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Addressing Higher Ed's Dropout Rate by Enhancing Academic Quality and Belonging

In his recent blog, The Crisis of Belonging in Higher Education, Shaunak Roy addressed the value that technology can bring to issues of loneliness and belonging in learners’ lives throughout the learning life cycle. Done correctly, he argues, technology can bring consistency and quality coupled with deep personalization to online and hybrid learning at a scale that has previously been unattainable. I want to build on that foundation, describing more fully the academic value that thoughtfully-designed online learning communities, like those seen within Yellowdig, offer by enhancing engagement and community, combatting loneliness, and supporting belonging.

The Problem Facing Colleges and Universities: High Dropout Rates

One of the persistent problems in online and hybrid education is the dropout rate. And there is emerging consensus among practitioners that a majority of dropouts, whether they leave during the on-boarding process or after enrolling, depart for non-academic reasons. Life happens, as they say, or the lack of a sense of belonging and camaraderie simply wear learners down. To be blunt, online and hybrid learning can be a lonely experience if it only contains course material, instructional guidance, assessment and some support services.

12-month dropout rates among fall-term first-time undergraduates, all rates for part-time over 54%, full-time all over 23.8%

How can we combat non-academic dropout in higher education?

The solution to these very human obstacles is a richly engaging learning environment. In my mind, we need a contemporary version of the “communities of inquiry” which John Dewey wrote about 100 years ago. An offshoot of the concept of the Socratic Dialogue, Dewey’s “communities” were a philosophy which espoused deeper quality through open and reflective conversation in the classroom. Yellowdig communities are online spaces where learners not only build community through interactive conversation, they also deepen the academic value and quality of the learning experience by reflecting and communicating their unique insights.

We are now entering a time when we must think about academic quality as having not two, but three dimensions.

1. Learning Material

  • First, the quality of the content, the instruction, and the assessments. We know that these elements have been a staple ingredient of academic quality from the beginning.

2. Learning Support

  • Second, the availability of support services such as tutoring and personal advising. Since the rise of community colleges and the diversification of higher education, we have valued these types of support services as critical contributors to learner success.

3. Active Learning Experiences

  • Now comes the new, third dimension, deeply engaged learning experiences supported by an environment which encourages robust participation by the learners with the leader acting as a “guide on the side”.

Hear from a learner @ the University of Tampa about the power of collaboration & active learning

This learner's perspective was discussed in a webinar titled "It helped to know I wasn't alone" A Success Story from the University of Tampa

Learner populations are aging and diversifying while, simultaneously, learning modalities are evolving and changing. In this emerging world, learning environments which respect and encourage the learner’s experience, culture, current life situation, and personal identity are a critical component of academic quality. We must add this third dimension to our understanding of academic quality.

When we do this, we are not only enhancing belonging and fighting loneliness, we are also creating a richer learning experience for each learner, an experience which includes deeper reflection and an ongoing opportunity to share viewpoints, questions and concerns with a larger community of learners.

Do learning communities prevent dropout?

Importantly, at Yellowdig we have found that when some of the life experiences that derail adult learners occur, being a member of such a community can provide the support that allows the learner to continue.

Difference in Retention - 2020 TP1, 8.1%, 2020 TP 2, 9%, 2020 TP3 6.6%

Improvement in retention for students that use Yellowdig. See study.

Also, our easy to use and detailed analytics enables the instructor, orientation leader, advisor or any other type of community leader to focus on learners who are not participating as actively, offering them encouragement and support which otherwise might not have been available because the problems being experienced were invisible.

Understanding this new, third dimension of academic quality - active learning experiences - and continually improving it, is our core focus at Yellowdig. It is based on respect for the learner, personal engagement and community-building to give the learner a home and encouraging communication and reflection as critical elements in any learning experience. Reflection is the process of extracting meaning from experience. And a reflective person will be a successful learner throughout life. And that is a consequence of a high-quality academic experience.


About the Author, Dr. Peter Smith:

Dr. Peter Smith is currently the Chief Academic Advisor for Yellowdig.

Just two years after earning his Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University in

1968, Peter Smith led the effort to design and establish The Community

College of Vermont, now entering its 53 rd year of operations.

He also served as founding president of California State University Monterey

Bay from 1995 to 2005. Smith was responsible for building the university

and guiding it through all stages of accreditation while raising nearly $100

million externally to academic buildings and programs.

After leaving Cal State Monterey Bay in 2005, Smith served as Assistant

Director General for Education for the United Nations Educational,

Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris, France where he was

responsible for more than 700 staff located in 30 countries.

Smith also served as Dean of the George Washington University Graduate

School of Education and Human Development from 1991 to 1994.

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