The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 20, 2018

Three ways technology can help nontraditional students succeed in online coursework

September 20, 2018

The Urban Institute will cohost the Reimagine Communities Symposium in Plano, Texas, on October 3, 2018. In a series of posts this month, we’ll explore the theme of the conference: how we can harness technology to create more inclusive communities and create pathways to economic opportunity.


More students than ever have potential barriers to attaining credentials or a degree, including delayed postsecondary enrollment, caregiving responsibilities, and full-time work commitments. These “nontraditional” students represent the new normal in higher education.

Amid this shift in the overall college student population, distance education enrollment has also increased, with 31.6 percent of higher education students taking at least one distance education course in 2016.

College and credentialing curricula have transitioned more online as colleges leverage technology to cut costs and provide flexible learning environments for students who have personal or professional commitments that conflict with a traditional college course-taking schedule. Online programs make postsecondary education more accessible to nontraditional students, but these programs create new challenges and necessitate supports connected to online learning.

Studies have shown that students in fully online courses have lower retention rates than their peers enrolled in face-to-face courses, with community college students less likely to persist in and complete online coursework. This is alarming given that graduation rates for students in two-year and four-year programs are already low, standing at 28 and 60 percent, respectively. Policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have focused on improving these students’ outcomes.

As technology continues to play a growing role in instructional design and curriculum delivery, how can schools support nontraditional students completing coursework online?

1. Strong advising and guidance support

One promising strategy is the use of technology to provide virtual advising. “E-advising” is on the rise, as colleges seek to minimize costs and leverage technology to provide student supports, coaching, and intervention at a lower cost than can be achieved with traditional in-person advising.

There is initial evidence that e-advising can positively affect student outcomes. A randomized experiment testing the effectiveness of InsideTrack—a technology-mediated coaching service that matches college students to coaches for assistance with goal setting, time management, and other support—found that students were more likely to attend college one year after coaching ended than students who had not received coaching services.

Students enrolled in fully online courses with few opportunities for person-to-person meetings with advisers may benefit from connecting with college and coaching staff remotely.

2. Comprehensive support services

E-advising and coaching support can be part of a package of comprehensive support services for students taking courses online. Lone Star College, an open-enrollment community college in Texas, has developed Lone Star College Online, which provides academic advising, registration services, and tutoring online for students.

Students have access to an adviser seven days a week, and case management is provided for students enrolling in college for the first time. The program has seen early indications of success, with the support services contributing positively to student satisfaction and completion rates.

3. Predictive analytics to provide personalized supports

Another promising approach is Georgia State University’s use of predictive data analytics to provide equitable supports by forecasting student needs in advising, course scheduling, and financial stability and wellness to increase options for working students.

As part of the shift to adopt new online and blended learning approaches, colleges have tried to expand personalized learning with technology that uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive analytics to support tailored instruction and student supports.

Georgia State has built on these advances and uses predictive analytics to address student barriers by providing targeted supports. The school developed an early alert system for advisers called Graduation and Progression Success, consisting of more than 800 indicators to track undergraduate students and identify academic and financial at-risk behaviors, generating meetings between students and advisers based on automated alerts.

Applying these predictive analytics, which have allowed the college to intervene when academic and financial barriers are a concern, increasing graduation rates and decreasing time to degree, is a promising use of technology that could benefit online learners.

Leveraging technology to better support student learning

We need to learn more about the impact and cost of providing support services to students taking courses online and the implications of using data analytics to inform student supports. There may also be opportunities to leverage technology to more effectively and efficiently support students obtaining degrees and credentials in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. When building evidence of promising approaches, we should give special attention to how such technologies can advance equitable outcomes for nontraditional students, which students benefit, and why.

Capital One, a funder of the Urban Institute and cohost of the Reimagine Communities Symposium, provided support for this work.

Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images.

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