What’s New at the School

The year 2006 has been a transition year for the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing. We began the year with the realization that although we were admitting more students than ever, we also had many students leaving the program without finishing. We spent time taking a deep look at what we were doing and how we were doing it. We started with an on- campus retreat of the Administrative Team in January of 2006. Faculty participated in the retreat via conference call. We looked at all of the potential reasons why attrition had been increasing.

We reviewed the results of student surveys and focus groups that had been completed during 2005. We reviewed the literature written on attrition in distance learning programs. These resources led us to believe that many students felt that they were not getting the support and structure that they needed to stay enrolled and finish the program. We read about ways to decrease attrition

Pic #2 and reviewed many studies that had been done. We found that many of our students simply got behind; as a matter of fact they often got so far behind that it was hard to catch up and they ended up not finishing. A huge factor contributing to this problem was that there was minimal accountability to anyone except themselves to set timelines and adhere to them. Most human beings do better when they have a set timeline in which to accomplish their goals.

Another important factor was a lack of regular interaction between students, and between students and their faculty. The system under which Frontier operated allowed students to set their own schedule, to take as many months as they wanted to complete courses, to start a course and stop that course without finishing and go on to start another course, to put coursework down for a month or more and then start up again and to have minimal faculty and student contact or more faculty and student contact depending on their needs. At first glance this sounds ideal for an adult learner. The system has been beneficial in many ways as it has allowed our adult learners to deal with life issues as they come along. The problem occurred when students became so busy dealing with life they fell behind in their studies and ultimately ended up withdrawing. We left the retreat feeling that we had identified the problem but not the solution.

We continued this exploratory work through conference calls and discussions in the faculty forum. We began to form the idea of going to a system of set terms. We again went to the literature and reviewed the advantages and disadvantages of different schedules including semesters, trimesters, and quarters. We had many lengthy discussions about the risk of taking away students’ flexibility.

The challenge was: How do we design a system that will allow adult students to deal with their everyday lives and still meet their educational goals? Faculty advisors were torn. They wanted to stop being the time police who spent an inordinate amount of time tracking down students who were not making adequate progress. And yet, they wanted to be able to give advice regarding how to fit a scheduled term of study into student’s busy lives. We fully recognized that our student body was comprised of busy professionals who were often working, raising families and attending graduate school at the same time. How could we help improve their educational outcome without setting up an impossible schedule?

Faculty expressed the desire to design courses in which they would be able to have students learning from faculty and from each other and where there were cohorts of students who came to know each other and to learn from each other. We had this incredibly rich and diverse student body representing the entire United States as well as England, Germany, Costa Rica and Spain. How could we capitalize on that richness? We also knew from our review of the literature that more high quality interaction equals higher completion rates. The current system did not truly allow for that. When students are all starting and finishing courses at different times and taking different lengths of time to pace through a course, it is very difficult to have meaningful interaction. We knew that the technology available today would allow much more creativity in course design.

We held meetings with student council representatives and all students attending Level III in an attempt to get their feedback on these issues. We also surveyed the Level IV students to ask what they would think of the implementation of a system of terms. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We took away the following points from our investigations:

  • Distance education programs typically have higher rates of attrition when compared to traditional programs.
  • Distance education programs that are self-paced and unstructured do not work well and can lead to even higher attrition rates.
  • Students must be taught how to fit school into their lives and how to accomplish “time on task”.
  • Distance learning classes that build community and encourage interaction are more successful and increase student retention in distance learning.
  • Helping students to feel that they are a part of a community is crucial to persistence, learning and satisfaction .
  • The path to increased student retention is to improve program design and student services .

In March of 2006, we reached agreement to implement a system of four Twelve Week Terms each year. We chose this schedule in an attempt to meet the needs of many different students. Some want to move fast through the program. They want to start courses, finish them and move on. The short terms would allow for that. They could take several courses each term and finish the program at a fast pace. Other students want to move more slowly. PIC #3

This system would allow for that by having students enroll in lower number of credits each term.

Why did we call the system terms instead of quarters? We decided not to change our credit system. In most colleges on a quarter system, they change their credits to units. A unit generally reflects a lower number of hours to complete. Approximately 80% of colleges in the country use semester credits. Since many of our students come to us with credits completed in other places and many go on to further education after leaving Frontier, we wanted to keep semester credits. Our students could then easily transfer credits in from other schools and have their transcripts easily read. We presented the plan to the Board of Directors at their April 2006 meeting where it was approved.

We spent the rest of 2006 preparing to transition to terms. The entire curriculum was reviewed and revised to adapt it to the new system. Faculty Pic #4 worked to add more interactive activities and to make use of the technology available to reach students with different learning styles. We received approval of our plan from each of our accrediting bodies, including SACSCOC, ACNM, and NLNAC.

Our student management system was revised to accommodate terms. We designed a new system for registration. Every student had a meeting with their advisor to design a new program plan and to discuss how the terms system would affect them. We developed a roster system that allowed faculty and students to view the names of other students who were taking courses with them. The catalog and student handbook were combined into one document. Every policy was reviewed to see if adaptations were needed for the new scheduling system. New policies were added where necessary. The new FSMFN catalog was made more user friendly. We held lengthy discussions with student council representatives and in student forums explaining the plans. A new forum was opened specifically to discuss the Twelve Week Terms system and answer questions. Not everyone was happy about the proposed plan. Students helped us identify strengths and weaknesses. Adaptations were made based on the student feedback we received. We held education sessions at the October faculty meeting in Hyden to assist faculty in meeting students’ advising needs. Additionally, we hired a Student Services Coordinator. The position is to facilitate the admission process and act as an ombudsman for all students helping them to solve everyday student problems, including how to fit school into their lives.

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