Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Meeting the Challenges of Online Education

Juan Leon, PhD

Director of Online Learning

Students in our online programs ought to be unhappy—because students in new online programs usually are. And yet well into the first year of our programs we enjoy a 0% attrition rate. Our students ought to be unhappy because new online programs are inevitably hit by frustrating technical glitches. New programs try out course materials that sometimes are not as evolved as they will be after two or three terms, and the program’s students—along with their faculty—are dealing with the daunting task of becoming fluent with the mechanics of their online classrooms. To make things worse, both students and faculty in new programs are discovering that their courses are more work than either expected.

These challenges for new online programs can compound the student and faculty dissatisfaction that often undermines online education. Attrition rates are high in online programs, and in new programs higher still. Why, then, aren’t more of our students walking out the virtual door? I think our perfect retention rate is due to our student-centered approach and the school’s strong mission focus.

The student centeredness manifests itself in many ways: we help prospective students determine if online study is right for them with a quiz on the school’s website. We plan ahead to support remote learners throughout their entire student lifecycle—from applicant to alum. We have created a new position, the Online Student Administrative Liaison, to provide personal, professional support to each student throughout that lifecycle. In particular, it’s the pedagogy that centers on the students—they are coached to be active learners who deeply assimilate new knowledge through engaging, meaningful application of material. Finally, student centeredness is evident in the best practices we adopt for course design, drawing upon models developed by the Sloan Consortium, the Quality Matters initiative, and faculty development practices at SUNY, Penn State, and elsewhere.

These best practices are well known, and we aren’t the first to be student centered. I suggest that what makes us uniquely successful in retention at this early point in the life of the online programs is the School’s strong mission focus. Through its programs in Healthcare Quality and Safety, Health Policy, Chronic Care Management, and others, JSPH attracts and develops health industry professionals who are aligned with our progressive mission at profound levels. That alignment helps both students and faculty transcend the mechanics of the online medium. It’s important to recognize this as mission-driven programs such as ours grow: while mechanics related issues need attention day to day, it’s continuing to cultivate alignment around the shared mission that binds students and their programs together. How do we continue that cultivation through the online environment? That should become one of our central questions going forward.

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