University breaks student engagement record–here’s how

Survey shows that many students earning degrees online are more engaged than students at traditional universities; faculty involvement still critical to success.

online-student-engagementAccording to a recent National Survey of Student Engagement, students earning an online degree reported feeling as connected and engaged as those studying at traditional universities – if not even more so.

The annual survey, which polls over 350,000 students from more than 600 institutions in the United States and Canada, asks students to rate their experiences and the quality of their education based on a host of topics including the quality of their interactions with faculty, academic support, and more.

Though the full 2014 NSSE report has not been released yet, the early information shows that online students rated their experiences highly. In fact, Western Governors University, an online, competency-based university with more than 53,000 students from all 50 states, was singled out due to its students rating it higher in several key areas than students of traditional in-person institutions.

In many cases, WGU students ranked their institution with scores significantly higher than the national average:

  • Quality of interactions with faculty—20 percent higher
  • Quality of academic support—23 percent higher
  • Would definitely attend the same institution again—25 percent higher
  • Overall rating of entire educational experience—16 percent higher

Similarly, students from WGU also responded positively when it came to the actual content of their studies. They rated the challenge presented by their course work as “very much” 19 percent higher than the national average, which included spending 13 percent more time on their studies weekly. Additionally, WGU students gave top ratings to their acquisition of job-related knowledge and skills, which amounted to being 13 percent higher than the national average for other students.

“These ratings by our students tell us that WGU is providing a great learning experience as well as high-quality, relevant degree programs,” said WGU’s vice president for Institutional Research Jason Levin. “Although our students complete their programs in an online, self-paced environment, they rate the quality of their interactions with faculty higher than students at many traditional institutions. This is because WGU faculty members, called mentors, work with students individually, guiding their learning and providing coaching and support tailored to each student’s needs.”

(Next page: Why faculty is key to success; best practices recommendations)

Western Governors University’s faculty advising model is based entirely around keeping students on task and guiding them with support and explanations. Each student has a mentor who stays with them throughout their entire degree pursuit, and speaks with them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, giving the students the opportunity to voice any concerns and ask questions about their classes while their mentor keeps them on pace with set academic goals. Each specific class also has a course mentor who answers questions in a fashion similar to that of a traditional teacher.

“You can’t remove faculty from the equation,” Levin advised. “Students need someone they can call and talk to.”

In order to bridge the gap that arises from a lack of face-to-face interaction, WGU utilizes a host of  software to make online communication run more smoothly, it says. This includes the use of Join Me screen sharing software, Adobe Connect group meetings, and other interactive and adaptive third-party courseware.

Also, because WGU is a competency-based University, degree program requirements for graduation are laid out clearly for the student, says the University. Competencies are “rigorously assessed and feature objective assessments that are proctored online and necessitate that a student can truly demonstrate competency.” Each degree has a council of academics and practitioners in the field who incrementally break down the competencies and ensure they meet industry standards so that students are able to excel in their chosen fields as soon as they begin working.

Another reason the boost in student enagement at WGU may also be due to the fact that many of them are older than the typical college freshman who has just graduated from high school. Many of WGU’s students are immediately motivated by changing or improving their career trajectories and can work to complete their degree as fast as they feel comfortable, notes the University.

“Western Governors University is aligned to accomplish that specifically,” Levin said. “The focus is much narrower than traditional universities. Our purpose for being is to help students achieve their current goals.”

Of course, the online learning platform always carries its own set of challenges, including a lack of interaction with other students and different people designing the class, which can lead to a slight disconnect in overall cohesion within a course. Yet, it is clear that Western Governors University is still highly respected by its students, and the flexibility that online courses allow seems to be especially appreciated.

“It’s not all that different from a traditional university experience,” Levin explained. “As far as academic quality, reliable assessments, high quality faculty, and more, WGU still has all of that.”