After colleges hastily moved online in response to the coronavirus, higher education leaders worried for low-income students and students of color. Research shows that underrepresented students experience performance gaps and lower retention rates in online courses under the best of circumstances, let alone in a global pandemic.
But remote education experts have highlighted a possible silver lining. Online education provides new ways to identify students at risk of dropping out and opportunities to offer targeted supports.
On campus, faculty can keep an eye out for early indicators that a student is struggling – a missed first assignment or a low grade on the first test – but online, professors can detect trouble even earlier and “it can be even more nuanced,” said Dr. Di Xu, associate professor of education at the University of California Irvine and co-director of its Online Learning Research Center.
“You don’t have to wait until the first quiz,” she added.
Using clickstream data, which monitors how users interact with a website, faculty can see how often students log in to their online class portals. If they’re seldom engaging with course materials, that’s already a “bad sign,” Xu said. And with online courses, faculty can track even more granular information than that, like when students opened an assignment and how long they spent on it.
Schools can also give students access to data about their own personal work habits – how long they typically spend on assignments or how often they’ve engaged with course materials – alongside guidance about what the optimal numbers might be for better time management.
“They can find out, ‘On average, what do my peers do?'” she said. “‘What are the learning patterns of people who typically get an A?'”
It’s particularly valuable to track engagement metrics – in individual classes or institution-wide – because there’s a correlation between how much students engage and their completion rates, said Laurie Heacock, senior advisor for data and analytics at Achieving the Dream, a non-profit for higher education reform.
She finds that online tools aren’t just important for monitoring students but for soliciting their input. For example, in the current crisis, professors can embed surveys into their classes asking students about their needs, like whether they’ve taken an online class before or to what extent they have access to a laptop or quality bandwidth. Universities can also more easily run online focus groups about what students do and don’t find effective in online courses.
Meanwhile, institutions can also collect program-level data, she said, both to understand how education for students in different disciplines has been affected by the coronavirus and to design course offerings that give students guided pathways to employment.
For her, it’s key to use online tools to collect both quantitative and qualitative data from students.
“Really getting to know who your students are right now and what their needs are now is critical,” she said. “If you’re designing for students and using data to put students first, having that student voice is really important.”
But identifying at-risk students and their needs is “only the first step,” Xu said. How helpful this data can be “heavily relies on the subsequent measures and the supports or resources that could be provided to those at-risk students.”
She suggests faculty use the data available to identify struggling students and send them personalized messages, checking in and outlining what caused their concern. The next step is suggesting specific resources and support systems, whether that’s online office hours, time management tips, tutoring or counseling.
Xu finds a pitfall of online education – and one of the root causes of performance gaps – is that students feel disconnected from their instructors, so a personal touch and individualized information about supports can convey that professors are paying attention to and care about students’ academic progress, a “strong incentive” to stay motivated, she said.
At a time when higher education institutions are tightening their budgets – in preparation for an economic downturn – Heacock stressed that “equity-minded” data collection is worth the investment.
Data about student performance, the success of student supports, enrollment trends and leadership strategies can “inform decision making,” she said, and prevent “knee-jerk reactions which aren’t grounded in evidence” when higher education is under stress. Getting targeted data might require time and funds, but it allows institutions to funnel what they do have to the students struggling most and the supports that serve them best.
“Often times, people want to offer more, more, more,” she said. “[But] if you have limited resources and limited budget, you want to spend them in the most strategic way possible.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.