By Hattie Bernstein
Student feedback matters. So much, in fact, that the College of Online and Continuing Education has developed a system for gathering students’ concerns about everything from textbook costs to withdrawal fees and using them to make improvements.
“What’s really important to us at COCE is the notion of continuous improvement,” says Amelia Manning, vice president of Advising and Student Success. “We believe we offer a high-quality education and deliver an unparalleled level of service and support, but we always have an opportunity to get better.”
Getting better, Manning says, requires mechanisms for compiling data, identifying trends and making changes as quickly as possible.
“It touches everything: institutional policies, institutional procedures, academic requirements, opportunities to improve service,” Manning says of the system she oversees and guides.
Here are some of the ways COCE gathers and acts on student feedback.
Reducing Textbook Costs
One recent example is the renegotiation of textbook prices after students complained that they were being charged $250 for a required undergraduate textbook.
“I called the vendor and said, ‘You’re done selling books to us at this price,’” says Jill Batistick, director of eLearning in COCE Academics. “‘It’s not going to happen.’”
Batistick said if any vendor contacted had refused to reduce costs, the curriculum team could have chosen to write the book out of the course. But, “In most cases, price concessions came, and we didn’t have to change vendors,” she says.
Manning says thanks to Batistick and her team, COCE was able to reduce the average cost of an undergraduate textbook to under $100, without compromising academic standards.
“Here, particularly within COCE, we spend a lot of time reflecting on what it is we are doing for students and figuring out how we can identify issues and make improvements,” she says. “Their feedback is critical as we move forward.”
It’s a philosophy that Michael Graskemper, director of the dispute resolution team, lives by.
“We have a motto,” Graskemper says proudly. “‘Student feedback matters. We drive change.’”
In the course of a month, the director says, his team handles about 250 complaints and appeals, examining each as if it was the first and focusing on “doing the right thing for the student every time.” Eighty-five percent of cases are opened, heard and closed within three days.
“We move fast, but we’re also diligent,” he continues. “The student experience is very important to us, and it’s a benefit to be able to move fast, help fix something and help the student move past a dispute as soon as possible.”
Still, some cases take longer than others. When a number of students complained about charges made to their accounts for withdrawing from classes, for example, the dispute resolution team investigated and found that some staff members hadn’t been as clear as they could have been about the financial impact. Afterward, the team rolled out a withdrawal training program and a website dedicated to informing students of their options and responsibilities.
The team was just as responsive to a single complaint after a fifth term was added to the graduate school year, a change intended to lower student debt by hastening the pace of completing a degree.
In this instance, a student came to Graskemper with a dilemma: The amount of financial aid he received each term would be less when it was spread over five terms. Given his carefully figured budget, he would be short between $75 and $100 a month, which he needed to cover rent, food, and other personal and school expenses.
“I saw how careful and thoughtful he was, and we found a solution,” Graskemper says.
Complaints about an instructor’s slow response to student questions had a similarly immediate and satisfying result: Following an investigation and attempts to improve the situation, the instructor was replaced.
“We care. It matters to us,” Graskemper says. “Not too many universities have a department dedicated to resolving student disputes. Usually the student emails the dean and they try to find the time, but it can take three to four weeks to get a concern heard. Our program is a direct channel to all the people who make decisions.”
Improving the Course Experience
Amy Stevens, associate vice president of eLearning, which helps build courses and monitors how they are received, takes a similar tack, using data to analyze concerns and recommend changes.
“I look at it holistically, take the 30,000-foot view. I read through (student course evaluations) every term, much like a hotelier might read through Trip Advisor reviews,” she says, adding that the data she studies is available across departments. “We all own a piece of student success.”
Over time, Stevens continues, her team has thoughtfully introduced changes to the structure and organization of courses.
“Faculty who have been with us for a while may remember when everything (in Blackboard) was organized into its own folders, “ she says. “Or that our module resources were chock full of resources that just didn’t add that much value.”
The course and faculty evaluation survey students are asked to anonymously complete each term helps pinpoint areas of improvement, such as course or assignment revisions, faculty training opportunities and issues with textbooks and other resources.
“Course evaluations are where theory meets reality for us,” says Chief Academic Officer Dr. Gregory Fowler. “We do our best to build courses with empathy — anticipating what the student experience will be. But until we hear from the student, we don’t know if we got it right. If students don’t complete the evaluation, we are never sure whether their experience was what we hoped it would be.”
Conferring with Students
Adding value is also at the heart of COCE’s Student Advisory Board, formed in February with the aim of bringing together student leaders and administrators.
“The new board is not a student government, but rather an organized group of students who can inform the administration on the student experience,” said Laura Corddry, senior director of Student Success. “It is a group for us to go to and say, ‘Here is our policy. Help us understand how it impacts students, and let us help you to understand why it is important to the university.’”
Corddry said 300 students applied for the 15 seats on the board, and candidates had to complete personal essays, provide their GPA, and explain in writing why they wanted to participate. Every one of them was gung ho.
“What we found is that students want to have a voice, be part of the growth of the university, “ Corddry says. “They want to have a positive effect on students coming after them.”