Southern Arkansas University Tech is a two-year public college that is part of the Southern Arkansas University System. Employing 160 faculty and staff, SAU Tech serves an average of 1,100 students -- the majority of which are first-generation college and/or low-income students from underserved communities.
SAU Tech awards transfer, online, and career technical degrees and certificates in 16 different fields.
SAU Tech uses the Brightspace LMS to host all its online courses, and Harmonize to enhance online discussions and collaboration. Harmonize is a Learner Collaboration Platform that integrates within Brightspace and helps facilitate strong classroom community. It supports a diverse set of student learning styles across all disciplines, from language to mathematics and criminal justice, and is used to drive better learning outcomes for the 34% of students taking online courses.
Initially founded to provide a technically trained workforce for the Highland Industrial Park, SAU Tech continues to serve a large population of working students with more than half attending part-time or starting college after the age of 24. With an average of 80% of all enrollees being first-generation college students, SAU Tech supports a considerable number of students that are at-risk for attrition.
The institution needed to deliver both its in-person and online campus experience in a way that better engaged learners and provided flexibility, equal access, and the same high-quality learning opportunities more traditional, full-time students experience.
To foster a sense of community and support for its online students, SAU Tech looked to:
Getting students to lean into their learning in order to help them master certain concepts and achieve particular learning outcomes is challenging. Doing it online might seem impossible.
For SAU Tech, the key was creating a sense of belonging for its online, part-time, and nontraditional students. This meant creating a thriving online learning community for all students -- giving all course participants the opportunity to connect, collaborate, and learn in ways that worked best for them.
To do this, SAU Tech leveraged a learner collaboration platform, purposefully designed to foster an equitable and inclusive classroom experience, outside the classroom. With more intuitive ways for on-the-go students to create and submit videos, attach written assignments, access discussion boards, and communicate, Harmonize drastically reduced the barriers often preventing students from participating in online courses.
Plus, Harmonize’s social media look and feel made it easier for students and faculty to use. Online students could participate in Q&A forums and instructor polls -- providing and receiving answers to questions that would impact their experience. By giving virtual students a way to be seen and heard, SAU Tech instructors began to see a surge in course participation.
In-app Video Creation & Annotation gives students ways to easily communicate and produce assignments, supporting a variety of multimedia-based learning styles.
Milestones intentionally guide students through assignments designed to practice 1:1 & group collaboration.
Text-like Chats Portals provide students a familiar communication channel in which to provide & receive feedback.
Discussion Boards built into the natural flow of courses allows cohesive discussion around relevant coursework while exposing students to diverse perspectives, similar to in-classroom experiences.
Q&A Forums & Polls give students easy access to communicate with instructors and for instructors to access online students, using their responses to shape the course.
By building a learning community inclusive of both online and on-campus students, SAU Tech increased access to collaboration opportunities. As a result, the institution saw a 5x increase in overall student engagement.
The significant increase in engagement continues to support student retention at SAU Tech, which is 8 percent higher than the rate for colleges and universities in Arkansas*.
For example, students viewed and clicked through 60% to 100% of the videos vs. 5% in the LMS. And polls in Harmonize received 4x more responses. When compared to student activity (assignments viewed, feedback given, poll responsiveness) in Brightspace, a substantially higher number of students interacted in courses that used Harmonize.
Participation tracking includes posting, commenting, sharing feedback, completing assignments, responding to polls, using multimedia content creation capabilities, and active discussion board and chat portal activity.
Meaningful collaboration was facilitated in SAU Tech online courses through chat portal activity, peer review critiques, and collaborative activity requirements set through milestones.
For example, in an online speech course, SAU Tech students are required to write a narrative outline & speech and submit it for peer critique. Through prompted requirements set through milestones, students provide at least 3 comments on a number of students’ speeches. When done in Harmonize using the platform’s unique anonymous feature, not only did the number of comments per speech double, but the quality of feedback given by students also improved.
Easy-to-access and familiar communication capabilities, like in-app chat features, enabled students at any time and in any location to work together. Facilitating collaboration this way provided students with the opportunity to view more of each other’s work and share richer feedback -- giving students better opportunities to improve their work.
SAU Tech saw at least a tenfold increase in the amount of collaboration among students.
By leveraging technology meant to build classroom community outside the classroom, SAU Tech untethered learning from a specific time and space and, in the process, built an engaged online student population.
When students experienced the diversity of thought that came from working with others, they began to share a sense of belonging and connection that resulted in stronger engagement. Students became better equipped to solve problems, think critically, and take a more inclusive approach to communication -- all of which serves to prepare them for the workforce.
*# of first-time students returning from previous term; The average student retention rate for colleges and universities in Arkansas is 61%.