ORLANDO, Fla. — Students enrolled in online programs may feel isolated and have decreased levels of motivation. Researchers believe those factors contribute to low retention rates among online students, said David Tao, an instructional technologist at the Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences.

But FHCHS has developed strategies that keep retention numbers high. Undergraduates enrolled in online programs at the institution have been retained at rates ranging from 92 percent to 100 percent from term to term over the past five years, said Mary Bruder. She works for Embanet-Compass Knowledge Group, a company that partners with FHCHS on retention support.

Tao and Bruder explained their best practices at the Annual Sloan Consortium Conference.

FHCHS students enter programs with advantages that boost their likelihood of success, Bruder said. Most already have earned an associate degree. And most are already working in the health care profession, so they have some success in their field when they enter the programs, Bruder said.

But the institution’s retention strategies also help students progress toward their degrees. Consider whether the following approaches could also help your institution retain more online students:

1. Ensure effective course design. FHCHS offers seven-week and 14-week terms. The institution offers all courses three terms per year. That way, students don’t have to wait a term or a year to take the course they need, Tao said.

The courses use a common template so that they all have a consistent look. Students don’t have to figure out where a certain button is for every course they take.

Each course has a lead instructor and sectional adjuncts. The lead instructor is responsible for the overall flow of the course, Tao said. The sectional adjuncts participate in real-time chats, take attendance and grade assignments.

Students are assigned to teams led by a sectional adjunct. There can be no more than 15 students on a team, Tao said.

2. Implement a detailed communication plan. Officials communicate with students by phone, email and regular mail.

New students complete a learning preparedness assessment, Bruder said. The institution offers an introduction to microcomputing course for students who need to learn computer skills to be successful in online courses or to learn to use PowerPoint or other tools. Officials also try to give students an understanding of the time management skills they will need to be successful as online students.

Officials also contact students who did not return to see if there’s anything they can do to help. And they contact returning students.

Campus and Embanet-Compass officials meet regularly to discuss successes and challenges. They review metrics to determine how well efforts are working and seek solutions to any issues that arise. Beyond those team meetings, college and company officials communicate regularly through face-to-face meetings, phone calls and emails.

3. Maintain at least one synchronous component in each course. Students need real-time feedback, Tao said. Each faculty member is required to schedule a weekly chat time.

Because most students have jobs, the institution offers a flexible schedule for chats. Students register for a certain time, but they can switch between sections if they need to.

Faculty members have access to advanced tools to make the chats successful, Tao said. For example, they can talk while students type in questions.

If the class doesn’t finish a discussion during the chat time, it can continue on a discussion board, Tao said.

Faculty members can use a variety of strategies to make the chat time productive, Bruder said. For example, they might provide students with questions in advance and use the time to discuss the answers, she said.

And the chats can be archived. That strategy enables students to access them later if needed.

4. Include the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous components. Asynchronous components supplement the chats. Faculty members can use discussion boards, blogs and wikis.

Email David Tao at David.Tao@fhchs.edu.