Rich SimpsonThis is a guest post by Rich Simpson, the Registrar for the Division of Online & Professional Studies at California Baptist University in Riverside, CA. He is currently pursuing a Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership with Pepperdine University. 

Title IV of the Higher Education Act requires institutions to report on student attendance at the beginning of every academic term. But what does attendance mean for online programs? Can institutions use learning analytics to create meaningful proxies for attendance that meet federal requirements, ensure reliability, and increase efficiency?

The attendance challenge for online programs

In the Division of Online and Professional Studies (OPS) at California Baptist University (CBU), courses are offered in eight-week accelerated sessions and operate largely independent of its traditional, on-campus counterpart, with sole oversight of faculty, curriculum, and administrative staff. Because our classes start every eight-weeks, compliance with Title IV means that we are constantly in the process of identifying non-attending students. The process needs to be quick and accurate, but until recently, our non-attendance tracking efforts involved PDF sign-in sheets that were cumbersome and inefficient. Moreover, inadequate or inaccurate faculty response significantly delayed the non-attendance tracking process.

To more efficiently and reliably comply with Title IV attendance tracking requirements, we worked with Blackboard to use LMS data to automate the discovery of non-attending students.

How we created a new report to track attendance

The first question we had to ask was whether the data available in Blackboard Learn could be used to create a definition of attendance that would meet federal standards. Acceptable indicators of academic attendance in an online course include submission of an assignment or exam, posting to a discussion board, and engaging in interactive instruction. Simply logging into an online class does not count as attendance, by federal standards.

Using Analytics for Learn, we were able to explore the data we had and make decisions about the conditions we would apply to determine “attendance.” Once we had a better understanding of the data we had available, and were confident that it was reliable, we worked with Blackboard to create a new Attendance by Submission Activity report.

At a glance, the report allows us to quickly identify students who have no attendance in at least one course, and students who have not attended any courses for the selected term. Alongside every student listed on the report, we also have access to information about submission activity by type (i.e., assignments, blogs, journal entries, and discussion posts), as well as last access data, number of access minutes, and grade center score.

The results and positive impact of non-attendance tracking

PDF sign-in sheets are now a thing of the past. Analytics for Learn has significantly contributed to CBU/Online’s initiative to increase efficiency by decreasing paper-based activities. Through the use of the Attendance by Submission Activity report, OPS expects to see a significant decrease in the amount of time that faculty spends tracking attendance and an increase in accuracy as determined by a decrease in the number of students self-reporting that they are attending classes. More than simply used for tracking, the report also functions as a kind of early-alert system allowing us to reach out to non-attending students proactively. Consequently, California Baptist University expects to see a decrease in the number of students dropped for non-attendance, and an increase in its undergraduate retention rate.

Download the full report for attendance tracking for online courses

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