The “Connected College”: Secrets to Improving Student Retention

Shannon Meadows is one of the co-leaders of WCET’s Student Retention Common Interest Group. We were pleased that she accepted our invitation to blog about successful campus strategies that  she has witnessed.

Imagine a female community college student in an impoverished rural county somewhere in middle-America.  She is the first in her family to attend college and she has a full-time job to help her pay for her school and living expenses.  She may even be contributing some of her salary back to family or supporting children of her own as a single parent.  Although she is determined to earn the nursing degree of her dreams, her daily life’s demands erect regular roadblocks to her academic success and commitment.  That’s a common situation in one form or another that is widely familiar in today’s world of higher education.

Picture of Shannon Meadows

Shannon Meadows

How does an institution build a deep relationship with this student and create the support fabric needed to keep going when the impediments seem insurmountable? A recent Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) report discusses hallmarks of  the “Connected College” which include

  • Online courses that consistently incorporate engagement strategies that foster student-to-student and faculty-to-student engagement
  • Communication that is relevant to student needs
  • Online and evening students access to services at times and in locations that fit their schedules.

Students surveyed for the report highly valued communication involving academically purposeful activities. The CCSSE report states that such engagement leads to higher levels of engagement, student retention and ultimately graduation.

South Arkansas Community College is a great case in point.  By recognizing many students’ inseparable relationship to their mobile devices, SouthArk conducted an 80-student pilot this spring in which instructors sent text messages from the Blackboard LMS to students who signed up for them.  “If you’re going to retain students, if you’re going to keep them engaged, the only way to do that is really to look at what technology is in their hands right now,” Terry Patterson, Director of Distance Learning at South Arkansas Community College, said. “And the technology that’s in their hands right now is mobile.” Text messages from professors to students included

  • Notification of a delayed class start time
  • Posting of additional course material
  • Personal messages suggesting 1:1 meetings for students that were missing classes

The instructors reported that texting was more personal and welcomed by the students than sending an email.  And, the faculty reported that by initiating this communication directly in the familiarity of the LMS made personalized communication fast and convenient.

A similar pilot was run at Utah State University as part of its pilot implementation of Bb Learn 9.1. Kevin Reeve, an Instructional Designer at USU, listed the ability to text students from Blackboard as a positive aspect of the new software release in his final thoughts on 9.1 blog and noted positive student feedback on the timely text message she received about posted grades.

At Orange County Community College District, Jim Gaston and Bob Bramucci are developing Sherpa, an automated system for increasing student success with a recommendation engine and automated text messages for notifying students with personal suggestions for courses, information and services that will enhance their ability to succeed. They will present this information in their session at the EDUCAUSE conference this fall.

The trend to integrated, personalized, relevant communication from institutions to students via texting , their preferred mode of consuming this information, has clearly begun. Tools today support new ways of becoming a “Connected College” to engage students more effectively with the information they want and need. This increased connection between the students and their institutions promises to ultimately improve student success and help them realize their dreams in our complex and challenging world.

WCET’s Student Retention Common Interest Group is sponsoring two related sessions at the upcoming WCET Annual Conference, November 10-13, in La Jolla, California.  I invite you to join myself and my fellow Student Retention CIG co-chairs—Diane Goldsmith from the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, and Christine Lustik from Smarthinking—to delve further into creating a campus culture committed to student retention.  See you in La Jolla!

Shannon Meadows
Vice President, Sales Operations
Blackboard, Inc.

Editor’s Note:  WCET members interested in retention issue are invited to join our Student Retention Common Interest Group. Everyone is welcome to view the resources we have collected on our Student Retention Focus Area web page.

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