Insights interview: how to improve student retention, equity, and access in the new normal of online higher education

An interview with Professor Liz Thomas on how to improve student retention in online higher education through and beyond COVID-19

What’s the purpose of this interview and who’s it for?

What does research tell us about how to improve student retention in online higher education and why are these insights more critical than ever for edtech leaders?

COVID-19 has driven an articulated truck through higher education. Committed educators and desperate institutions have done their best to provide continuity for students by shifting their courses to fully online and experimenting with a range of video, communication, project, and assessment tools. But, the current solutions are still evolving and many students are deeply unhappy with their new college experience. More acutely, in the US, the populations of students who were at risk with traditional courses (low-income, first-generation to college, students of color, and minorities) have dramatically widened and deepened (with students dropping out of college this fall at alarming rates, or not enrolling at all) and this threatens to wipe out decades of gradual gains in access to higher education.

But these are not temporary challenges. Once COVID-19 has been tamed, many higher-education institutions will continue to offer more remote online courses—to provide competitive choices to students, diversify their business, and try to rebuild an economically viable future. And, there’s very substantial historical evidence to show that fully online courses present even greater challenges for attracting, engaging, and retaining diverse populations of students.

Turning this situation on its head, COVID-19 is precipitating changes in higher-education that many would argue are long overdue—re-centering the experience on students, offering students more choice (from fully F2F to fully online) and demonstrable value (with services at different price points), recognizing and tackling the needs of different student populations (especially those at risk), and exploring how to apply research-driven, evidence-based techniques to design courses that engage and support students for greater success.

So, what can innovative edtech and OPM (online program management) companies do to help instructors and institutions to improve student access, engagement, equity, retention, and success in online higher education through COVID-19? And, what pointers are there for where and how these companies can facilitate a better higher-education experience in the new normal beyond?

Why Professor Liz Thomas?

Professor Liz Thomas of Edge Hill University and Liz Thomas Associates Ltd is a renowned research expert in student retention and success, increasing educational equity and access, inclusive teaching and learning practices, and the institutional changes needed to achieve these in higher education. Given the challenges above, I was eager to tap Liz’s wide, deep, and practical expertise for what emerging opportunities creative edtech companies should explore and insights from research they may take inspiration from.

The interview

Good morning, Liz. Thank you so much for making time for this interview—especially at such an intense time with students in and out of college. As you know, I work with edtech startups to help them develop more impactful and successful future solutions for students, teachers, and educational institutions. With that audience in mind, I wanted to explore with you five areas where your expertise in how to improve student retention in online higher education may inspire them:

  1. Challenges and innovations in teaching online through COVID-19
  2. Opportunities for edtech in the “new normal” for higher-education beyond COVID-19
  3. Re-inventing online-only programs for better retention, engagement, and inclusivity
  4. Useful resources of retention and inclusivity research for edtech leaders
  5. A wish list for edtech innovation to support more effective online teaching

Do those goals sound OK?

Yes, those sound great. Please ask away!

1. Challenges and innovations in teaching online through COVID-19

What have been the biggest challenges during COVID-19 for students? Instructors? Colleges?

For students, the sudden closing up of campuses and studying online from home have been extremely challenging. Learning is a social process and students improve their understanding through interaction. Our research has also pointed to the importance of the physical spaces on campus in shaping students’ sense of belonging to the course and college. The majority of studentsat least in UK universitiesare not used to studying online. Students have experienced a range of practical and motivational issues. For example, suitable equipment to connect to the internet and study online, and a quiet space in which to do this. Students have felt less motivated to engage with online sessions, especially if they are asynchronous, and some students have felt less able to contribute when they do join a session. In one online session, I experimented by asking students to introduce themselves, and several just left the group.

Another challenge for some students has been that their professional placements have not taken place. At my University, a large group of first years who are training to be primary school teachers were due to go into schools for their first long placement, around the time of lockdown. These students experienced a range of emotions as they had not been able to start teaching and developing their professional skills, and this led to some anxiety about progression into their second year without this experience under their belts, especially as they did not know what opportunities they would have during the rest of the course as a result of the pandemic. The world of school teaching, as with so many aspects of life, is likely to be significantly changed moving forward.

For academic staff, the transition to teaching online has been challenging too. Converting face-to-face teaching sessions to online delivery has been a huge task and presented challenges in terms of the time and skills required. Many staff do not feel competent in all aspects of designing and delivering learning online, and encouraging interaction and engagement can be even more difficult when you can’t see all of your students, and you can’t ensure they are all getting involved in the tasks. Staff do not have an awareness of all the technology and software that is available to help them in their own university, and feel they have insufficient time to learn about these tools. And even when they use a particular technology, it is often only used partially. Lack of familiarity also leads to anxiety and that makes online teaching much more stressful than it is usually is. Changing assessments has also created more workload and the need to be innovative.

Other challenges for staff have related to working from home and setting up an effective home officeI’ve seen bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms, spare rooms, utility rooms, conservatories and loft spaces pressed in to use. And we’ve all suffered from the stresses and strains of everyone spending more time at home in each other’s company.

Institutions have overseen massive changes over a short period of time too. Not only have they had to work with staff to convert face-to-face learning and teaching to an online environment, but they have also had to manage all the other aspects of the student experience, such as academic development, pastoral support including wellbeing and mental health issues, and caring for students who have been unable to leave the campus such as the many international students. Another huge challenge has been assessing students in new and innovative ways to ensure that they can progress or graduate on time, and this is particularly difficult in subjects that include a practical element. All of these challenges have been dealt with at the same time as planning ahead to ensure that the new academic year could be delivered in an effective way offering students at least an equivalent if not a better learning and student experience. The regulator in England has been particularly demanding to ensure that the experienceand the value for moneyis not compromised in any way. All of these issues put pressure on University staff who are also adjusting to working and teaching from homeas well as frequently caring for family members and supervising the home schooling of their own children, and so institutions have also played a vital role in looking after staff.

How have these exacerbated or changed which student groups are at risk and why?

Many issues have been raised for specific groups of students who might be at greater risk of withdrawing or under-achieving in higher education. For example, students from low-income families have experienced the practical challenges of not having appropriate devices to work on at home, as these students often rely on computers that are available on campus. Families may have one shared laptop, or students may only have access to a phone, both of which make it extremely difficult to join in sessions and produce and submit academic work. Finding a quiet space to work at home is difficult for almost everyone, but especially for those students who live in overcrowded accommodation. Those with additional responsibilitiessuch as children or caring for elderly relativeshave found difficulty in balancing all the additional demands on their time, and many have resorted to studying late at night, or working through the night to get everything done. This can be lonely and lead to insecurities that you are doing it right, and able to cope with everything. For students with disabilities a change in the learning environment can create additional challenges, especially as staff are often unfamiliar with the technology, and how to use it inclusively. Adaptations and individual support agreements will have been drawn up when teaching and learning were predominantly face to face

The lack of social engagement makes it more difficult for all students to access informal support from friends in higher education, this can include checking that they’ve understood what they need to be doing, or discussing a non-higher-education-related problem. Accessing formal support can also appear more difficult. The isolation and the stresses and strains caused by the sudden change can create additional anxiety and mental health issues for many students.

Some groups, particularly low-income and ethnic minorities, have been disproportionately affected by Coronavirusin terms of the percentage of people who have been infected, taken ill or even died. This is partly due to structural inequalitythese groups are more likely to be working in vulnerable roles such as in public services, shops, delivery drivers, etc., to live in more overcrowded conditions and multi-generational households, and to have underlying health issues and so be more susceptible. For students who have experienced the death of a relative or close friend, this has been hard for them to cope with, especially in isolation from other friends who could offer support.

What have you seen as the most promising and potentially scalable innovations for how to improve student retention in online higher education that are being trialed at different institutions?

Institutions that are truly student-centred have been best-placed to tackle these multiple challenges. And this has involved recognising the realities of staff lives, as they have shifted to home working in difficult circumstances, and had to work in new ways and learn new skills.

Taking a “whole-course” approach is valuable as it allows staff to share practice, collaborate to create new ways of working and support each other with the problems encountered. Too often the emphasis is on individual staff and specific modules, but the student experience is the sum of the parts, that needs to be connected together, aligned and coherent

At Edge Hill University, we have adopted a blended approachcombining “present-in-person” (or PIP) learning with online sessions. In some courses in the Faculty of Education, during the induction week we used the PIP sessions to enable students and staff to interact and get to know each other, and we created a safe place which allowed more meaningful discussions. Staff and student mentors shared stories about diversity, belonging and success, demonstrating how they overcame challenges. We also looked at the issue of belongingwhat makes us feel like we belong, or don’t belong. We used a practical activity to explore engagement and the development of a sense of belonging in online learning environments, helping students to understand the process and take responsibility for encouraging and enabling others to participate. At the end of the session we invited students to share something about themselves and to tell academic staff what would help them to be successful. Previously we’ve done this activity using paper aeroplanes or snowballs to allow students to share information anonymously; this year staff used elearning tools to support the activity. Students told us that they valued the opportunity to get to know peers in the face-to-face sessions, and they had a positive experience. Some of the activities were delivered by Zoom to the whole group (around 400 students), but the students were divided into tutor groups of 15, each with their own tutor. This enabled tutors to facilitate the discussions and encourage everyone to contribute and engage.

In summary, I think we need to build on our understanding of face-to-face learning, and adapt it to the online environment. Engagement and belonging, and feeling part of a learning community are just as important online, but more difficult to ensure. Taking a combined approach if at all possible is useful, and splitting students into smaller groups to enable participation is essential. I believe that in the online environment we need to make use of one-to-one and small-group sessions to ensure everyone is seen and heard, and in larger group sessions anonymity may be important for students who lack confidence or are anxious.

2. Opportunities for edtech in the “new normal” for higher-education beyond COVID-19

Looking beyond COVID-19, what do you see as the biggest systemic changes that will persist in higher-education?

Pivoting to online learning has revolutionised the higher-education sector, and changes that would have taken years have happened in months. There are advantages to many of these changes, and I’m sure a blended learning format will persist in many institutions well beyond the pandemic. Using online learning effectively allows flexibility and provides students with opportunities to tailor learning to their own situationwhether that’s employment, caring, disability or personal preferences. The challenge is to combine this with the best part of PIP learningi.e. getting to know people and feeling that you are part of a learning communitywhilst also ensuring those people who can only engage online are not excluded.

What opportunities do you see for innovative edtech solutions to help students, instructors, and institutions to improve student retention in higher education in the emerging new normal?

Collaboration in online learning is vital, and sometimes I think both instructors and students struggle with both the technology and the experience. Perhaps this is a time when students should be seeing each other and feel more able to contribute and discuss thingsand share work they have done independently.  

I would also like to see opportunities for students to contribute to large discussions anonymously to take away some of the anxiety of contributing in front of everyone.  Perhaps students could choose and over time they would feel more confident to be identified.

I would also like staff to be able to track who is not attending and who is not engaging (although I am less concerned about knowing who has contributed what) in video classes. One of the current challenges in a large-group video session is to see who is there as you often just see the same few names displayed.

Many of the things staff and students would benefit from already exist; the challenge is developing staff skills and confidence to use them in live online sessions.

A student’s sense of belonging is strongly correlated with college success, and especially for populations who have traditionally been marginalized. What specific opportunities do you see for edtech companies to develop tools that help nurture this?

Belonging involves being known and not being invisiblebut that is somehow more daunting for students in an online environment. We therefore need to use individual and small-group sessions to build relationships and confidence for students to participate. This requires scheduling individual and small-group sessions and gradually bringing small groups together in meaningful ways with a specific academic purpose. It also requires students to feel safe and able to share, so informal networking opportunities and platformsin addition to the main teachingmay be useful to mirror the way in which groups develop in person.

Given the growing awareness of how much of current higher education has built-in biases for different populations of students, what do you see as the greatest opportunities to apply findings from research to make higher education more inclusive and how can edtech help?

Again this is about finding ways to engage and involve all students, and not just those who find it relatively easy. We need to adapt the face-to-face and online learning environments to help all students engage. This requires consideration of timing, including opportunities for catching up or contributing at different times and for students to schedule when they each meet with teaching staff and peers; it involves developing the capacity and confidence of students to engage, both in person and online, so this may involve developing self-confidence, communication skills or technical capacity. Technology needs to be intuitive and supported by guidance or training.

3. Re-inventing online-only programs for better retention, engagement, and inclusivity

After COVID-19, analysts project there will be an explosion in the number of online courses institutions offer (in addition to blended and face-to-face) as part of diversifying what they offer students and building an economically viable future. But, there’s substantial evidence of the challenges of engaging and retaining students in on-line only courses.

What are most impactful techniques to emerge from educational research to tackle these challenges in how online courses are designed and delivered (both functionally, and in terms of the instructor’s role)?

Even when all of the learning is at a distance (i.e. online) relationships need to be developed. This involves staff spending time with students in one-to-one sessions, in group sessions and through feedback, and allowing students to contact staff as required. Staff also have a key role to play in nurturing peer relationships, using in-class activities and group tasks. Keeping students together as a cohort throughout a program of study can really help with this.

Do you see the populations of students who were at risk with traditional courses being more or less at risk with online-only courses and why?

I think they are at greater risk of withdrawal, largely due to the complexity of their lives, access to computers and internet, and in some cases the lack of support from family and friends. If their home environment is not conducive to studying then this is amplified when all learning is onlineand the option to do this elsewhere is not available.

What are the most impactful techniques to tackle this?

Building in acknowledgement of the challenges, providing opportunities to discuss them and personalise learning arrangements, and building flexibility into the systembut this needs to be managed to ensure students don’t unintentionally drift away and then find that catching up with the cohort is overwhelming.

What opportunities do you see for innovative edtech companies to help?

Ways to automatically track and report students engagement with learning resources and teaching sessions would be helpfulboth to students and teaching staff.

4. Useful resources of retention and inclusivity research for edtech leaders

What practical research resources would you recommend to edtech leaders for insights into how to improve student retention, equity, and access in online higher education?

  1. Dr. Gurnham Singh published useful guidance during the lockdown in relation to supporting black and minority ethnic groups.
  2. I built on Dr. Singh’s piece to create 12 ideas to be more inclusive in online teaching; while this focused on ‘commuter students’ it has wider applicability.

NOTE: I would also recommend the Faculty Playbook for Delivering High-quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19 (created by The Online Learning Consortium, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and Every Learner Everywhere) and the more academic The Science of Remote Learning by Jim Goodell at QIT and Dr. Aaron Kessler at MIT.

5. A wish list for edtech innovation to support more effective online teaching

Finally, what are three wishes you’d like to make for edtech of the future to help improve student retention in online higher education and why?

1. Easy access joining of video sessionsfor every video class, we found that at least one student struggled to gain access. If joining video calls could be made simpler, that would be a great start, and stop eating into precious class time.

2. Intelligent online assistants for video sessionswhen I’m facilitating there are things I’m not sure how to do, so I go for the easy option. Online assistants would be helpful, especially if you could brief them in advance about what you want so that they can just make it happen (e.g. divide the participants into working groups for 15 minutes etc., and then bring them back to the main room).

3. Dashboard to give you an overview of who is in the video session/room, and who is active and who is lurking, perhaps supported by prompts to students to get more involved!!

Liz, this has been incredible. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such valuable and thoughtful insights and experiences.

Thank you, Adam, for giving me the opportunity to reflect on and share my thoughts and experiences about these issues. As we move into the new new normal for higher education, focusing on non-traditional students who might experience additional challenges is really important. Innovative edtech companies are going to lead the way in addressing these issues and promoting equity (or equality of outcomes). The changes forced on the sector as a result of the pandemic have given us an opportunity to create genuine and radical change and perhaps will enable us to move even further towards liberation. I like how this cartoon illustrates this journey.

Image Credit: A collaboration between the Center for Story-based Strategy and Interactive Institute for Social Change

Takeaways for edtech leaders

Liz’s interview is packed with valuable insights for educators and institutions. Given my focus on enabling edtech leaders, here’s how I translate these insights into market opportunities for edtech innovation to help improve student retention, equity, and access in online higher education:

  • Develop an ecosystem of tools that give instructors and students a richer and better connected “whole course” online experience—where all activities are connected, aligned, coherent, and easily communicated and accessed. Think about how to develop a broader toolset that provides this, or seamless integrations with other tools already in use. Develop dashboards that aggregate these touches to help instructors to see at-a-glance student participation with teaching sessions and learning resources to identify who to help, when, and how. And, similar tools for students to help them better see their progress, build confidence, and grow. (See related insights in my interviews with Bridget O’Rourke of The New School Parsons and Jarin Schmidt of Credly.)
  • Develop video tools fit for effective online classes—that make joining effortless, enable small-group and one-to-one breakouts (with or without dedicated group facilitators), integrate with other project and collaboration tools, show the instructor at-a-glance which students have joined and are/not engaged and easy ways to prompt participation, provide intelligent assistants to prepare session choreography in advance (e.g. allocating students to groups), and allow students to contribute in large classes named or anonymously as they build confidence.
  • Engineer your edtech for inclusivity—set out to design online experiences that support all types of students online by involving them to ideate, test, and iteratively refine tools that help each of them to build relationships, confidence, and capacity. (See related insights in my interview with Dr. David Porcaro of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and my battle-worn guidelines on student-centered design. Also, look out for recommendations in Spring 2021 from New America and SHEEO who are developing guidelines for US federal, state, and institutional policymakers on how to improve student access, equity, and quality for online learning.)
  • Innovate tools that facilitate online collaboration—that facilitate one-to-one and small-group activities to build student relationships and confidence, allow small groups to come together to share their work, and groups to persist across projects and throughout a course. Build adjacent tools (or link to social media) to allow students to informally network and emulate how peer groups successfully germinate and cement on campus.
  • Create get-to-know sessions at the start of online programs—set up instructors and students for online success by providing default introductory sessions to help build the instructor-student and student-student peer relationships. Provide examples of activities to share stories about diversity, belonging and success, and how to overcome challenges. 
  • Check out Liz’s fantastic 12 recommendations for more successful and inclusive online teaching and learning—use group and one-to-one sessions, create safe spaces, promote use of social media for peer relationships, promote active learning, look for where to diversify curriculum examples, provide diverse and flexible assessments, use feed-forward and feedback to promote learning and success, take care with language and terminology, organize one-to-one sessions to share challenges, build empathy for challenges, provide additional support 24/7, and review to become more inclusive.

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