‘Begun is two-thirds done’: Giving flexible learners a head start with a suite of online transition tools for supporting student success in higher education
Concurrent Session 7
The Student Success Toolbox project is an important, nationally funded research and technology development project designed to address the problem of effective flexible learner transition into higher and continuing education. Specifically, it targets adults engaged in undergraduate, part-time or online/distance-learning during the initial stages of the study-lifecycle.
The Student Success Toolbox project is an important, nationally funded research and technology development project designed to address the problem of effective flexible learner transition into higher and continuing education. Specifically, it targets adults engaged in undergraduate, part-time or online/distance-learning during the initial stages of the study-lifecycle. Enhancing retention and completion rates of this group of learners, in order to facilitate successful widening of access, is a significant global challenge. The project has produced a toolbox of eight digital readiness and preparation tools. These are Open Educational Resources (OER), made openly available to any institution/programme team with the most accommodating Creative Commons Licence. Alongside the tools there is a Guide on how to use the technology solutions as part of a strategic socialisation program and, where appropriate, directions on how to technically augment the tools to personalise them for a specific institution, program or cohort of learners.
The Student Success Toolbox project is funded by the National Forum for Teaching and Learning Building Digital Capacity fund. It is a collaborative project involving Dublin City University (lead partner), Sligo Institute of Technology, Maynooth University and Dundalk Institute of Technology.
This project has produced both a guide for the sector on how to improve flexible learner readiness, and a suite of digital readiness tools for the initial stages of the study lifecycle that will aid programme teams/institutions in facilitating undergraduate part-time and online/distance education learner transition into higher education. The project leverages digital technologies to establish new approaches to assist advisors in helping new applicants to assess their own readiness for flexible learning and in providing learners with relevant, timely feedback to enhance their chances of success. Each of the eight digital readiness and preparation tools, described below, were specifically designed around five overarching principles of supporting (i) self-regulation, (ii) personalization, (iii) customization, (iv) information at the point of need, and (iv) language and framing of the tools in the world of the prospective learner. Each tool was developed following an agile project methodology, which involved a cycle of development based on piloting, peer review and feedback from students. The accessibility of the tools, for the education sector, is also a key strength of the project. The tools can be viewed on the project website, and can be obtained from the project’s Github webpage.
The tools are openly available, with a CC-BY Creative Commons Licence, for any institution/program team to take, augment, customise and use with flexible learners (part-time or online/distance education learners).
Tool 1: Am I Ready for Study?
In the first tool, prospective flexible learners are provided with the opportunity to reflect and self-assess if they are ready to commit to online/distance study. This quick quiz is comprised of six sections addressing the following relevant topics: Previous Study, Work and Family, Study Intentions, Study Skills, Computer Skills and Work Habits. After answering each question personalised feedback is provided, and upon completion of the quiz every prospective learner is provided with an overall summary of their results and further personalised feedback. Here, each person is either informed they are ready for online study or encouraged to access the provided resource links to discover how they could enhance their readiness to succeed as a flexible learner.
Tool 2: Do I Have Enough Time?
This second tool provides a self-reflective ‘Calculator’ where prospective students are supported in thinking about the amount of time they spend on different activities during a typical week and how much spare time they might have to allocate to study. The calculator enables people to self-assess whether balancing study with their existing life, work and family commitments is realistically achievable. In completing the tool each person is provided with tips on how to most accurately estimate how they currently spend their time under the sections Work, Family, Household, Hobbies, Leisure and Sleep. On completion of the exercise people are given feedback on whether their personal circumstances are conducive to embarking on further study.
Tool 3: Who can I ask?
The ‘Who can I ask?’ tool offers prospective flexible learners the opportunity to think about their support network and how they might garner support to help them successfully complete their studies. Through a series of information slides, users are made aware of how they can seek support from Friends, Family, Employers, Universities and Other Students. In addition, examples of student scenarios and how they were supported through their studies can be accessed by clicking on quotes presented throughout the tool. Furthermore, advice is offered on how to deal with a lack of support.
Tool 4: My Computer Skills: Am I Computer Ready to Learn?
Through the guidance of a student narrator, prospective flexible learners are informed of the necessary computer skills needed in higher education. They are also informed of the technology they will need, and the computer services offered by colleges and universities. Four students’ stories can also be accessed, which entail flexible learners’ first interactions with email services, online reading materials, Word and PowerPoint. A computer skills quiz is also offered within this tool, allowing users to self-assess their current level of computer skills. Three different navigation pathways are available through this tool pending on the user’s previous experience with computer technology. Online services to assist students in improving their computer skills are also flagged.
Tool 5: My First Assignment
Through the guidance of a student narrator, prospective flexible learners navigate through a narrative relating to what it is like to plan out and develop a first assignment in higher education. Advice on how to start an assignment, develop a plan, break down a research question is also provided, with key elements within a plan being presented. Additionally, a series of student orientated quotes are readily accessible throughout the tool in order to give users a further sense of what it is like to tackle your first assignment in higher education. Four different navigation pathways are available through this tool pending on the user’s previous experience with developing higher education study skills.
Tool 6: Get Ready for Success
This tool is a five week openly available online course that provides prospective flexible learners with key tips and lessons about how to prepare for studying at higher education level as a flexible learner. This tool, which is built on a new MOOC platform yet to be publicly announced, incorporates a number of the other tools within its structure, in order to aid prospective learners in assessing their readiness for higher education, calculating how much time they have to study, examining what supports they have in their lives, learning about necessary computer skills, and also about the study skills required to study successfully. Additional content (text, audio and video), activities and facilitated online discussion forums, unique to this tool are also used to help prepare prospective learners.
Tool 7: Study Tips for Me
This tool is designed to provide support for flexible learners from other flexible learners. The site is based on the Tumblr platform, and addresses topics such as developing a healthy study/life balance. Each student is free to post on the site and it is intended that materials posted would be generic and beneficial for any flexible learner rather than course specific content appearing on the site. Through encouraging interaction between students at the early stage of the study lifecycle in this manner it is believed the Study Tips tool will benefit all students in overcoming challenges and developing suitable plans for study.
Tool 8: Online Orientation
As an online orientation, at the beginning of the academic year, would necessarily be unique to that program or institution this tool takes a different form to the other seven tools. The tool is created as a guide for those who wish to create an online orientation for new online/distance learners. This guide describes the elements that should be present in an effective online orientation, gives examples of different approaches, including the main elements in an effective orientation and allows users of the tool to build up a plan for how they would create an online orientation for their program or institution.
The project utilises an iterative development-review-(re)development cycle. When the tools were being developed feedback was obtained from higher education staff and existing flexible learners at two key points: tool design storyboard first draft; and first tool design prototype. This feedback was vital in moulding the development of tools that must be able to ‘speak’ to learners. Once further design prototypes were developed there was a small scale pilot evaluation, involving the flexible learner test users exploring the tools again, completing an online survey, and then a subset of those learners took part in one of four focus groups. The feedback was then used in the final (re)development of the tools before they were released as (CC_BY) OERs. Now that the tools are available to view from the project website and available to take and adapt from the project’s Github webpage, the tools will continue to develop as we gain experience of deploying the tools in different specific contexts.