A study we conducted of Calbright’s first student cohort found that people whose goals for their education were specific and compatible with what Calbright provides were significantly happier with their experience. Students who wanted things we don’t offer were less happy.
That seems so simple - but experts say it's one of the key factors in determining whether a student is going to have a good experience at an online college. Students who are just “going to college” are much less likely to thrive in an online environment than students who have a particular goal they really want to achieve.
This is especially true of working adults. Our faculty say they can see a significant difference between the engagement of students who are trying to achieve a career goal that we can train them for, and students who are just trying to figure things out.
“We have a diverse student population and each student comes to us with their own story,” said Professor of Information Technology Ben Ringgenberg. “But successful Calbright Students want to learn more in order to advance in a career. That’s something they have in common.”
As a result, we’re adjusting our admissions process to better serve students whose goals don’t align with our offerings. We’re not trying to chase those students away - every adult Californian can go to Calbright - but to see if we can match them to a community college or institution that does speak to their passions.
We asked our faculty: in addition to a clear goal that we can help them with, what is it that makes an adult learner successful in an online education? They had two important answers:
They Know Their Own Learning Style
“Successful students have accurately assessed how they learn,” said Calbright professor of Workforce Readiness Jennifer Smith. “If a student can honestly assess their learning style (and I'm not talking complicated jargon here), then they can communicate that to their instructors who are, hopefully, equipped to support the student.”
“On the other hand, if a student tells me they are comfortable with a self-paced course, are computer savvy, and are an independent worker, but then that student turns in only one assignment and stops out, I have to wonder if that student told me those things because they thought that's what I wanted to hear, or if they didn’t understand their own learning style.”
The fundamental point is that students who know what they need to learn are much more likely to succeed. There are as many ways to learn online as there are in a classroom, and a college like Calbright is able to work with students to make sure they are getting what they need. But students have to know that about themselves, and express it.
Which brings us to the second thing our faculty say is key to a successful online college experience:
Communication, Communication, Communication
Every Calbright faculty member interviewed emphasized how important it is for students to communicate with their instructors. Without that, it is easy for simple problems to go unaddressed and turn into a crisis.
“Online learning is not easy just because it is online; if a student hits a wall and then just says, oh, well, I guess this isn't for me, they may be falling prey to their own fixed mindset,” Smith said. “Most of us are good at talking ourselves out of tasks that suddenly become difficult when we thought we'd breeze right through.”
But while students need to know how important communication is and work on it, it’s the faculty’s job to make it as easy and convenient as possible.
Professor of Cybersecurity Christopher Burk said he expanded his office hours into nights and weekends to provide working students more opportunities to connect with him over the phone or video conferencing, rather than just exchanging emails or texts. “Only being available to working students during traditional working hours isn’t helpful enough,” he said.
“We should not expect [students] to succeed without support in other areas from their learning institution as well,” said Ringgenberg. “If you want students to communicate, you have to provide opportunities - and model the behavior.”
Put these things together – a clear goal that the college can help you meet, an understanding of how you learn, and the ability to communicate with your instructors – and students are on a course to success and satisfaction with their online education.