Measuring Online Graduate Student Connectedness and Engagement Activities that Impact Completion Rates

Concurrent Session 3
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Brief Abstract

Connectedness in online learning has an impact on retention and completion, but what activities build a sense of community? The National Survey of Student Engagement for undergraduates, and the Online Student Connectedness Survey are well-established, but there is need for a survey for graduate students and guidance for course design.


Dr. Tawnya Means is Assistant Dean and Director of the Teaching and Learning Center for the College of Business at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, providing comprehensive learning support for students and faculty development programs and resources for instructional innovation and adoption of pedagogical best practices. With nearly 20 years of experience in higher education, course design, and educational consulting, Tawnya also teaches courses in strategy, technology, and leadership in remote teams. Dr. Means received her B.S. in Education, M.S. in Educational Technology, and Ph.D. in Information Science and Learning Technologies with an emphasis on learning systems design, all from the University of Missouri. She completed the AACSB Post-doctoral bridge program in Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Florida. Her research interests are in online and blended learning, active learning, learning space design, technology for teaching, access to digital learning resources, and faculty preparation to teach. She has long been a leader in campus initiatives and committees and actively presents at conferences and other institutions and organizations on technology-enhanced learning.
Sarah Fornero serves as the Executive Dean of the Online Campus. She joined Adler in 2011 as an Instructional and Multimedia Consultant, and has since held a number of positions at the University. Prior to her current role, Sarah served as Associate Vice President of the Department of Educational Design and Innovation. Sarah is an active member of a variety of professional organizations including University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). She is also published in the field of online and distance learning. She completed her B.S. in Education from the University of Michigan, her M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan – Flint, and her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida.

Extended Abstract

It is unnecessary to specifically outline the extent to which online learning has changed the landscape of education, as it is now commonly accepted that millions of students are participating in online and blended forms of learning (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). All too common though are students who are reporting that in their online courses, they feel a lack of connectedness and engagement, leading to issues with attrition (Atchley, Wingenbach, & Akers, 2013; Moody, 2004). Potential areas that may contribute to attrition include, among others, a reduced sense of online community, lack of personal contact, unresponsiveness of instructors, low levels of comfort with technology, and overall course design (Aragon & Johnson, 2008; Moody, 2004; Perry, Boman, Care, Edwards & Park, 2008). Research seems to indicate that enhancing community and connectedness, a sense of belonging, and student engagement will lead to increased persistence and completion (Drouin & Vartanian, 2010; Liu, Magjuka, Bonk, & Lee, 2007).

Connectedness can be defined as feelings of belonging and acceptance, feeling included, and creation of bonding relationships (Rovai, 2002, Gibbs, 1995). These relationships are fostered and maintained through a variety of course activities to which instructors and course developers have significant influence upon.

While there are significantly fewer online graduate students than there are online undergraduate students (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018), the impact of students leaving their online programs early are still negative (Lee & Choi, 2011). The effects can be accrued debt, non-transferable course credits, no degree, and a sense of failure or incompleteness. Students who are not retained in a particular course often fail to adjust to the online environment and have academic problems or experience social isolation (Casstevens, Waites, & Outlaw, 2012). Institutions can also experience a negative impact, including reduced financial resources and loss of planned tuition revenue (Stillman, 2009), as well as potential brand damage and loss of future alumni.

The opportunity to reduce loss can be realized through learning analytics and developing systems and processes to predict which students are at risk, but these systems and processes rely on establishing metrics that can accurately identify when a student is at risk of leaving an online graduate program, as well as methods to ameliorate the issues. Course design, online presence, and community development all rely on a clear understanding of the underlying issues.

There is some research that indicates that students who actively participate in collaborative learning activities are more likely to be retained and thus complete online courses (Lee & Choi, 2011). Lack of interaction and engagement can serve as a barrier to both retention and persistence among online and non-traditional students (Gilardi & Guglielmetti, 2011; Hart, 2012).  Interviews with distance students reveal an interest in a social networking site or networking events that are non-mandatory and targeted at distance students (Exter, Korkmaz, Harlin, & Bichelmeyer, 2009).  Students who persist in online degree programs have a higher social presence and the ability to form long-term connections in online environments.  However, the development of a virtual community is not statistically significant in determining whether or not a student would matriculate through the degree program (Ivankova & Stick, 2007).

The National Survey of Student Engagement for undergraduates, and the Online Student Connectedness Survey are well-established, with 382,530 first year and senior students completing the NSSE in 2017, and well-defined benefits of the OSCS, which is based on theoretically-based survey instruments (the Classroom Community Scale and the Community of Inquiry Scale). While these surveys are well-established, there are some additional points of information that would be helpful for faculty, instructional designers, instructional support technologists, and program administrators. Understanding not only how students perceive their experiences online, but also the institutional size, degree program structure, class or cohort size, whether or not orientation is a part of the program and what that orientation entails, what types of interactive course activities lead to a sense of belonging, and how student-faculty relationships are developed and strengthened are just a few of the questions that would further guide the course and program design and delivery decisions, as well as identify issues and concerns that would lead to developing appropriate interventions to reduce attrition and increase graduate program completion rates.

In this proposed session, three researchers from different institutions (Adler University, a small private institution in Chicago; Franciscan University, a suburban private faith-based institution, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a large public research institution) will present the issues as outlined in this abstract, and then facilitate a discussion with attendees to define the data as available from current sources and identify gaps. The results of this session will lead to research that will be conducted with online graduate programs, with opportunities for all session participants to engage in the survey and receive data results and updates as they become available.



Aragon, S. R., & Johnson, E. S. (2008). Factors influencing completion and non-completion of community college online courses. The Amer. Journal of Distance Education22(3), 146-158.

Atchley, T. W., Wingenbach, G., & Akers, C. (2013). Comparison of course completion and student performance through online and traditional courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning14(4).

Casstevens, W. J., Waites, C., & Outlaw, N. (2012). Non-traditional student retention: Exploring perceptions of support in a social work graduate program. Social Work Education31(3), 256-268.

Drouin, M., & Vartanian, L. R. (2010). Students' Feelings Of and Desire for Sense of Community in Face-To-Face and Online Courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education11(3), 147.

Exter, M. E., Korkmaz, N., Harlin, N. M., & Bichelmeyer, B. A. (2009). Sense of community within a fully online program: Perspectives of graduate students. Quarterly Review of Distance Education10(2), 177.

Gibbs, J. (1995). Tribes. Sausalito, CA: Center Source Systems.

Gilardi, S., & Guglielmetti, C. (2011). University life of non-traditional students: Engagement styles and impact on attrition. The Journal of Higher Education82(1), 33-53.

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning11(1).

Ivankova, N. V., & Stick, S. L. (2007). Students’ persistence in a distributed doctoral program in educational leadership in higher education: A mixed methods study. Research in Higher Education48(1), 93.

Lee, Y., & Choi, J. (2011). A review of online course dropout research: Implications for practice and future research. Educational Technology Research and Development59(5), 593-618.

Liu, X., Magjuka, R. J., Bonk, C. J., & Lee, S. H. (2007). Does sense of community matter? An examination of participants' perceptions of building learning communities in online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education8(1), 9.

Moody, J. (2004). Distance education: Why are the attrition rates so high?. Quarterly Review of Distance Education5(3), 205.

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.

Stillman, M. (2009). Making the case for the importance of student retention. Enrollment Management Journal3(2), 76-91.