Tuesday, April 21, 2015


The Online Completion Agenda

Dear Big Foundations,

I’ve got an idea for you, and it even has a catchy name.

The Online Completion Agenda.

Hear me out.

We’re hurtling into two different futures at the same time.

In one future, colleges provide more hands-on guidance, fewer options, and more personalized attention to students, all in order to improve graduation rates (or whichever student success measure you prefer).  This is the “guided pathways” vision, and it’s built on the need to increase the number of graduates.

In the other, colleges move more instruction and programs online, offering the promise of a low-friction, convenient experience for people with complicated lives.  This is the “anytime, anywhere” vision, and it’s built on the need to increase the number of enrolled students.

The challenge is that the two are at cross-purposes.

We’re getting good data now showing that across some very large populations of students, students who take online classes retain at lower rates than students who take traditional classes.  In any given year, gains in success in onsite classes could be cancelled out by increased migration to online classes.

Obviously, some of that is probably a function of self-selection.  People with the most complicated lives are likelier to find their way to online classes.  The striking gender split among online students -- about two-to-one female, and generally older -- suggests that the format draws a disproportionate share of working Moms, whose lives are the definition of complicated.  The students who are most attracted to online classes are the least capable of bending their lives to fit tightly-defined campus cohorts.  

That said, though, most students who take online classes are also, simultaneously, taking onsite classes.  They mix-and-match in order to build schedules that make sense in their lives.  That’s why I want clarification when people refer to “online classes” and “online students” interchangeably.  They aren’t.  A student who adds an online class to three or four onsite classes isn’t really an online student in the sense that people usually use the term.

From an institutional perspective, doing better on one measure makes it that much harder to improve the other.  I suspect that the next great breakthrough will be in figuring out effective ways to move student support online.  Those parts of the college experience that help glue students to the institution mostly haven’t moved online yet.  According to the study in IHE, online course completion rates lag onsite by about 8 percentage points.  On my own campus the gap is smaller, but it still exists.  A few places have managed to close the gap, but at dramatic cost.  

I’ve been to discussions of online education, and I’ve been to discussions of the completion agenda, and the two rarely meet.  But on the ground, they meet every single day.  That’s where the Online Completion Agenda comes in.

Gates, Lumina, Kresge...let’s talk.

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Two different ways of education will bring different results. Each of them has pros and cons but we can see the transformation which leads (I hope) to better future.
This is exactly the tension we feel on the political side as well. On one hand, legislators (and the public, read: funders) want more completions and why not? Of course, they are not willing to fund the initiatives that would help us graduate more students, especially under-served students who are more expensive to graduate because they need more services (and that's okay).

On the other hand, we are constantly feeling pressure to use more technology to serve students and to push more classes online, where we have fewer services (help is not available 24/7, for example) and--as we know--students have to be strong self-starters.

There's a profound disconnect and an online completion agenda would be so interesting to see!
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