields of study. These communities allow students to talk to each other and their mentors, and also take advantage of online study sessions or get help with content. Students also work one on one with a mentor who pushes them toward student support when they need help.
The values of online course providers are changing
The emphasis on course quality and student success represents a change in focus for institutions that just a few years ago, according to Eduventures, were mostly concerned with expanding online offerings and attracting more students.
Colleges no longer need to find students for e-learning; enrollment in online courses has been on the rise over the past few years. The last available online report card from the Babson Survey Research Group showed that one in four students was taking an online course in 2014. Eduventures’ own report suggests that between 2011 and 2015, the number of online programs grew by 110 percent.
The imperative now is to connect discrete online courses with the school’s broader network of support. Past efforts to entice new students to enroll in an online course have been successful. Universities must now work to ensure the academic success of those existing students.
Related reading: How Personalized Learning Can Help Close the Attainment Gap
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.