Going beyond COVID improvements to bolster the university’s online programs

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Going beyond COVID improvements to bolster the university’s online programs

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Analyst, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Universities are constantly looking at new revenue generating offerings. Specifically, for UW-Madison, fully online undergraduate programs are now at the forefront of revenue innovation. To maximize the potential of the online offerings, optimizing retention rates is important for both the sustained success of the program as well as revenue generation.

Issues with online education have been especially important since the start of the COVID pandemic and this creates a moment to leverage this new focus for the future. As a person who is personally interested in technological innovation and professionally tasked with identifying areas for revenue improvement for the university, this project came at the intersection of those drivers.

Compared to comparable in-person programs, online programs have about 20% less degree completion. This is in line with online classes which have up to a 20% higher drop rate than comparable in-person offerings.* Furthermore, given students in online programs offered by UW-Madison are likely to be non-traditional students, retention may be even lower than the nationwide 55%.

The solution to these problems is “closing the gap” between online and in-person instruction. This can be accomplished by individualized student support, faculty training, and improved technology and internet access.

The first aspect that could be instituted is a system that flags students who are showing early signs of problems within courses and has faculty and staff reach out to them within 24 hours of being flagged. An advantage of online education is data is far more prevalent and immediate, so students who struggle can be identified faster. To respect privacy and student independence, it would be important for the person reaching out to simply know the student may be struggling with a course and offer to give more individualized assistance if desired.

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The first aspect that could be instituted is a system that flags students who are showing early signs of problems within courses and has faculty and staff reach out to them within 24 hours of being flagged. An advantage of online education is data is far more prevalent and immediate, so students who struggle can be identified faster. To respect privacy and student independence, it would be important for the person reaching out to simply know the student may be struggling with a course and offer to give more individualized assistance if desired.

This gets into the second part of the solution. Faculty and staff who teach online courses should be trained on ways to improve course instruction in an online setting (such as using videos and live presentations rather than stationary PowerPoints). Additionally, they should be trained on reaching out to students and offering help in a way that both respects the student as well as offers genuine support.

Finally, access to technology and internet connections are important. As we have seen with the pandemic, the lack of access to technology and internet has disproportionately hurt certain low-income and minority groups. This extends to online education outside of the pandemic and is a problem that needs to be addressed to maximize quality. Access to these things should be subsidized for students to assure this is not a barrier.

I would like to thank Kimpton Farren, Daniel Himmelfarb, and David Attis at EAB for connecting me with resources. I would like to thank Amy Capolupo from the University of Montana who was amazingly supportive and helpful to bounce ideas off for my project. And finally, I would like to thank Paul Seitz, David Murphy, and Maya Evans from UW-Madison for allowing me to take part in and thrive with the EAB fellowship.


*Papia Bowa, “Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and solutions-A Literature Review,” SAGE Open, January-March 2016: 1-11

See the fellows' blogs from the capstone projects

Amy Capolupo and others participated in the Spring 2021 EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship

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