Welcome to the final blog post in our WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Award blog post series! Today we are joined by Jason M. Ruckert from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Worldwide, to discuss their 2018 WOW Award winning initiative: Worldwide Retention, Affinity, and Persistence or WRAP.
The WRAP initiative encompasses immersive solutions which include the incorporation of virtual labs into courses through a centralized virtual hub, the creation of individual academic advisor webpages, a new student orientation, a virtual student readiness and resource course, personalized degree maps, virtual new student on-boarding, virtual career services, and a virtual community.
The explosive growth in distance education is changing the global higher education landscape. Within the United States alone in 2016, over 6,000,000 students took at least one online course. One out of four college students take at least one class online and these numbers are growing year to year (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). This growth is well documented, and many institutions are changing their educational models to ensure distance education is at the forefront. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide Campus, we’ve seen a very similar transformation; our virtual enrollment went from 9% in 2004 to 91% in 2018.
This posed an enormous challenge for us: how do we evolve our infrastructure from 140 campuses delivering face-to-face coursework to a primarily virtual campus that guarantees our students every single opportunity they would have taking courses at a traditional campus?
Transforming our model
Embry-Riddle provides instruction through a learning system that leverages online and face-to-face delivery methods and a network of approximately 140 educational facilities designed to support student advancement in the U.S. and abroad. However, in 2004 we noticed a dramatic shift in our students’ preferences for online coursework. Our annual growth rate is certainly at the higher end of industry trends, where distance education grew by 5.6% from the 2015 to 2016 academic years across higher education (Seaman et al., 2018). Embry-Riddle’s transformation is unique. We had already been successful in distance education for decades, but our student demand of online education was accelerating at such a rate that we had to revamp our entire infrastructure to ensure student success. This brought up several questions:
If we didn’t have that face-to-face relationship with them, would our students fail to persist?
Would we have less students that would take courses each year?
Would they lack affinity to the University?
I would be confident in saying that none of us at the institution would have envisioned a complete 180-degree change in our enrollment to online education this quickly. Distance learning creates unique challenges to engage our learners, make them feel a sense of affinity with the university, and immerse them in course topics due to the lack of real-time interactions and geographic dispersion (Kruger-Ross & Waters, 2013). Distance learning students desire and expect to have the same real-time interactions with their instructor, staff, and learning objects they would experience if attending a traditional campus or taking face-to-face courses. A lack of real-time interaction with faculty, course content, and staff can lead to students feeling a sense of isolation, leading to higher attrition rates (Collins, Weber, & Zambrano, 2014). We knew a new strategy with significant funding and infrastructure would be a necessity to ensure students had an unparalleled experience.
Our goal was to ensure students had every single opportunity they would experience on our residential campuses but offered in a virtual format. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide viewed the solution to creating an immersive experience and a sense of belonging to be holistic in nature. No single technology initiative could occur in isolation and meet the multiple needs and desires of our students. Our students want a “college-feel,” and now they want it from the comfort of their own home.
So, our goal is to increase affinity towards the institution. We want students to leave with an exceptional education and to feel like they just had the greatest experience. Therefore, we have implemented several technology-based solutions and enhanced support structures to address the multiple needs of our students through our Worldwide Retention, Affinity, and Persistence (WRAP) initiative which began in 2014. These immersive components include:
Incorporation of virtual labs into courses through a centralized virtual hub (with mobile app),
Creation of 26 individual academic advisor webpages,
Virtual new student orientation,
Virtual student readiness and resource course,
Personalized degree maps for students,
Virtual new student on-boarding (Eagle LaunchPad),
Virtual career services,
Virtual student community.
The Impact of WRAP
Since implementing the WRAP Initiative:
Advisor-specific webpages have become some of the highest return visit hits on our campus webpage.
New student matriculation rates have increased over 10% since the inception of this initiative, while applications and admits have remained constant.
Persistence rates have increased 17% since the inception and overall individual course registrations have increased 24%.
We have also experienced a 27% increase in overall student enrollments during this initiative.
Since implementing the new student orientation, completion rates have increased from 55% to 100%, since it is now available fully online and is required before matriculation.
An abundance of positive qualitative feedback has also been collected from students on their experiences using the virtual labs, virtual on-boarding, and degree maps available to them.
Before commencing our virtual community, we surveyed students and 72% of indicated they would be actively involved in the virtual community, once fully implemented.
It’s truly rewarding to watch our campus do a complete 180-degree turn, 9% virtual in 2004 and now is 9% face-to-face in 2018. To accomplish this and have increases in matriculations, persistence, and graduations as well as keeping a population of over 24,000 students active by completely overhauling our model is incredible.
Students are excited about the WRAP initiative. Here are a few comments from them about the various aspects of WRAP:
Thank you for the revised degree map! That actually made me feel a lot better about my progress in this degree. It’s been hard lately to picture another year of school, but this definitely puts it in perspective— getting closer!
Being hesitant about learning online, it was my advisor’s webpage with her video welcoming me to the University and telling me how she was going to get me through this process which alleviated my fears.
The ERAU Virtual Hub is one of the top teaching applications because it allows students to interact in the actual environment. Many times it is better to do an assignment with hands on experience, and this does exactly that by bringing students up close and personal with real engineering concepts.
I consider myself a gamer and this aircraft investigation lab adds the fun back into education while still providing the me the education I need to be successful.
Why can’t education be fun like this? Well, I guess it can, please add more of these virtual labs asap!
Having someone assist me with resume writing and applying from jobs from the comfort of my home was something I was not expecting from a University.
At Embry-Riddle we have this incredible history with distance education so there is an ongoing commitment to expand the WRAP initiative. We want to continue evolving for our students and will continue to investigate technology-based learning solutions that will propel our students into the future. We believe we are only at the cusp of what is possible in online education.
A Sincere Thank You
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is truly grateful to WCET for presenting us with this WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Award. We are humbled and honored to receive such a prestigious award and contribute to the advancement of technology-enhanced learning solutions. We will continue developing new innovative products for our students and industry.
Collins, D., Weber, J., & Zambrano, R. (2014). Teaching business ethics online: Perspectives on course design, delivery, student engagement, and assessment. Journal of Business Ethics, 125, 513-529. doi:10.1007/s10551-013-1932-7.
Kruger-Ross, M. J., & Waters, R. D. (2013). Predicting online learning success: Applying the situational theory of publics to the virtual classroom. Computers & Education, 61, 176-184. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2012.09.015.