Ray Schroeder is director of the Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning (OTEL) at the University of Illinois, Springfield and also teaches Communications online at UIS. He will join us for a guest lecture and follow up discussion about his experience as a Virtual Professor and talk about his strategies for student retention in online classes.


Greetings and welcome to a brief discussion on retaining online students. If you build it they will come, but will they stay and will they come back?

Hi, I'm Ray Schroeder, happy to talk to you today on the topic of retaining students who are taking online courses.

First a little bit of background. I began my teaching career in the 1970's, actually 1971 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Not just sure why that disco is up there, but at any event, I guess that was a long time ago. In the 1980's I moved to Sangamon State University, actually in 1977, and initiated the television office. And through the 1980's and the 90's, I taught courses in the new electronic media. Now in the 90's and the new millenium, the Internet is the most important here at UIS. The office of Technology Enhanced Learning is a new unit I am fortunate to direct. It is funded in large part by the University of Illinois Online. And, I teach one class entirely online and have for the last several semesters. It is Communication 333: Communicating through the internet.

Well, there are a number of issues involved in the process of students taking online courses, and some of those issues impact on whether those students stay in the classes and how well they thrive and succeed. Online students, generally, don't have regular meeting times in courses we offer these kind of students commonly we will give students several days or even the week to complete an assignment, and they may access that information over the internet anytime during that period. And students who are taking online courses don't have the face-to-face pressure to attend the class. You know, there is that little innate guilt that comes about if you miss a class, and what will the instructor say or how will she or he look at me if I come back the next day, or my peers, the people who are sitting on either side of me. Some of that pressure goes away, at least that face-to-face pressure, and of course, many of the students online have very busy schedules, in fact that is why they are online.

Well, some early studies have shown a somewhat lower retention rate for those classes that are online, in fact, some studies show significantly lower retention rates, but, that doesn't have to be the case. So far, early on in our offering in classes, among the first seventeen online classes for which we kept information of 322 students enrolled, 92 percent of those who started the class, nearly 300 of the 322 completed the semester.

Let me begin with the key to failure, rather than the key to success. The key to failure in an online class is to get a good text book, put those solid lectures online, put some tests online, and stand back and wait for the test results to come in. That's a lot like throwing some very good grass seed on a brown lawn on a hot Illinois August day, little to nothing is going to sprout and what does in fact will whither by labor day. I mean by that, that if we simply put out materials, very few, thoses very few motivated students will actually follow through and discipline themselves to achieve what we are looking for. And so many of the others without support or encouragement along the way will be lost.

The key to retention is to engage the students. That is to water and fertilize them. Communicate why. Become a mentor, not just an instructor, but get a little personal, that is answer their questions in the context of where they are coming from. Mentor them, coach them. Think of the semester as a season and you have games every day. Get involved and don't miss a single chance to respond to a student. Now, foster interaction among the students. Try to get the students to iniate their own conversations. To begin to develop support groups and make this a human experience. In brief, reinforce your students, correct them, then reinforce them, and reinforce them one more time.

Well, we all could do well to emulate Jennifer Lieberman, and the way she delivers her online workshops, that is she is on the WebBoard all the time, rotating and responding and generating assignments that wholly encourage interaction among those participating in the workshop. In Communication 333, first I snail mail all my students before the semester begins, and I tell them about the class in a friendly way, encourage them to visit the course site, and to send me e-mails. Once they send me e-mails, then I of course respond, and now we have a two-way communication going. Shortly, there after, we commence the WebBoard. And I check WebBoard everyday, seven days a week, four times a day, and about 5:30, in the morning, I try to get up fairly early, then again mid-morning about 10:00, early afternoon, 2:00 to 3:00, and finally again in the early evening about 9:00. That way, for most students who posted a message they only have to wait 2-3 hours before they are likely to get a reply from me. I also maintain electronic office hours everyday of the week beginning in 5:30 in the morning commonly going until 7:30 or 8:00, and then also during the regular office hours from 9 to 5 at work. And then I am available for electronic office hours, and by that, I mean using the instant messenger from AOL or Yahoo chat, one of those live modes of communication on the internet. I am generally available as arranged on weekends and evenings as well.

Well, fostering student interaction is very very important and you have to begin by responding to every single posting you find on the WebBoard. Don't let the first posting go by without a response. And post leading questions. Juxtapose responses to those questions so that it begins to get to stimulate some discussion. And, give credit in your class as for participation, not just doing the assignments, but making a positive contribution to the class. Finally, learn when you can back out and let the students start taking over the classroom. Let their discussion flow. And in the very beginning, you need to interact with them every time that they post, that first week or two, and after that, you'll find the right time for you to back off and let them carry the conversations. This interaction is a very strong incentive to many students when they get a response from a student across the state, or another state, it gives them so motivation to respond themselves.

Well, you have to be dogged (as in a border collie dog) in pursuing the strays; you better round up all the strays and keep them moving along. Ways to accomplish this are to e-mail. If a student is enrolled in the class and is not posting, e-mail that student, and if you don't get a response call the student, and if you still don't get a response try his mailman. Keep after those students, get them going, and if with just a little bit of effort you are able to get those students back inline and participating in class. Let them know that it matters that they are there. You know, learning, like love and food, is best done not alone, but with others. The key to learning, is really I think the sharing that goes/takes place and while I suppose one can in fact learn alone, it's seems much more rich, much more rewarding if we are able to do that in a community. And that is what we are doing online, building a community, and soon it takes on a life of its own.

Well, what does it take to develop an online class? We talked about quite a few hours there, and quite a few activities. Here is the average week we work for an online class; I've seen it in delivering a couple of online classes. I spent about five hours a week on the WebBoard, four times a day for 10 or 15 minutes, 7 days a week. And then about an hour one-on-one chat. Some of us do come early in the morning, 6am, I do have students who find that is the best time for them to chat with me over the internet, while their kids perhaps are still in bed, before they have to run off to work, they call me up in the morning to bring me up on the instant messenger or Yahoo chat, or, later in the evening. And then about two hours of lecture preparation and posting a week That is really reduced in fact the third time you offer the class. So about a total of 8 hours a week spread across the days and nights. You should reward yourself, that is, at least spread your schedule by taking time during your regularly daily schedule, if you see this as a shift from what had been a factory second wave, if you will, society to third wave society in the information age where our office hours aren't necessarily 8:30 to 5:00. So, you should explain to colleagues up front, including your chair and dean, that in fact you are working on Saturday and Sunday directly with students and if they seem in doubt, you might be able to document that for them, and you might even ask them "how many students did you meet with this weekend?" and of course you can tell them that you met with ten, or twelve, or twenty students over the weekend. Don't feel guilty about coming in a little bit later in the morning, or taking a long lunch hour and find some freedom in breaking up that 8 to 5, as you make up that time in the evenings and on the weekends.

Well, I'm much better teacher for having taught online. That experience of delivering my very first online class made me much more sensitive to student centered learning. I think I'm more responsive to students. In fact, I'm better organized in all my classes. I think that experience helped me to focus the student support effort that I hadn't been giving in the past. And I find my that my online evaluations are strong, they are equivalent to what I had previously, but I think I'm earning them. In the past, I suppose I earned what I got, which was very good, but now I think I'm doing a much better job. I feel more comfortable, so I am truly earning very positive evaluations from my students. And remember that the second time you offer a online class it is much easier and there is much more freedom.

Well, keep in touch. And I look forward to having discussions with you on this topic and feel free to visit my online class. All my lectures are open, you see the URL up there, and I only keep the WebBoard discussion password protected. You are welcome to listen to any of my lectures and I hope that you enjoy them. Certainly feel free to e-mail me, and chat with me, I'm RaySchroed on AOL IM, and RaySchrodeder on Yahoo Chat. And, there of course is my phone number as well. So, I'll see you on the internet.