Just over 10 years ago a US Department of Education report noted that at the turn of the millenium “…73% of all undergraduates were in some way non-traditional.” (Choy, 2002, 1) Moreover, as the report goes on to describe, this type of student faces specific issues and barriers to successfully completing their education and have higher rates of non-completion than other types of student. These learners could therefore be described as being “at-risk” of not completing their studies.
An earlier US Department of Education report describes “non-traditional students” as “…identified by the presence of one or more of the following seven characteristics: delayed enrollment into postsecondary education, attended part time, financially independent, worked full time while enrolled, had dependents other than a spouse, was a single parent, or did not obtain a standard high school diploma.” (Horn & Carroll, 1996, 1) Conversely, the “traditional” student is the learner who attends college full-time following their completion of High School (see Horn & Carroll, 1996, 1).
As part of our work on the OER Research Hub we are looking specifically for evidence which shows whether or not “Use of OER is an effective method for improving retention for at-risk students.” But, what do we mean by “at-risk students” and are these the same learners as those described as “non-traditional”? Moreover do both groups of students face similar barriers to their completing and persisting with their studies?
From initial reading it appears that the term “at risk” is currently used mainly in connection with students in compulsory education but also widely acknowledged as difficult to define (see the Bill Page interview below, for example). As the Wikipedia entry on this topic notes, even from State to State in the US, definitions of what “at risk” is vary…
An awesome video made by students from Jere Baxter Middle School (which won the Best Video at KWN New Vision Awards back in 2007) gives some of the reasons why a student might be described as “at-risk.” As students explain, from the community somebody lives in, to drugs and pregnancy there can be many reasons why students fail to complete their studies. Similarly Texans Can Academies which focus specifically on helping “at-risk students” have a video that it worth checking out.
Another take on this question comes from Bill Page, who has written a book about “at-risk students”. As he describes it:
“Students placed by school policies in a position to fail because of a mismatch between their readiness to learn and the predetermined age-grade-level curriculum. Mis-education and mismatch policies place kids at-risk of failing because they attempt to fit kids to the curriculum instead of fitting the curriculum to the kids.” (Source: Bill Page, 2009 interview with Michael F. Shaughnessy).
As this range of definitions show, there is clearly scope for further discussion not only around what makes a student “at-risk” but also about the relationship between “non-traditional” and “at-risk” students, particularly as issues such as caring responsibilities, family/friend groups and their experiences of education/lack of familiarity of studying and being on a low income cut across these groups of learners.
As a project our definition of “at-risk” is deliberately broad. The Bridge to Success project, which is one of our collaborations, focused on researching the impact of low-income students’ use of whole course elementary math and personal development/study skills OER within a largely community college context. Whilst income and affordability of courses and course materials are factors on whether students continue with their education, there are also specific issues faced by students described as “non-traditional” which may lead to these learners having a higher risk of dropping out of their studies. For example, instructors interviewed during the June 2013 Maryland research trip described “non-traditional students” as: “first-generation” college students, underrepresented groups, older students and others who have taken time out from studying (e.g. for work), people who did not complete their High School studies and/or have basic math and reading skills etc.
We are continuing to collaborate with select institutions involved in the Bridge to Success project to negotiate access to comparator retention data, which would show whether using Bridge to Success has impacted on the retention and success rates of those students who are using, or have used, this OER. In the meantime, other evidence relating to whether or not OER use impacts on “at-risk students” rates of retention and completion is beginning to emerge. To date, our survey of OpenLearn users has generated data indicating a mixed response to the question of whether use of OER impacts on retention. 29% (n=36) of formal students using OpenLearn OER believe that using the resources makes them more likely to complete their course of formal study. However, in contrast just 14% (n=7) of OpenLearn using educators agreed with the statement that OER have a positive impact on student retention whilst 35% (n=18) of respondents disagreed.
As always, at this stage in the project, it’s a definite “watch this space” as we continue to gather a range of data relating to this question and what exactly it is that OER offers (or doesn’t offer) students which are at risk. For example, is it the flexibility and low/no-cost of OER which enables students to complete their studies? What support do we need to offer students to help them succeed? Or is it, as the variance in definitions show, the case that being “at-risk” from failing to complete one’s studies requires a personalised approach which can target specific concerns and issues for students? If so, what role (if any) can OER play in students’ success?