Where to start? These are the basic technologies to improve retention

Instead of operating in crisis mode to curb dropout rates, institutions can use web-based services to improve learning in a way that naturally supports students staying in school and completing coursework.

technology-retention-improveStudent attrition from institutions of higher learning is an epidemic in the United States. According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse, only 55 percent of first-time college students in 2008 had completed a degree within six years. Most dropouts leave college before their second year. This is a significant concern: in a recent survey of higher education decision makers conducted by the Center for Digital Education (CDE), 74 percent of respondents identified increasing retention and graduation rates as higher education institutions’ top priority.

The ability to retain and advance students not only influences college rankings, reputation and recruitment of top talent, but also impacts the bottom line. Enrolled students provide a steady revenue stream through tuition and other purchases (e.g., books, parking passes and food services). Student retention also allows recruitment dollars to go further by decreasing the need to continually replace students who have dropped out.

Contrary to popular perception, poor academic performance isn’t always the reason for leaving college. Factors influencing attrition include poor preparation, financial hardship, work or family demands and a lack of engagement or relevance.

To stem the loss of new students, universities and colleges are implementing first-year programs, academic advising and other interventions. Institutions are also trying to accommodate the diverse needs of all their students by offering more personalized, flexible courses and programs.

To help create a well-rounded, sustainable approach to student retention, many institutions are turning to web-facing services and other technology. In the CDE survey referenced earlier, 90 percent of respondents anticipate an increase in web-facing applications and services over the next few years.

Given the multiple factors influencing student dropouts, it is important to use these services to create a multi-pronged approach that can address each student’s unique situation.

(Next page: 6 basic technologies that can help improve retention)

Here are a few examples of technology-based tactics that can keep students in college and help them graduate.

1. Access via mobile devices: For many students, smartphones may be their only personal tool for accessing the web, exchanging emails, performing calculations and more. Other students may use smartphones along with laptops and/or tablets, depending on whether they are reading, taking notes, studying or writing reports. By using such devices to connect to web-based services, students can optimize their productivity; work at times and locations that are most convenient to them; and more successfully balance school, work and other aspects of their busy lives. Mobile devices are also an important tool for engagement, allowing students to perform and document studies in the field; collaborate with other students, professors and researchers in virtually any location; and more.

2. Online learning and blended learning: Because online classes enable self-paced learning and assessment, they have become an important tool for remediation, course-credit recovery, gifted-student programs and regular coursework. Besides being able to personalize learning to individual needs, online classes make learning accessible to geographically distant students and those who must schedule learning around other work-life responsibilities. While online learning has many merits, researchers are finding that blended learning models have more potential than online-only classes to improve student outcomes and reduce attrition. These models typically combine online coursework with in-person interaction, real-time class discussions and other web-based learning.

3. Monitoring, assessment and early alert systems: By integrating information from a variety of sources (e.g., digital grade books, student information systems, learning management systems and financial aid records), higher education institutions can receive deeper insight into students’ academic and financial standing, evaluate risk factors and develop appropriate interventions.

4. Student portals: Effective student portals provide students with a clear, objective picture of their entire academic life. Students can track progress in meeting degree requirements, review grades and academic standing, connect with special programs and more. Portals can also help students be more proactive about financial issues by providing a central location for tracking tuition payments, scholarships, grants, loans and work-study.

5. E-portfolios: These web-based environments allow students to publish content that demonstrates their skills, achievements, academic performance and work experience. Besides helping students see the relevance of their work and prepare for future job searches, an e-portfolio may also be an early indicator of how a student is doing in a particular course or program. According to results from a project at the University of Notre Dame, e-portfolio engagement was an accurate indicator of student success in a course.

6. Video teleconferencing (VTC): VTC is an important tool for improving engagement among online learners, their peers and faculty, counteracting the isolation that students may feel when taking courses online, and making life easier for students who otherwise would spend time and money traveling to a physical location. Using VTC, institutions can also improve retention by offering courses and programs targeted to specific populations (e.g., gifted and at-risk students), bringing in researchers and other professionals for special lectures, offering research opportunities, and enabling collaboration among universities.

Web-facing services and applications present promising, cost-effective opportunities for colleges and universities to achieve their educational and institutional goals. Instead of operating in crisis mode to curb dropout rates, institutions can use web-based services to improve learning in a way that naturally supports students staying in school and completing coursework. By increasing engagement, personalizing learning and giving students more control over their academic lives, these services not only address student retention issues, but also create a learning environment that helps colleges and universities recruit new students and faculty.

Tom Ruff is the vice president for public sector at Akamai Technologies, a global leader in Content Delivery Network services.