Oct 31 2006

IT Practice & Pedagogy I

The University of Alabama successfully uses online communities and other technology to help retain students and improve their level of engagement.

The University of Alabama uses online communities and other technology to retain students.

Jennifer Benson Jones

For college students today, IT is simply the way they do business. That's why the more than 23,000- student University of Alabama (UA) at Tuscaloosa adopted an “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em” philosophy, and, in fall 2005, took its first major step toward using technology to retain first-year students.

The university partnered with solutions provider GoalQuest to develop a virtual environment in which freshmen students receive key messages about how to succeed in college. Called UAFreshmanConnection, the program's goal is to challenge students to get connected – to their peers, their campus, their studies, their campus surroundings and themselves. Although a goal of being connected to themselves may seem odd, students sometimes know little about their own motivations and goals, and this program aims to expand and strengthen their knowledge.

The UA Freshman Connection presents a variety of topics relating to student life, such as freshmen's readiness for college-level work and their fears about entering a new environment. An e-survey that is posted with each topic provides an immediate “pulse check,” or snapshot, about the students' state of mind. (See “Assessing Student Needs” on page 15.) Throughout each topic, where appropriate, live links to the university's Web site lead students to more information about the services and resources available to them.

In addition, within UAFreshmanConnection, a student can participate in UPeers, an online community for UA freshmen that allows them to post and engage in discussions, message each other, and review happenings and places, such as restaurants and stores near their campus.

Tracking Students' Engagement

A sophisticated Web-based reporting tool allows the UA Academic Retention team to track students' engagement with the topics and with each other. Research has shown that a student's level of engagement in his or her community significantly increases the likelihood that the student will remain in college. The reporting tool houses data about students' test scores, hometowns, current living assignments, grades and more.

Parameters, using predictive models and research about high-risk students, are created. Using the data in the reporting tool, along with the level of an individual's engagement, the team can immediately identify students who meet the criteria of being high risk. The early identification allows staff to connect with students and engage them in personal, helpful conversations about their campus experience.

Some conversations involve direction to one of many campus academic support services, such as the English Writing Center, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Mathematics Technology Learning Center. Other situations may call for the counseling center or help finding a club or organization in which a student can get involved. The benefit of this approach is using technology – often considered to be an impersonal medium – to create a high-touch, individually focused approach to student service.

A parent program, UAFamilyConnection, runs parallel to the freshman student program. Using it, parents can create profiles and engage in a virtual community with other parents. The family connection program is part of a comprehensive approach to retention and is managed by the Parent and Family Programs office.

UAFamilyConnection provides parents with continuous information about their students' transition to college, which helps parents effectively support their son or daughter. Information about the academic calendar, typical transition issues and campus activities can help parents engage in proactive discussions with their children about their experience preparing for midterms, managing their roommate relationships and getting involved on campus. UAFamilyConnection also gives parents an outlet to ask questions and express concerns about their students. In both situations, UA staff members address these areas of concern in a timely and efficient fashion.

Students Sign Up

For the fall 2006 incoming class, the UAFreshmanConnection was launched during orientation, before the students ever stepped into a classroom. By the first day of classes, more than half of the 4,378 freshmen had registered for the program, read the topics about student life and responded to the topic surveys. By three weeks into the semester, 70 percent of the freshman class was engaged.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, about 200 students were involved in the UPeers program. During the same three-week timeframe this year, almost 1,300 freshmen were participating in UPeers, which means that they created personal profiles, uploaded their photos and were engaged in their online community.

The university has incorporated UAFreshmanConnection into freshman seminar-type academic courses and continually brainstorms new ways to incorporate the freshman connection program into its retention-focused business processes.

The staff engages students in a caring, nonjudgmental way to help them adjust so they can succeed in school.

In September 2006, UA launched a freshmen residency program that requires all first-year students to live on campus. This requirement provided a perfect opportunity for the academic retention director to create a partnership with Housing and Residential Communities to use that office's larger professional staff and the UAFreshmanConnection reporting tool to assist students who the faculty identify as displaying at-risk academic behaviors and low levels of engagement.

This program gives the academic retention team immediate access to students who may need help. The community directors, as the live-in professional staff are called at UA, can log details of their conversation with students into the reporting tool.

When several people speak with a particular student, a paper trail of interventions and interactions is logged for others to see. The program generates reports that allow staff members to quickly find students who have notes on their records to ensure appropriate, continuous follow-up.

The statistics about the number of students who register for and use the UAFreshmanConnection and UPeers, the online virtual community, are telling. (See “Life Online ” on this page.) Students want to be engaged in this way. They are comfortable with their peers and have a language and culture all their own.

The lesson: If higher ed institutions want to have an impact on their students and keep them in school, they will have to tune in to the students' world and communicate with them in the ways they've grown up using and understanding.

Jennifer Benson Jones is director of academic retention at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. In this capacity, she is responsible for managing retention programs and research, with a specific focus on the first-year experience.

Assessing Student Needs

Using UAFreshmanConnection, incoming students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa answer questions on an e-survey about their readiness for college, which gives UA staff a chance to help them adjust to college life. These are two of the topics addressed by 2006 freshmen.


42%: I'm looking forward to it, but I'm a little nervous as well.
54%: I can't wait!
2%: I'm a bundle of nerves!
2%: I'm more worried than excited.


15%: I'm completely prepared.
53%: I feel I'm ready for it, but have a few concerns.
24%: I'm not sure yet.
8%: I don't think I'm ready.
0%: I'm totally lost.

Based on the responses, the UA academic retention team creates personalized e-mail messages to students offering encouragement and providing resource information. For example, struggling students might be told to visit the Computer Center or the English Writing Center for help with college-level work.

Life Online

Three weeks into the 2006 semester, 70 percent of the freshman class of 4,378 students were registered users of the UAFreshmanConnection program.

• Of the registered students, 29 percent created personal profiles, and most included uploaded photos.

• 29 percent had logged into the virtual universe 38,000 times.

• Students started 136 discussions.

• They sent 4,391 messages within the program.

• Students viewed profiles 17,877 times.

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