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?