Student Connectedness in an Online Program: Bridging the Retention Gap

Concurrent Session 6
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The presenter will share findings of a mixed-methods study that explored student connectedness in an online MBA program that achieved a high (95%) retention rate and is ranked 28th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Data describing student perceptions offer insights related to retention and satisfaction.


Karen G. Conner is Director of Academic Innovation for the Raymond A. Mason School of Business and Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at William & Mary. She has 15 years' experience in higher education. She received her PhD In Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership specializing in Higher Education from William & Mary. She holds an MBA with a concentration in Information Security and a BBA in Computer Information Systems from James Madison University. Her research interests include online student connectedness, digital learning, building community, SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning), and student persistence and satisfaction in online programs.

Extended Abstract

Importance of Topic

Improving retention rates is a goal likely to be shared by most online programs. If online programs are to survive in the current competitive market, educators must understand the needs of their students and ensure the quality of their programs. Attrition rates vary widely between 20 and 80% (Rostaminezhad, Mozayani, Norozi, & Iziy, 2013), a major challenge for online educators. Social interaction (Boston, Diaz, Gibson, Ice, Richardson, & Swan, 2009) and student satisfaction of course delivery were two factors important for student persistence. One of the best indicators of student satisfaction in an online program is its retention rate. Student satisfaction is considered one of the five pillars of quality online education, and institutions that can increase student satisfaction and maintain high retention rates are more likely to be perceived as having quality programs (Lorenzo & Moore, 2002).

Session Outline

This session aligns with the “Research: Designs, Methods and Findings” track and the “Present and Reflect” session type. Our time together will include a 30-minute introduction where participants will learn the results of a mixed-methods study and student perceptions of the design of an online program that intentionally fosters student connectedness. The retention rate in the program is greater than 90%, and more than half of the students traveled to campus to participate in graduation.

The mixed-methods study sought to answer the following research questions:

  1. To what extent do current students and did alumni feel connected in their online program?
  2. How and to what extent did opportunities for students and/or alumni to connect with others in the program influence their intention to persist in a course or the program?

During the first 30 minutes, Dr. Karen Conner, Director of Academic Innovation in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary, will describe the results of the study and the structure of the online program from which it was drawn. She will offer a number of considerations for program administrators, educational leaders, course developers, course designers, course facilitators, and students. Participants will learn implications for potential positive online graduate education change on a number of levels including program and curriculum development; course development, design and facilitation; and the student’s academic experience.

The mixed-methods study included the results of the Online Student Connectedness Survey (Bolliger & Inan, 2012) and the qualitative case study which offered insight into the level of student connectedness in the program and what influenced student perceptions in that regard. A response rate of 41% from the survey taken by students and alumni informed the participant selection process for the qualitative case study. The researcher considered a number of factors in making those selections to ensure a diverse group of participants.

The data suggested several strategies and techniques that positively influenced student connectedness. Of all the learning activities that students participated in, group work had the greatest potential to influence student connectedness. Participants will learn how online group work influenced student connectedness in both positive and negative ways. A major finding of the study showed that 50% of the students interviewed said that their best or most-effective group experience was in their first course, where students participated in what may be considered a “shared ordeal” as defined by Howey and Zimpher (1989). Participants will learn about that first course experience and how it may have helped promote the student connectedness that persisted throughout the program.

The presentation will describe how course design, expectations of the professors, and careful consideration of the structure of the assignments and requirements for group work all played significant roles in fostering student connectedness and building community.

Karen will begin with the following prompt for self-reflection:

  • Consider any challenges your program may face with retention, student connectedness, or students connecting back to the institution. What one change might you make in your course or program that could improve connectedness and/or retention?

During the 10-minute discussion, participants will share their idea(s) from the 5-minute reflection and discuss in small groups about how they might design opportunities in an online environment that promote student connectedness and improve retention rates. Participants may tweet their ideas using the hashtags: #OLCInnovate #OnlineStudentConnectedness

Karen will share all presentation materials with conference attendees and will post to the conference website.

Bolliger, D. U., & Inan, F. A. (2012). Development and validation of the Online Student Connectedness Survey (OSCS). The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(3), 41-65.

Boston, W., Diaz, S. R., Gibson, A. M., Ice, P., Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2009). An exploration of the relationship between indicators of the community of inquiry framework and retention in online programs. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3), 67-83. Retrieved from

Howey, K. R., & Zimpher, N. L. (1989). Profiles of preservice teacher education: Inquiry into the nature of programs. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Lorenzo, G., & Moore, J. (2002, November). The Sloan Consortium report to the nation: Five pillars of quality online education. Retrieved from

Rostaminezhad, M. A., Mozayani, N., Norozi, D., & Iziy, M. (2013, July 4). Factors related to e-learner dropout: Case study of IUST Elearning Center. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 83, 522-527.