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Online Learning Consortium

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As the Online Learning Consortium unveiled a $2.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reward digital education initiatives that help underserved students, the organization’s members used last week’s International Conference for Online Learning to explain the challenges of supporting those students online.

The OLC will use the grant to expand its Quality Scorecard, which colleges use to improve their online programs, and launch an annual competition for faculty members and institutions who can show how digital courseware can help first-generation, low-income and minority students succeed in college.

“This is an audience that we’ve been trying to work with for years, and we haven’t cracked the code,” Kathleen S. Ives, CEO of the OLC, said in an interview. “We’re hoping that this grant will give us the opportunity to reach this audience in a different way.”

The first winners of the Digital Learning Innovation Prize will be announced at next November’s conference, held each fall in Orlando. The OLC will dole out $10,000 and $100,000 to faculty teams and institutions, respectively. The program will run for three years. More details are expected early next year.

The OLC is defining “underserved” broadly. In addition to targeting students who need remedial education, the grant will be used to support students from low-income families and racial and ethnic minority groups underrepresented in higher education.

“This really helps us to open the doors and open the opportunities to engage with individuals that maybe we haven’t connected with,” said Karen L. Pedersen, the OLC’s chief knowledge officer. “Maybe they didn’t quite see the connection with the Online Learning Consortium. We have an opportunity to touch and reach and engage with the community we have, but [also] grow our community.”

For the Gates Foundation, the grant fits into its larger focus on the college completion agenda, said James G. Ptaszynski, senior fellow for postsecondary education. The foundation has spent more than half a billion dollars over the last seven years supporting efforts to increase the number of students who graduate from college.

“What we’re trying to do here is test a hypothesis,” Ptaszynski said during a Friday morning information session as a slideshow presentation behind him lit up with the words “Blended and personalized digital courseware can outperform traditional face-to-face and fully online courses to help solve the dropout crisis.”

While many proponents of online learning see the mode of delivery as an opportunity to increase access to and lower the cost of higher education for underserved students, some research suggests those same students are less likely to succeed online than their peers.

“Currently in the U.S., technological innovation in online [and] blended learning really focuses on the efficiency of mass delivery -- and it does that really well -- but the population we’re targeting really requires more personal interaction and mentoring,” Ives said.

Challenges of Online Feedback

Separate from the OLC’s announcement, many of the conference’s sessions -- especially those in a new track dedicated to historically black college and university innovations -- featured faculty members sharing their experiences from teaching underserved students.

“There is a fallacy that just because the digital age is here, everyone can utilize online learning,” Colita Nichols Fairfax, associate professor social work at Norfolk State University, said during a session on instructional strategies for nontraditional students. “We need to consider the lifestyle and the demands of the nontraditional student when we’re talking about having them take online courses and how we interface with that population.”

In particular, presenters focused on the challenge of providing feedback to online students, which they identified as a key strategy to keeping students engaged in their courses.

At Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., for example, faculty members have spent the last year and half surveying students in the institution’s master of science in transformative leadership program, an interdisciplinary online degree program for working adults. Over the course of three semesters, the survey collected data about the barriers students face when studying online.

Virtually all of the respondents in the program said they were comfortable with learning to use new technologies and sharing online, but 17 percent said instructors don’t provide timely feedback. While not an overwhelmingly negative response, the findings have led the university to make instructor feedback a top priority as it continues to revise the program, said Cecily Ball, assistant professor of leadership studies.

The feedback issue was also raised by speakers at institutions beyond HBCUs.

One of the main reasons why students can be dissatisfied with instructor feedback in online courses was captured in a survey conducted by faculty members at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Results from 17 courses found that most students -- 60 percent of undergraduates and 85 percent of graduate students -- log on to study late at night, on weekends, during holidays and at other times when instructors aren’t available to respond to their questions instantly.

“We were struggling quite a bit to support students when we weren’t around,” Scott Fredrickson, professor of instructional technology, said.

Some colleges outsource student support to help desks that are staffed around the clock. At UN-Kearney, faculty members built a virtual assistant and created a knowledge base of questions posted to the discussion board and emailed to the instructor in previous sections of the course. Students were told they could always email the instructor, but the virtual assistant -- which took the form of a chat bot -- served as a “first line of defense,” Fredrickson said.

Over the course of a 16-week semester, students conversed with the virtual assistant 475 times. Nearly 90 percent of the conversations took place between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. About two-thirds of the conversations involved students seeking information about the course (though the remaining third included students asking questions such as “What are the winning Powerball numbers?” and “Will the Dallas Cowboys win the Super Bowl?” Fredrickson said).

In a follow-up survey, students were "almost unanimous" that they appreciated having the virtual assistant available. Fredrickson cautioned that the follow-up survey only consisted of 39 responses, but said the university plans to use the assistant in more courses.

“We figured we can at least get the conversation started,” Fredrickson said.

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