Photo Gerardo Barros, Acting Director UNAB Online

Comprehensive Support: The Key to Reducing Student Desertion


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Apr 19, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Chile’s Andres Bello University, a member of the Laureate International Universities network, has been developing and strengthening a Comprehensive Support Model for both the design and offering of online courses and programs that have been developed at UNAB Online since 2012. Gerardo Barros, director of UNAB Online, spoke with Blackboard to share insights about this model, which is bringing innovation at both the national and international level.

Founded in 1988, Andres Bello University (UNAB) is a young university, but one that has established itself as a leader in Chile’s higher education sector. The university’s efforts in program accreditation in recent years has had a positive impact on the online programs offering, as it is the first Chilean university to offer an online postgraduate program with the highest possible accreditation in the country, seven years.

UNAB Online is made up of 36 team members working in areas such as design, teaching and digital marketing. Nowadays, this is the university’s organizational group in charge of supporting undergraduate and postgraduate faculty and students with an online study component, which is mainly supported by the Blackboard platform.

It all began in 2011 with a pilot test conducted for two postgraduate programs – one in public health and the other in nursing – both unique programs in their modality in Latin America. Professionals with location or time constraints expressed their interest immediately, which is why the university decided to further develop that area within the institution.

UNAB Online’s Rapid Growth

The probability that a young professional will to have to take specialized courses via an online environment increases more every day. As a result, UNAB, as higher education institution, prioritizes the adoption of modern communication, collaborative and learning tools, given that the development of these skills is essential to acquire basic competencies for the 21st century. In addition, professional development today is deeply linked with the ability to navigate the digital world, where self-discipline, self-study, time management, planning or remote work are fundamental.

UNAB’s directors understood this, and for six years, they created the ideal conditions for the online team to continuously progress in the offering of quality online courses. In 2014, encouraged by the success of the postgraduate programs, coupled with the experience gained, UNAB began implementing blended undergraduate courses. As a result, students could take some of their core curriculum courses via blended learning. Additionally, they can also take English and international certificate courses through this modality.

Comprehensive Support Model

UNAB Online’s experience is built on a transversal support model that is flexible, from the creation of programs and accompanying curriculums, to the support provided to students and professors during the delivery of online courses.

This support is one of the university’s many retention tools, as the UNAB Online team is aware of dropout rates being one of the biggest issues in e-learning to date. In most cases, attrition is due to students feeling alone throughout the learning process. An almost intuitive response to this challenge is to get faculty and students to work closer together in order to guarantee a personalized approach to students’ questions (via the university’s platform), within a reasonable time frame.

Undoubtedly, this model highlights the importance of providing support, but it is also worth noting that this is a comprehensive support, which implies support not only to the student, but to all parties involved throughout the various stages of the process. An example would be the development of an online course based on the content of the university’s face-to-face model, in conjunction with the professor in charge. In all cases, an instructional designer works with the professor to achieve an effective migration. The professor is aware of the skills and competencies the students need to gain in order to pass the course, and offers advice and support on the key aspects that will create a course with attainable objectives for both the professor and the students.

The student is supported at all times, either by the professor or a ‘supporting tutor.’ This person is responsible for several students at the same time and is in charge of sending reminders about deadlines, updates and announcements, as well as offering support on the use of the platform. In this way, the tutor can help the student feel supported during the learning process, without delving into course content. In fact, the accreditation process of the first postgraduate programs (under the accrediting agency’s responsibility) showed that monitoring students under this model has better results than what was achieved in a face-to-face environment, given that tutors and instructors have detailed knowledge about their students including their profiles, interests and social-demographic data, all of which can impact and affect their learning process.

January 2018 marked the beginning of UNAB Online’s second development stage, as the team aims to provide their online students with a fully enriching university experience from an academic, social and administrative perspective, thus highlighting the value of online education.

The university’s approach comes from UNAB Online’s experience – from its policies and the internal logic of the digital space – stemming from the intention to innovate effectively and find alternative solutions to achieve high-impact results. This is where concepts of innovation and support connect and intersect, as UNAB Online’s model where faculty and students are supported during the entire process is an innovation in and of itself. Likewise is the adoption of Blackboard LMS tools and the continuous search for educational technologies that foster and contribute to the university’s pedagogical model in line with innovation in terms of implementation.

UNAB Mobile

All academic services must be available to students, professors and tutors at all times. Therefore, it is essential to have online platforms, but even more so essential is to provide access through the most ubiquitous technology existing today: smartphones and mobile apps. This is not only an efficient way to reach more students, but a strategy to use the intuitive nature and great penetration rates of these technologies.

UNAB Online course content that has been developed to date have been created with the digital environment in mind. However, as it usually occurs with course design, their applicability to mobile technology was not an initial priority. Taking this into account, and with the aim of adapting content to a more accessible and mobile environment, UNAB developed training activities for curriculum designers in order to lay the foundations for the arrival of UNAB Mobile.

As of this year, UNAB Online has started to produce content for mobile application (as well as adapt its existing content), which implies different challenges in several aspects. For example, in graphic design, it is necessary to consider screen and font sizes, the interface design and, above all, the type of interaction the user will have with the device.

Dropout Reduction and Quality Improvement

The current situation in postgraduate programs is particularly telling, as the dropout rate is between 3 and 4 percent. At the same time, dropout rates in undergraduate blended courses have reached the same levels as the in-person counterparts, which shows the strength of an online experience with emphasis on support. Even more encouraging has been the data collected through analytic tools, which has shown that students in online courses get the best grades. Of course, this does not mean that online students learn more, but shows that monitoring objectives and self-learning discipline have paid off.

Through UNAB Online, UNAB also offers courses to students admitted into undergraduate programs. These courses allow students to review basic subjects related to the program they were admitted into in areas such as Language, Mathematics, Sciences, among others. The main benefit of these courses is the reduction in failure rates in courses where it is usually high, in addition to the introduction of remedial courses in alternate semesters to reduce academic delay. All of the above is in line with the policies of respect and inclusion adopted by the university to make it a more open and diverse institution.

Regarding inclusion, this methodology provides the perfect opportunity for students who may not have access to face-to-face education due to the following reasons: geographic location, time constraints, work, etc. The team is working to go above and beyond, as it is possible to include students with disabilities and adapt the educational experience to their needs. UNAB has already begun working with disabled students to implement different solutions through Blackboard’s native resources.

Online education in Chile has gained such momentum that there are high expectations for an accreditation process specifically for online programs, instead of the adapted framework of face-to-face education used so far. From this perspective, it is clear that the quality of online education is no longer measured in comparison with the quality of face-to-face education, but by its own parameters and criteria.


Photos by: AFP – Pablo Vera