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«Abstract Engagement of the online learner is one approach to reduce attrition rates. Attrition rates for classes taught through distance education ...»

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A Conceptual Model for Engagement of the Online Learner

Lorraine M. Angelino, Lander University

Deborah Natvig, Lander University


Engagement of the online learner is one approach to reduce attrition rates. Attrition rates for

classes taught through distance education are 10 – 20% higher than classes taught in a face-toface setting. This paper introduces a Model for Engagement and provides strategies to engage the

online learner. The Model depicts various opportunities where student-instructor, studentstudent, student-content, and student-community engagement can occur. The Model is divided into four strategic areas: (a) recruitment, (b) coursework, (c) post coursework, and (d) alumni.

The theoretical framework for the model is Tinto‟s student integration model. The conceptual design of the model is based on engagement practices from an online Health Care Management (HCMT) certificate program at a university in South Carolina.

Key Terms: Distance education, model, attrition, retention, engagement, integration, persistence, online, learning The Journal of Educators Online, Volume 6, Number 1, January 2009 1 Introduction As the number of students taking online courses continues to increase (Allen & Seaman, 2007;

Waits & Lewis, 2003), administrators and faculty members are challenged to develop an infrastructure for online learning resulting in students completing courses and programs in which they are enrolled (Allen & Seaman, 2007; Berge & Huang, 2004; Lorenzo & Moore, 2002;

Moore, Sener, & Fetzner, 2006; Roach, 2002; Twigg, 2004). While attrition rates for online education are a concern in the academic community (Allen & Seaman, 2006, 2007; Berge & Huang, 2004), the literature is sparse in reporting effective strategies to properly assess students‟ potential for success as online learners; provide the support needed during the teaching/ learning process; and encourage students to continue in online educational programs after completion of individual courses. Administrators and instructors may benefit from a model that can guide them in designing successful programs for the online learner. The purpose of this paper is to present a conceptual Model for Engagement (see Figure 1) and practical strategies that can be used in developing online programs that will attract students and retain them once they have enrolled.

FIGURE 1: Model for Engagement (Angelino & Natvig, 2007) Model for Engagement Model Designed by Lorraine Angelino and Deborah Natvig ©Copyright 2006 Assignments ies

–  –  –

The Journal of Educators Online, Volume 6, Number 1, January 2009 2 The Model for Engagement provides a graphical representation of opportunities where engagement with students taking courses online can occur. Enagagement in this context is defined as actively participating, interacting, and collaborating with students, faculty, course content, and members of the community (Angelino & Natvig, 2007; Palloff & Pratt, 2001). The Model is divided into four strategic areas: (a) recruitment, (b) coursework, (c) post coursework, and (d) alumni. Within each strategic area, the model presents five opportunities to engage students.

The theoretical framework for the model is Tinto‟s (1975) student integration model. Tinto‟s (1975) student integration model illustrates how academic integration and social integration can be used to increase persistence (Berge & Lyon, 2005; Rovai, 2002). The conceptual design of the model is based on engagement practices used in an online Health Care Management (HCMT) certificate program at a university in South Carolina. In designing the HCMT online certificate program, different engagement strategies were employed to encourage students to interact with faculty, other students, course content, and members of the community in an effort to engage the students in the program and reduce attrition rates. Moore (1989) introduced learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction. Moore (1989) noted, “it is vitally important that distance educators in all media do more to plan for all three kinds of interaction” (Applications Section, para. 3).

Health Care Management (HCMT) Certificate Program The HCMT certificate program was initially designed in collaboration with a local health care organization as an educational tool for their supervisory and management level staff. The program targeted employees who did not have an educational background that provided a foundation for the supervisory and management responsibilities of their positions. The program was to provide a more structured outcome-based approach to management skill development than was being provided through traditional seminars and workshops on leadership and management. The plan was for all employees who met these criteria to be enrolled in the program.

The Journal of Educators Online, Volume 6, Number 1, January 2009 3 The program proposal included the following commitment from the health care organization and the university.

1. The university would offer the two courses per semester on-site at the health care organization. Each course would be valued at three credit hours and the students would receive regular college credit for each course completed successfully with a grade of „C‟ or better.

2. The health care organization would guarantee tuition for at least 15 students for each class.

3. Enrollment in the courses would be limited to employees of the health care organization.

4. The university would award a Certificate in Health Care Management after employees completed all four of the courses with a grade of „C‟ or better.

Four courses were developed collaboratively by the university‟s health care management faculty members and representatives of the health care organization. The following courses were approved through the university curriculum approval process.

1. Principles of Health Care Management, which includes a study of management theory and its application in the health care setting. In this course, the development of the continuum of health care in the United States is explored.

2. Legal, Ethical, and Regulatory Aspects of Health Care provides an overview of the legal and regulatory issues that impact the health care industry with an emphasis on laws, regulations, and accreditation standards. The legal structure of the health care delivery system and ethical issues in patient care decisions are studied in this course.

3. Financial Aspects of Health Care provides an overview of financial management of hospitals and health care organizations with emphasis on financial and managerial accounting, financial analysis, and the use of financial management tools.

4. Supervision and Human Resource Management includes a study of methods, techniques, and skills needed to be an effective supervisor in a health care setting. The course emphasizes developing and maintaining positive relationships within the work setting.

The Journal of Educators Online, Volume 6, Number 1, January 2009 4 Administrators of the health care organization did not finalize the contract between the health care organization and the university, however, partially because of the concern that the time required and commitment needed for employees to succeed were greater than most employees were willing to dedicate to the program. When it became evident that a contractual agreement would not be reached, a decision was made to make the program available to people who have work experience in the health care field or intend to pursue a leadership or management position in a health care organization. In addition, the mode of delivery was changed to an online format.

The program was initially launched using the WebCT© platform, which has now changed to Blackboard©.

The HCMT certificate program commenced in fall 2003 and graduated its first class in spring

2005. Since most of the students enrolled in courses work full-time or are enrolled in a degree seeking major, the program is designed to be taken on a part-time basis, with two courses being offered each semester. Students can earn their certificate in two semesters; however, most students complete the program in three or four semesters. In addition, many students enroll in individual courses that are of interest to them and can be used as elective credits toward their major degree. These students may complete one or two of the courses in the program but are not enrolled with the intent of earning the HCMT Certificate.

The initial cohort took two years to complete the program since only one course per semester was offered in the first year. Out of the 96 students enrolled in HCMT certificate courses between fall semester 2003 and fall semester 2008, 11 students dropped a course before the end of the semester. Two of these students returned to take the courses the next time they were offered.

Three of the students who dropped courses were working full-time and pursuing the online RNBSN degree. The combined responsibilities of work and school were greater than they anticipated. Other reasons students have provided for dropping courses include: (a) the academic load is more than they anticipated (four students), (b) medical problems (two students), (c) financial aid problems (one student), and (d) computer technology problems (one student).

The Journal of Educators Online, Volume 6, Number 1, January 2009 5 Literature review Attrition rates for undergraduate, distance education courses are estimated to be 10 - 20 % higher than courses taught in a traditional classroom setting (Carr, 2000; Frankola, 2001; Moody, 2004).

Terry (2001) and Lynch (2001) report attrition rates are 21 – 36 % higher for online students.

While no national studies have been conducted, several colleges and universities have studied attrition and supported the premise that attrition rates were higher for online courses than traditional courses (Carr, 2000, Lynch, 2001, Nash, 2005). The definition of attrition varies among studies. Dunagan (2005) compared performance and attrition rates of over 1200 students enrolled in an introductory level geology course over a five year period. He calculated the attrition rate by using the permanent enrollment on a specific day early in the semester and the number of students who dropped or withdrew from those classes. Dunagan (2005) found that the attrition rate for online students (n=80) was 26% compared to a 5% attrition rate for traditional on campus students (n=1091).

Explorative reports on reducing attrition conjecture that student engagement is a key strategy.

Early contact opens lines of communication with students and is important in retaining them in online programs. In addition, these reports indicate that educators should also assess their students to determine pre-existing knowledge and computer competency. Early and frequent contact with the students is time consuming for the instructor, but may be important to ensure that students are prepared to participate in all learning activities (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007; Minich, 1996).

Diaz and Bontenbal (2001) present a learner-centered, constructivist approach as a method of engaging the online learner in the educational learning process that relies on student participation and input in designing course objectives. Tinto (1975) found that student integration in academic and social activities led to student persistence. “Virtual icebreakers” such as welcoming students to class, introductions (Anderson, 2004), and informal chat sessions (Carnevale, 2000) are methods of engaging the student and may assist in making students feel comfortable (Angelino, et al., 2007). As students become comfortable with the instructor, their classmates, and The Journal of Educators Online, Volume 6, Number 1, January 2009 6 technology, learning communities may develop, which will allow students to work together in expanding their knowledge base. By learning together, online students may feel a stronger sense of belonging and develop relationships with other students. As students become more engaged in the educational learning process, it is anticipated that more students will be retained in online educational programs and attrition rates will decline (Angelino, et al., 2007; Rovai, 2002).

Strategies for Engagement

Recruitment Recruitment is critical to the success of the HCMT certificate program. Retaining students from one semester to the next is also necessary. Our goals during the recruitment process are to market the program, communicate with potential students, assess the student‟s „fit,‟ assist in the registration process, and give students enough information prior to the first day of class to make them feel comfortable with the technology and the instructor‟s expectations.

One marketing strategy that has been successful in increasing awareness of the program is sending letters and brochures describing the program to CEOs of all licensed hospitals and nursing homes in South Carolina during the summer. The brochures describe the HCMT certificate program, the admission process, and provide contact information for those seeking additional information. The brochures and letters also include the URL for the website for the HCMT certificate program where more information is available. Another strategy that has resulted in inquiries about the program is an ad that is placed in the SC NURSE once or twice per year. The SC NURSE is a journal published by the South Carolina Nurses Association and is sent, without charge, to all licensed nurses in South Carolina on a quarterly basis.

The HCMT Certificate courses have also been taken by several of the students who are enrolled in the RN to BSN program offered at this university. The RN to BSN program is an online program designed for licensed nurses who have completed an associate degree in nursing and are returning to school to earn their baccalaureate degree. It has been found that many nurses prefer to take one or more of the courses offered in the HCMT certificate program as their program The Journal of Educators Online, Volume 6, Number 1, January 2009 7 electives because the course content is related to their current careers or their career aspirations.

The program director of the HCMT certificate program works with the program director for the RN to BSN program to ensure that all RN to BSN students receive online announcements about the HCMT certificate program and the courses that are available each semester.

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