Students at Black Hawk College in Illinois commute to classes between work and family commitments. For many of them, there’s a big gap between what they know and what they need to know — both to be successful in their courses and to navigate the college environment.

Officials discovered that accessing campus services that could help them was a challenge because many of them weren’t on campus at the right time and they didn’t have the knowledge or skills to use technology that would improve their experiences.

That’s why Black Hawk launched new initiatives to support the students, said Kari Koster, director of the Student Success Center. She spoke at the Sloan Consortium’s International Symposium for Emerging Technologies for Online Learning.

Reviewing data from the “Survey of Entering Student Engagement” helped officials set goals and objectives, Koster said.

Students’ responses revealed that Black Hawk’s weakest area was student engagement, she said. Part of the problem was that students weren’t comfortable with the technology that would enhance their engagement, she said. For example, 48 percent of the students who completed the survey had never used email, text messaging or other interactive tools to contact their professors.

A task force analyzed ways to improve the first-year experience and identified the following four phases that needed work:

1. Foundations. Students were encountering obstacles before they even applied. Black Hawk didn’t have an online application process, and once one was implemented, the information didn’t feed into the student information system. Officials upgraded the technology to make the application process go more smoothly for students, Koster said.

2. Transition. Officials wanted to create a more welcoming environment for students. They developed an online orientation that provides entering students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

3. Engagement. Students can now take a first-year seminar that focuses on the college experience and success. The course includes lessons on the technology that students need to understand to be successful in college.

4. Integration. Officials wanted to ensure that students would be successful beyond the first year. Students now have access to 24/7 online tutoring.

Online solutions, training ease access

Black Hawk students needed training on the technology that would make them more successful college students. Officials built the training into the enrollment process. They also moved more services online where the students could access them conveniently using the knowledge they gained from the training.

Highlights of Black Hawk’s initiatives to use technology more effectively to improve student engagement and success included:

Online orientation. This program is available for students who take classes online and on campus. They are directed to it when they get their course placement test results.

The orientation is housed in Canvas, a learning management system. That helps students learn to navigate the LMS. At one time, Black Hawk faculty chose among several systems, but that was confusing for students who had trouble navigating multiple systems. Now the entire campus uses Canvas, Koster said.

The orientation is not currently mandatory, but officials are considering requiring it.

Quizzes are embedded in the course so that officials can verify that students learned something, Koster said.

Students take a pre- and post-test to assess whether they learned the information. Officials are still working on the course to improve the number of students who improve their scores between the two, Koster said. They analyzed the data and found that nontraditional and career students take the orientation seriously and show improvement.

However, many of the traditional students who plan to transfer to a four-year institution complete it quickly and don’t learn the material.

Group advising. Students are assigned to groups with others who, like them, are in career programs, plan to transfer, or participate in the TRIO program. TRIO students are in their own groups so that they can get to know their advisors, Koster said.

The students use iPads for online registration and leave the sessions with their schedules. They learn to use the technology they’ll need to register for future terms, Koster said.

A preparatory course. Black Hawk piloted the College Experience and Success course in fall 2012 with four sections of 20 students. It is housed in Canvas so that students learn how to use the platform. Faculty members created the textbook. The classes are held in the science and technology building, where there is easy access to technology such as iPad carts, Koster said.

The course was designed to lead a paradigm shift toward faculty members presenting information in a more interactive way, Koster said.

SARS software. Black Hawk is implementing SARS modules that will enable students to schedule their own advising appointments online. The system also has email and group-text capabilities.

Uses for those features include reminding students of upcoming appointments and enabling faculty members to notify students if class is cancelled, Koster said.

24/7 online tutoring. Black Hawk provides students with access to Tutor.com. The response from students and faculty members has been positive, and about 80 percent of students who use the service pass with a C or better, Koster said.

The service was originally intended for students taking online courses, but students taking classes on campus use it just as much, she said.

Students can use Tutor.com for eight hours each semester. If they want more time than that, they need to explain why they need the time to Koster, who approves extra hours. At first, students had unlimited access, but some of them used the service for an incredibly high number of hours. Koster wanted to make sure they were using it appropriately.

Sign-in to the system is authenticated through students’ campus email addresses. Access used to be through the portal, but Koster learned that some students who transferred to four-year institutions were still able to use the service that way.

Learn more about Canvas at www.instructure.com and more about SARS at www.sarsgrid.com.