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The move to online education; is this pandemic the push we needed, or should we be striving for a full return to campus? I guess this is the global question on most agendas for those tasked with strategy plans for higher education institutes.

The accelerated nature of the move to online education has left many with these questions, even those who are usually advocates of the digital world.  The sudden impact of this crisis forced higher education institutes to pivot into full online mode, where systems and staff were not completely planned or prepared.  Students with no prior experience of virtual learning, would be forgiven for not highly rating their online educational journey.  Prior to this crisis, most higher education institutes participated in some form of virtual learning, but most relied on a blended learning or hybrid approach, still engaging with on campus pedagogy and student support activities.   

With a full move to virtual learning environments, there is an incumbent need to support students and engage them in their educational programmes and in University life, whether that be a virtual university or with some on campus activity.  Research shows that online courses, particularly for adult learners, have a high attrition rate (Park & Choi 2009).  Studies have shown that there are many contributing factors for non-completion by online learners, the main barriers listed by Galusha (1998) as (1) costs and motivators, (2) feedback and teacher contact, (3) student support and services, (4) alienation and isolation and (5) lack of experience and training.  We have not overcome these barriers and any plan to fully engage with online education will have a huge impact on student retention unless we focus on solutions to these barriers.

Student Retention is not an alien concept to higher education institutes, with most Universities establishing policy groups to support retention measures.  Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln, has made strides to improving student retention in comparison to the sector benchmark.  In 2017, she referred to her approach as a golden triangle, attributing the University’s retention improvement to three main areas of concentration: the student and their context, the institution, and its culture and thirdly, the relationship to place.  To retain students in an online environment, we must find ways to focus on this golden triangle approach.  Students will still have context and a background which can be supported.  Her approach focuses on asking students about their backgrounds and experiences early in the programme, rather than making assumptions. Also, engaging them in discussion about what they can bring and what they fear in relation to their studies.  This is possibly as easy to do in an online environment and is important for students who may have different backgrounds to that of the student cohort or the academic staff.  This is something to which I can relate, knowing that your fellow students have previously achieved a higher level of education, can affect your self-efficacy and confidence in a group setting, particularly around discussion topics and establishing your own opinion.  In fact, an online environment may often allow students to build confidence using chat boxes and discussion boards to give an opinion and then build up to open microphone discussion. 

Secondly, we must look at the university and its culture.  A university can build a recognised culture of universal design for learning and then it suddenly moves to a virtual learning environment, without planned supports and inclusive online pedagogies.  This can be to the detriment of the culture of the university.  Students can be introduced early to university culture, through inclusive orientation sessions, universal design modules and open discussion around the topic.  These can be facilitated on the virtual learning environment.  Jane Secker of City, University of London (2020), speaks of online methods to engage students in synchronous sessions such as webinars and discussion forums.  By recording sessions, it allows for replay, particularly around supports such as student orientation, where lots of information is lost in the first days of college.  Students can become embedded in this culture and be honoured to be part of it, whether that is online or not.  The golden triangle’s third theme refers to a sense of place, which traditionally meant the university campus.  Many authors refer to the design of a campus or the built environment when linking student engagement with campus grounds.  However, Kenney, Dumont, and Kenney (2005) refer to it as a “supportive learning environment”.  This supportive learning environment is key to building a student’s sense of place, one must ensure that the virtual learning environment is designed with this in mind. 

A university with a fully online mode of delivery is not where we want to be, yet in an emergency situation, we can support students online and help retention by using the learned experiences of such e-learning advocates as Jane Secker (2020), where she encourages higher education staff to get back to basics, start with the learning outcomes, not forgetting the pedagogy.  In this sudden move to on-line forums, most lecturers are focusing on the immediate, which is how to use the technology, and the pedagogy is coming second.  In an ideal on-line programme, the pedagogy and learning outcomes are designed for the forum and the technology is a means of engaging.  A blend of synchronous and asynchronous methods.  She speaks about online delivery not being about getting the content online but about the role the teacher.  This outlook also works for the professional services and supports staff, where simply publishing the lists of how to support yourself as a student is not sufficient.  I found that face to face meetings with students using the various technologies has helped with the anxieties of this pandemic particularly when students were faced with online examinations.  Prior to this crisis, I thought about approaches to supporting part time students and students who were engaging with blended learning or even the few students who were engaging in fully on-line programmes of study.  This sudden pivot to on-line virtual learning has given our support services the push it needed.

References

Galusha, J.M. (1998). Barriers to learning in distance education.

Kenney, D. R., Dumont, R., & Kenney, G. (2005). Mission and place: Strengthening learning and community through campus design Greenwood Publishing Group.

Park, J., & Choi, H. J. (2009). Factors influencing adult learners’ decision to drop out or persist in online learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(4), 207-217.

Secker, J. (2020, March 30). What I’ve learnt in the last 3 weeks about online learning that my entire career could never teach me. WordPress.  Retrieved May 22, 2020 from https://janesecker.wordpress.com/

Stuart, M. (2017, September 13). The golden triangle of retention. Wonkhe. Retrieved May 22, 2020 from https://wonkhe.com/blogs/the-golden-triangle-of-retention/

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