Critical Success Factors and Methods to Increase Persistence for Non-Traditional Online Students

Critical Success Factors and Methods to Increase Persistence for Non-Traditional Online Students

Amber M. Epps
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6762-3.ch001
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With changes in technology, the needs and expectations of learners, and a number of environmental factors, enrollment in online courses continues to increase. Additionally, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions have recognized the importance of having a learning management system in place, online courses that provide academic rigor comparable to classroom-based courses, and instructors who are trained and prepared to teach in a virtual environment. It is equally important to ensure that students who are planning to participate in online learning possess characteristics that will allow them to be successful. A student who does not possess these characteristics can still become an online learner but may require additional support or resources to encourage success and persistence. This chapter discusses the success factors for online traditional and nontraditional students and the differences that exist among the success factors for each group as well as solutions and recommendations for higher education institutions to encourage persistence.
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In 2003, the Sloan Consortium for online learning reported that less than one-half of higher education institutions in the United States viewed online learning as necessary in regards to long-term strategic planning. However, in 2013, the Consortium reported that this number increased to approximately 70% (Allen & Seaman, 2013). Enrollment in online courses and degree programs continues to increase at a rate greater than that of classroom-based courses. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2019), overall enrollment in postsecondary learning decreased slightly from the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2018 from 19.7 million to 19.6 million, while enrollment in online learning increased from 6.6 million to 6.9 million (U.S. Department of Education, 2019). However, research shows that retention rates in online courses are lower compared to their face-to-face counterparts (Murphy & Stewart, 2017), even when the course is taught by the same professor (Hart et al., 2018), using the same lecture material (Roberts, 2015). What this means is that institutions of higher education must take the necessary steps to ensure that course design, supportive services, and training for faculty and staff is available and implemented in ways that will encourage and promote persistence amongst the nontraditional online student population.

In regard to postsecondary education, students can be considered traditional or nontraditional, with the definitions of these terms varying in the literature. In 2009, the Analytic Quality Glossary, an international glossary that provides definitions for terms and issues related to quality in higher education, detailed that college students in the United States between the ages of 18 and 22 who were not married and did not have physical or learning disabilities were considered traditional (Harvey, 2009). Nontraditional students, according to the current version of the site, are those whose characteristics are different than those normally associated with students entering higher education, such as social class, ethnic groups, or age group (Harvey, 2020). However, according to Rutgers University (2020), a nontraditional student is one who has been out of high school for 4 or more years, has had at least a 2-year interruption in their undergraduate studies, has dependents, is a veteran or active member of the military, is married or in domestic partnership, or who has nonacademic commitments, such as work or family, that may prevent them from pursuing a degree on a more traditional, full-time schedule. Additionally, both Cochran et al. (2014) and Robichaud (2016) have stated that nontraditional students are over the age of 24 years old. Depending on the literature, the characteristics of a nontraditional student may vary greatly also include ethnicity, being a learner of English as a second language, and veteran status.

This chapter discusses the results of a study focused on first-year students enrolled in an online introductory computer course at a proprietary college based in Western Pennsylvania offering degrees in the applied arts. Participants in the study only included online students, both traditional and nontraditional, and did not involve any students who were also taking campus-based classes. Additionally, this chapter provides solutions and recommendations for ways that higher education institutions can specifically support the learning of nontraditional online students through support services, technology, and course design.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Online Course: A course that is conducted completely online, whether synchronous or asynchronous. This type of course does not provide for any in-person teaching or learning with other students or faculty.

Critical Success Factors: Characteristics, skills, elements, traits, or attributes that enable one to accomplish a goal or task.

Asynchronous Learning: This type of learning occurs when students and instructors interact in a manner that is not in real time, often through the use of a learning management system.

Retention: A college or university’s ability to keep students in school until a certificate or degree program is completed.

Persistence: Continuing to take action or perform tasks despite the presence of challenges or obstacles.

Traditional Student: A college student who is between the ages of 18 and 24 and does not work full time, is not a veteran, and does not have a spouse or children.

Synchronous Learning: A type of learning that occurs when students and instructors interact with each other in real time, with or without the use of technology.

Nontraditional student: A college student who is over the age of 24 and/or possesses characteristics that are not typically found in traditional-age college students, such as having a spouse or children, working full time, or being a veteran.

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