Tuesday, January 27, 2015

 

High Impact Online


Folks who study student retention and success in community colleges are well-acquainted with the concept of “high-impact practices.”  They’re a set of measures that have been shown through empirical research to make positive differences in student outcomes.  The list of high-impact practices usually includes learning communities, service learning, writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research, internships, and capstone courses, among others.  (The AAC&U list is here; it draws heavily on George Kuh’s work.)

Nearly everyone in higher ed agrees that those practices are, by and large, good.  Given the focus on student success at most community colleges now, you’d think we’d be rushing to embrace the entire list, or most of it.  (Capstones don’t always make sense with two-year degrees geared for transfer.)  My own has done a particularly good job with learning communities and service learning, for example.  

It’s probably no surprise that cost has limited the adoption and growth of some high-impact practices.  Learning communities and service learning, for example, require extra coordination and logistical support as opposed to traditional classes, and that support costs money.  In an era in which we’re cost-shifting from states to students, and student enrollments are dropping, it’s hard to find money to scale up expensive programs, even when they’re quite good.

But we’re running into a new obstacle, too.

How do high-impact practices work with online classes?

If you run down the list of high-impact practices, it becomes clear quickly that they assume the presence of full-time students and full-time faculty physically on campus.  To the extent those conditions still hold, implementation is relatively straightforward.  But enrollments are shifting online, and I haven’t yet seen a serious discussion of how to adapt high impact practices for online enrollments.

The need exists.  Online students often perform quite well academically, but have more (or more variable) outside demands on their time.  It can be easy for them to disengage, especially in the gaps between semesters.  

To the extent that we’re using a playbook designed for the campuses of the 1970’s, we’re falling short of meeting the needs of the students we have now.  We have students who take evening classes, online classes, weekend classes; students who use intersession and summer to round out the semesters; students who take courses in funny order because they show up here with assortments of transfer credits from wherever and whenever.  The old model of “pretend you’re a residential liberal arts college” doesn’t work for them.  

In many places, the short-term pragmatic solution has been essentially to reserve the high-impact practices for the students for whom they were originally designed, and to consign everyone else to the basics.  But as the category of “everyone else” gets bigger, the shortcomings of that compromise are getting harder to ignore.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or read about, or heard about) smart ways to adapt high-impact practices for online students?

Comments:
We are working on one aspect of this problem, namely, delivering internship experience in an online course. I work with a research group at the University of Wisconsin (http://edgaps.org/gaps) that designs virtual internships, online simulations of professional practice that give first-year students a sense of what it's like to work in a particular field long before they could typically get a traditional internship. Each virtual internship is structured around a realistic, complex problem with no optimal solution (the kinds of problems people face in real-world careers). Students work online, both individually and collaboratively, to do everything they would do in a real-world internship. They work for a (fictitious) company where they read reports and conduct research, design and perform experiments (or other tasks) using virtual tools, respond to clients and stakeholders, complete and submit deliverables, keep records of their work, and present and justify their proposed solutions, all in a self-contained simulation that provides real-time feedback. The virtual environment allows us to scaffold the simulation for the level of the students, so that even students with no prior experience in a particular field (as is common with first-year students in, say, engineering) can experience realistic work in that field. Of course, an online environment cannot replicate everything--manual tasks cannot be done online--but we've found that this approach helps students learn domain-relevant content and practices, and they become more interested in the field and more motivated to pursue further study.
 
At my CC, we've been running online and blended learning communities for the past two years. They're structured just like the face to face LCs: both instructors interact with students in the course shell, the major assignments are integrated, the instructors collaborate on grading. Online classes definitely have their limitations, but incompatibility with the learning community model is not one of them.
 
We're also doing an online internship for our online political science program, but we're trying to find ways to integrate it in to our online students' current lives. So for instance, one of my students works full-time then moonlights as an office manager for a medical practice. There was no way to fit a traditional internship into that student's life. So, she wrote a journal that required her to reflect on the policy implications of her work (we chose her moonlighting lob as her career aspirations lie in the health care field). She interviewed some people about policy issues in health care. Finally, she wrote a research paper that integrated all this work.

Of course, this is a very labor intensive for the instructor as you have to create different internship experiences and work for each student depending on their life situation. But it's also been fairly rewarding for these students as they're really seeing the connections between the work they are doing both in the "real world" and in their online classes.
 
I'm glad to hear the learning community aspect works online. I think some of the benefits for outcomes are actually social (fostering peer support networks), which you have to work at to replicate online.
Similarly, maybe I'm being a snob, but a "virtual internship" seems like bunk to me. Internships aren't valuable because they teach you things, they are valuable because getting experience on a CV in a new field is *hard*.
If you don't know for sure *why* a "high-impact practice" worked, you should probably be ready to collect some data to determine whether the online adaptation works as well.

Also, I don't see any good reason certain types of bioinformatic research couldn't be done online.
 
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