Digital Blazing: Guiding Students in High Impact Practices for Retention

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

Lower retention rates in online programs reflect student lack of efficacy with educational technologies. This presentation examines two proven innovations – ePortfolio and Personal Learning Environment – and demonstrates how to leverage student engagement with entertainment and social media to boost their engagement with online coursework, realize their goals, and complete their academic program.


Kyle Nicholas is Master Lecturer and Director of Online Programs in the department of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. He earned his M.A. at the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. at the University of Texas, Austin.

Extended Abstract

Both program quality and student learning outcomes have improved substantially over the years for online learners, but online programs still have lower retention rates than legacy programs. One study indicates that up to 80 percent of online learners will drop a course over their careers (Smith, 2010). Several studies indicate that although most online students are practiced at using digital innovations in their personal life, they are typically not familiar with online education tools and practices (e.g., Prensky, 2000). Many students love video games, for instance, but can be confused about ‘gamification’ practices in online courses. Social media and online socializing in general have near universal appeal, but implementing these tools successfully in courses has proved problematic. Indeed, it may be our overestimation of the aptitudes of digital natives (not to mention us digital immigrants) that can lead to frustration, disengagement and ultimately underperformance in online courses (Clark-Ibanez & Scott, 2008).


Dropping out is particularly prevalent in lower division courses. Key issues appear to be getting students started (many drop out before they begin), guiding them through the use of new technologies, and innovating strategies to connect students to the larger thrust of their education: challenge, mastery, self-actualization and career.


In this short presentation we will review two online learning innovations – the Personal Learning Environment and the ePortfolio, -- with special emphasis on how to introduce these innovations to students and how to employ them to increase retention and reduce course drop-out rates.


Presenters will demonstrate how the PLE (Personal Learning Environment) and ‘showcase’ ePortfolios ( work as complementary high-impact structural approaches for course design and assessment goals within an online program. Training faculty and creating engaging ways to learn and practice with these technologies give students given multiple opportunities and varied pathways to gain confidence in the ‘technological environment’ of the course. These innovations can be matched with any subject matter. The case study presented will discuss the integration of ePortfolio and a PLE program-wide in a large communication department.


The PLE provides organizational and engagement structure to the course content of an online class, while the ePortfolio offers a flexible disciplinary project structure. Students should begin with the end in mind – instructors encourage participation by integrating these innovations into course planning, then introducing them in a series of collaborative, low-stakes assignments.


We will quickly share sample work from multiple courses and discuss student feedback and improvements to the retention of students as these innovations spread throughout the program. Based on these structural choices, additional high-impact practices that encourage retention can be implemented and assessed.


A 5-8 slide deck (repeated 2-3 times) will be shared with attendees to highlight the methods of engagement present in ePortfolios and the PLE, and to engage feedback and share best practices for modeling at their own institutions or organizations. Presenters will provide both printed and digital takeaways for attendees and a Twitter # for consultation at OLC and after the conference.