Designing Online for Student Success

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By Lurene Kelley

Retention. It’s a hot buzzword at CBU and every university in this country. But student retention is not your typical academic trend. It is part of the promise we make as institutions of higher learning – that we will attract, retain and produce college graduates and is at the core of why universities exist. As new CBU President Jack Shannon has stated, it is our “moral obligation” to ensure that the students we admit will graduate on time.

That’s a heavy lift, especially considering the many barriers to graduation students face. Our students work (some full time), many have family obligations, financial struggles, health issues, learning disabilities and just the everyday activities and lifestyle that go with being college students. And then you add online education to the mix — a learning modality that is still new to both students and faculty.

The research on online learning retention rates can vary dramatically, however, due to definitions of what “retention” actually means for online learning, and the dramatic differences in the quality of online courses across programs. Just as it is in traditional teaching environments – not all online earning experiences are created equal. As it turns out, how you design your online course could make a big difference in how well students perform, despite other obstacles.

Variables that Affect Student Retention

In research focused specifically on retention in online programs, Berge and Huang (2004) designed a comprehensive model that identified and categorized why students drop out of online courses. They focused on three clusters: personal, institutional and circumstantial.

Personal: These variables include demographics, individual traits (like academic skills and motivation) and past educational experiences. These variables are unique to each student and largely involve who the student is when they come to us.

Institutional: These include university mission, policy, structure, institutional attitudes and how the system is structured in ways that either help or hurt individual students. It is this cluster in which the institution holds the greatest ability to control.

Circumstantial: These are things that happen to the student, both by the institution and outside of it. These include institutional variables, such as interactions a student has with the university, professors and fellow students. It also involves external variables, such as work, family life, stress and health. These are things that happen while a student is with us and can be challenging to predict, control or alleviate.

The Difference that Online Course Design Can Make

It is impossible to help a student navigate all of these challenges while at CBU. Berge and Huang’s (2004) set of Institutional variables is a good place to start, because these are the policies and structures set by our private university. At various levels of our administration, it is critical to examine and bring change to policies and other structures that are frustrating or even stopping student progress.

On the individual level, you already know that as a professor, you can have a significant effect on a student’s satisfaction with their college experience. Dietz-Uhler (2007) took a more granular approach to how professors can impact student retention – by considering the design of online courses.

In their article, Dietz-Uhuler designed and revised two courses according to national standards set by the online course assessment nonprofit, Quality Matters. They found that across multiple semesters, retention rates in these individual classes each exceeded 90%!

You can read the full article here to assess the quality of their methodology and conclusions, but the authors maintain that applying these eight Quality Matters standards to their course design increased student retention:

1.     Course Overview and Introduction: Detailed information in the syllabus about course navigation, expectations  and information about the instructor. An “Introduction to Online Learning” was also included in one course, which is something the OLET team will be rolling out in the next few months.

2.     Learning Objectives and Competencies: “Clearly defined and measurable learning objectives” were included in both the course overview and at the module level. Learning activities that contributed to learning outcomes were included in each of the course modules and the connection to the learning objectives were made explicit through rubrics and other explanations.

3.     Assessment and Measurement: The courses included activities that were connected to the learning objectives, such as lecture note reviews, watching videos, interactive puzzles and simulations. The students were required to follow these activities by answering questions intended to stimulate reflection. The student reflections were given detailed feedback via email by instructors. The authors felt it was critical that all activities connect back to the learning objectives and that students were made explicitly aware of the connection.

4.     Resources and Materials: Students were supported with instructional material related to resources required for the course. For example, in a course using graphing calculators, the professor provided video tutorials on how to program it. In another class, screen captures were used to create PPT tutorials on how to use a particular program. Another effective tool is a FAQ sheet to address commonly asked questions about resources, material or the course.

5.     Learner Interaction: This pertains to meaningful interaction between the professor and the student. This could take place in email exchanges, discussion boards, video conferencing or videos submitted for back-and-forth visual conversations!. This standard also includes interaction between students in the class, all of which can be facilitated with the aforementioned modalities.

6.     Course Technology: This standard was met by including “technology that enhances student learning and fosters learner interactivity.” Again, this involved discussion boards, video conferencing and email. The course syllabi in these courses also contained detailed information about downloading or installing any software or plug-ins required for the course. This could also mean instructions in the syllabus about technology and tech assistance provided by the university.

7.     Learner Support: The professors provided information about technical, academic and student support offered by the university. Here at CBU, that could include adding our Online Student Success Resource Guide to your syllabus and encouraging students to utilize it.

8.     Accessibility: Meeting this standard involved information about disability accommodations for students in the syllabus. CBU has a resource link for faculty with information about how to provide assistance for students with disabilities. One of the authors of this article also designed her coursework to be accessible to student with visual or hearing impairment.

Reading these standards can feel overwhelming but know that building a high-quality online course does not have to happen all at once. It can be done by revising or building your course with what you feel are the most important or simplest changes first, and then continually improving your course each semester. You can also contact one of the Instructional Designers on the OLET team to evaluate and recommend changes to your course (Email:; Call: (901) 321-4004.)

Any change that moves your online course closer to these standards can result in students feeling less frustrated and better prepared to learn. Despite the myriad of personal, institutional and circumstantial barriers that my come their way – your online classroom could be the one place where they feel well supported to thrive.

Want to Learn More About Designing Online for Student Success?

If you are interested, you can check out the Showcase of Best Practices on the Quality Matters website that demonstrates how professors across the country are making changes to their online courses to increase student success.

You can also read this brief post about tweaking your course to be more student-friendly: 7 Ways to Improve Your Online Course Retention Rate via Learning Revolution.


Berge, Zane & Huang, Yi-Ping. (2004). A Model for Sustainable Student Retention: A Holistic Perspective on the Student Dropout Problem with Special Attention to e-Learning. DEOSNEWS. 13. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from:

Dietz, Beth & Fisher, Amy & Han, Andrea. (2007). Designing Online Courses to Promote Student Retention. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 36. 105-112. 10.2190/ET.36.1.g. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from:

 Lurene Kelley is the Online Learning Specialist for CBU


Building Quality Online, Together

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By Dale Hale

What does it mean to have a “quality” online program? Why does that matter? Isn’t it enough to put online what is done in the physical classroom? Don’t we want the quality of the traditional program to be repeated online?

All of these are excellent questions. So, let’s take them one at a time.

First, what does it mean to have a quality online program? For a long time, online learning was seen by many adopting institutions as one of two things – either it was seen as a “cash cow” that would save the institution; or, it was the ugly stepchild that no one wanted but necessary to continue to grow. With either of these views, the online program was pushed out into the ocean and expected to swim on its own. When faculty approached the online classroom as they did their physical classroom, they soon discovered the online experience to be unwieldy, difficult, and frustrating. This came across to the students, providing a poor learning environment.

Still, some institutions persevered, attempting to figure out exactly how to make this work. In fact, some began to see that the online program provided the ability to be more mission driven, reaching beyond the four walls to a world beyond, into the “laboratories” of the students’ real lives. Those institutions became the drivers of online learning.

Online learning was first conceived in the mid-1990’s as an intentionally designed, internet based, technologically-mediated tool to deliver an education. Since then, the number of students has continued to grow. In 2009, a report by Ambient Insight published some interesting predictions, which claimed that by 2015, the traditional campus would decline from 14.4 to 4.1 million students. It also stated that the online classes will grow at a compound rate of 11.08% and that exclusively online students will grow at an annual rate of 23.06%. Click here to read more.

While the Ambient Insight report may have overestimated the rise of online learning, today’s statistics show substantial growth. Currently, there are 5.8 million students online. That’s a 265% increase over the past 12 years, as reported by EdTech Higher Ed. (Ed, 2017) According to Quality Matters using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System’s (IPEDS) data, online undergraduate enrollment has slowed but continued to grow from 9.7% in 2012 to 12.5% in 2016 of the total enrollment. Over that same period, graduate level total enrollment has grown from 20% in 2012 to 27.5% in 2016. (Quality Matters, 2018)

The Evolution of Online Learning in Higher Education

Online learning is now a given at many institutions. It has become a vital component of higher ed strategic planning for continued growth and sustainability over the next 5 to 10 years. In fact, 87% of higher education institutions include online learning as part of their strategic plans and included in budgets with full budget lines (Quality Matters, 2018.) Yes, it is viewed as a revenue generator, but it is also understood as a way to advance the work of the institution.

What may not have been understood in the past, however, is that having a quality program is essential in this growing market. In the early days, it was enough to say an institution offered online classes. But as more and more offered online coursework, it became important to offer full degrees online, just to stay on top of the market. Now, just having an online program or two is not enough. What makes an institution stand out? It’s quality! If students have a poor experience, they are likely to adopt a consumer mentality and move on to an educational experience that “gives them their money’s worth.” Quality!

You may remember the slogan for one of the giants in American automobiles – “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” The car maker obviously wanted to appeal to a younger generation. Many times, a teacher attempts to recreate a great traditional class by shoehorning it into an online course. That’s when I think of that Oldsmobile slogan. This is not your father (or mother’s!) classroom. It is a different medium and requires a different approach. What works in the traditional classroom may not work online. In fact, it probably won’t.

“Wait just a minute,” you say. “Are you saying my class won’t work online?” Quite the contrary. It will. What I’m saying is that the methodology will probably change. But, that doesn’t mean the great content, and the wonderful way you connect with students will disappear. Your content and the connections you can experience with the students can still be as good. It will just be different. On one hand, I wish I could tell you that things can remain the same. On the other, we’re using a relatively new medium. Why not exploit its strengths and use the medium the best we can?

But, what of quality? Earlier, I raised the question, “Don’t we want the quality of the traditional program to be repeated online?” Well, if you mean that the same Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) will be the same, the answer is an absolute “YES!” It has to be. In fact, the outcomes of the online course should be held against the same standards as the traditional course. A student taking an online class should be able to pass the same final that traditional student passes. In fact, my expectation is that an online student will master a subject at the same level as a traditional student.

Here’s where the quality of the online course matters. If the technology or the methodology gets in the way of the student learning, then we haven’t done our job well. This includes the quality of the technology, the content, the methodology, and even the faculty. Of course, you already believe that, or you wouldn’t be a teacher today. The same expectations for the traditional classroom are the same for the online classroom.

The Pillars of a Quality Online Experience

The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) lists five pillars that come together to make a quality online experience. First, learning effectiveness must be expected so that the students have a worthwhile education. “This means that online students’ learning should at least be equivalent to that of traditional students” (Quality Framework, 1997). We want to ensure that the outcomes of both platforms are comparable.

The second and third pillars that OLC lists are the faculty and the students. If you, the faculty, are not satisfied with the quality of the education you are providing your students, then we have not done our job in preparing you to present your course content effectually. Our expectation is that you will find online teaching not only effective but a rewarding experience for you, both personally and professionally.

OLC points to the interactive quality of the online learning community and the opportunity to reach beyond the traditional campus — to those who would not ordinarily have had the opportunity to learn from you. Online also opens up many avenues for faculty to publish because of the integration of the online interaction.

“Faculty satisfaction is enhanced when the institution supports faculty members with a robust and well-maintained technical infrastructure, training in online instructional skills, and ongoing technical and administrative assistance” (Quality Framework, 1997). This is what we aim to do for you.

Students Are  Aware of Quality

“ is built for college students, by college students. Choosing the best courses and professors is a rite of passage for every student, and connecting with peers on the site has become a key way for millions of students to navigate this process. The site does what students have been doing forever – checking in with each other – their friends, their brothers, their sisters, their classmates – to figure out who’s a great professor and who’s one you might want to avoid.” (About, n.d.)

While this is a website created by and for students and is by no means scientifically trustworthy, students continue to use the site to “figure out who’s a great professor.” Students know a quality course and demand that of their faculty. Our goal is that all students are challenged to think and grow in a way that makes them quality contributors to the world they enter upon graduation from the university. If we are unable to satisfy students we lose, in terms of both our reputation as a caring, quality university and our development as a 21st century place of learning.

That said, online teaching is different and perhaps not something you’ve experienced in your own education. The OLET team’s task is to help you prepare your course in a format and methodology that works best in the online environment. We’ll follow best practices and help you design your course to maximize the tools at your disposal. Like Quality Matters (the national standards program that has been adopted by many institutions for just this reason – to assure the quality of the online course) we will preview the courses and make sure they are ready for student consumption. Unlike Quality Matters, we won’t be scrutinizing all of your content to match it against a set of standards and expectations. We believe you are the expert in your subject. But, we can help you deliver the content to your students in the best way possible for them to grasp, engage, and assimilate.

In the coming months, my part of this newsletter will be to take on different aspects of quality online courses. We want a quality program. We believe you are already at the top of your teaching game. We just want to help get your message across to students as effectively as possible.


About (n.d.). Retrieved from

Ed, E. H. (2017, August 10). EdTech Higher Ed. Retrieved from Infographic: #HigherEd leaders & students see the value of #OnlineClasses

Quality Framework. (1997). Retrieved from

 Dale Hale is CBU's Director of Online Learning & Educational Technology