Could a liberal arts approach to online learning be more successful?

Bellevue University is using small online learning classes and close oversight by faculty to improve graduation rates and reduce debt defaults.

As working adults become the norm in higher education, the focus of many colleges and universities has shifted to online education, with its promise of flexibility and convenience. To meet the needs of these learners, a large number of schools are pursuing massively scalable, highly automated solutions, although high dropout rates plague some of these business models.

Bellevue University is taking a different tack. An open-admissions institution, the Nebraska school is forging an online experience that stresses close faculty oversight and course assessments that go well beyond automated testing.

“Adult working students have to have a meaningful experience when they’re online,” said Mary Hawkins, president of Bellevue University. “They have to feel connected and they have to have the full array of support services.”

The Importance of the Small Class

Central to Bellevue’s strategy for high completion rates are small class sizes: The average online class comprises only 16 students. “For our students to have more success, we’ve found that they really need the faculty,” said Hawkins. ” If the faculty can create relationships with students, that’s the strongest retention factor.”

Before they lead any online class, all faculty members and adjuncts must take a course about online teaching strategies, how to use the school’s LMS, and how to interact with students. Full-time faculty and deans then monitor their classes until they are satisfied that the instructors are performing well. “At that point, the monitoring gets a little lighter but we do not let go of that,” said Hawkins. “That’s a big difference between our approach and [a program that relies more on] automated assessment.”

(Next page: A more classic curricular approach for online learning)

A “More Classic” Curricular Approach

A high faculty-student ratio allows Bellevue to pursue a curriculum approach that Hawkins describes as “more classic,” and she is quick to differentiate between her school’s performance-based approach and competency-based education. “CBE has become narrowly defined as direct assessment where, if students pass a test, they can go on,” she said. “We’re not doing that right now.” Instead, Bellevue uses rubrics to map the curriculum for an entire program, including both content outcomes and performance skills such as communication, teamwork, values, and critical thinking.

“At certain points, an assignment may require students to show not only that they understand the content but also possess the writing skills needed at this level,” said Hawkins. “It’s not all tests, because tests are a weak way to validate a lot of learning. Instead, we’ll have students do a video of themselves doing a presentation or giving a speech, for example. We’ve got rubrics for all of those levels.”

“Bounded Asynchronous”

Unlike with many CBE programs, students are not totally self-paced either. Instead, students must complete components of a course by certain dates. “I call it ‘bounded asynchronous,'” said Hawkins. “If we don’t force that, some people would procrastinate forever, frankly. If they’re really falling behind, we try to catch them up. Some students may need a little more time on an individual area.”

By having students work roughly abreast of one another, says Hawkins, students find it easier to forge online relationships and collaborate. “Peer interaction is almost as important as faculty interaction,” she said. “There’s a lot of working together and supporting each other, and that plays a big role in students’ likely success.”

In fact, Bellevue places strong emphasis on teamwork, and many of the online courses require students to participate in group projects. “Learning how to get projects done when some of the employees are remote is part and parcel of the whole work experience today,” said Hawkins, noting that 95 percent of students at Bellevue are already in the workforce.

Advising is Critical

While a support network of faculty and peers can go a long way toward helping online students stay focused and motivated, working adults must often confront a host of other, outside factors that can derail their educational goals. To support them through these issues, Bellevue employs advising and enrollment coaches, as well as financial coaches.

For many adult students, says Hawkins, the single biggest determinant of success is self-belief. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are told by parents or teachers that they aren’t college material,” she said. “We have to break through some of that and help students see how they can succeed.”

Supporting the network of coaches and faculty is a management tool called Net Promoter Score that asks students for quick feedback about their experiences, helping Bellevue to address problems as they arise. NPS is an example of how the school is using automated systems to support the personal touch provided by faculty and coaches. The school is now working to add data analytics to the mix, giving faculty and support staff a dashboard view of how each student is faring and where help may be needed.

Bellevue’s approach to online learning appears to be reaping rewards. The retention rate in the school’s cohort programs—when students work with the same group of students and a small set of instructors and coaches over the course of a year—is nearly 80 percent. Equally impressive, the default rate on student loans is between three and five percent, although it doesn’t hurt that Bellevue is the least expensive private institution in Nebraska.

The school is now planning to expand its operations while sticking to its core strategy. According to Hawkins, the number of faculty and part-time faculty will simply grow in proportion to the school’s student population.

“We’ve been hovering between 13,000 and 15,000 students for the last three or four years, and I think we have the capacity to grow larger,” she said. “We can scale, but we can’t go as huge as some schools. Our model requires a really strong working relationship with the faculty.”

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