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Calbright’s Research Helps Students Progress in Online Programs


It’s easy to start an online course, but many people have trouble finishing them. In some studies, most students never complete them.  

Calbright is now pioneering a new approach to help adults studying online complete their coursework. It was developed in partnership with researchers at the University of California, Irvine School of Education (UCI) and behavioral design nonprofit ideas42

The results are significant. 

In a pilot run, students using the new approach completed roughly 30% of a program in the time it took the control group to complete less than 20%. The longer the pilot went, the more effective the new approach became. After four months, students using the new approach had completed around 40% their programs, while the control group averaged under 25%. 

That’s an extraordinary impact, and it’s now in the process of being applied to every program at Calbright College.

Real Flexibility Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing

The new program is called “Pace and Progress Timelines,” and it emerges from the unique combination of Calbright’s structure as an online community college and its use of a Competency-Based Education model

Calbright isn’t just online, it’s flexibly paced: students can take their classes on their own schedules. Whether that’s for an hour first thing in the morning, or in 15 minute breaks at work, or after the kids have gone to bed at night. Students can study in whatever way fits their lives, and they are graded on what they know, not on how much time they’ve spent in class. Students who are able to move forward faster can do so it, while students who need extra time can take it – there’s no penalty.

That’s one of the things that makes Calbright accessible to adult students who have jobs, care for kids or parents, and have busy lives. In surveys, Calbright students have said the flexibility is even more important to them than Calbright’s free programs.

When we’ve asked students: “Why are you interested in enrolling at Calbright?” 88% say it’s because our online, flexible programs are accessible – while just over 60% say it’s because we make college affordable. 

So flexibility is one of the most important things students value about Calbright. But our student engagement teams also noticed an issue: flexibly paced programs, with no fixed start or stop date, could leave students unsure of their progress and feeling adrift.

Students needed the best of both worlds: flexible programs that fit their lives, combined with clear milestones and benchmarks that motivate them to meet their goals.

Using Data To Create Clarity

Calbright’s student persistence rates were already significantly higher than those of other community colleges, but we believed we could do better.

“I think what I love most about Calbright is that we’re always looking to innovate for our students,” said Calbright’s Director of Admissions and Student Journey Ava Burns. “It’s not ‘can we do better?’ it’s ‘we’re going to do better, so let’s figure out how and when.’ That’s what we look for.”

Burns and her team took the issue to their partners at UCI and Ideas42, and together developed the idea for Pace and Progress Timelines. 

The premise is this: students need flexibility, but they also benefit from clarity. The more benchmarks students have for completing their program – benchmarks that are aligned and meaningful with the students own goals – the more momentum they’ll have to complete assignments and finish their programs.

It’s easy to set benchmarks for a conventional college program: since everyone starts and finishes at the same time, and has the same class schedule, everyone can follow the same calendar. 

But how do you do that for a flexibly paced online program? That was the challenge.

But one of the advantages that online courses have is the ability to collect data. So using data from Calbright’s newest program, which at that time was Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Platform Administration, they were able to tell approximately how long each student took to complete each of the Substantive Academic Activities (SAA).

Once they had that information, they were able to establish how long it took students, on average, to complete every task, and then determine how long it would take a student (on average) to complete their course based on which SAAs they had left to complete.

“We needed that level of specificity, because not all Substantive Academic Activities are equal, some are harder than others,” Burns said. “Some are logging into the LMS and starting a new unit, some are finishing a difficult assignment. To give a student a realistic sense of how far they had to go, we needed to take that into account.”

Choose Your Own Adventure

Once they could tell how much time the average student spends on each task, the team was able to develop four different “timelines” for students to take the programs, based on what the students’ own goals and circumstances are.

For the CRM course, the timeline options for finishing the program are:

  • 90 days
  • 120 days
  • 180 days
  • 365 days


Students take a survey at onboarding to determine which timeline is right for them, and then—while they still study on their own time and schedule—they have clear benchmarks in place that tell them what they need to do if they want to stay on track.

They also have a support team helping them to meet those goals.

“We provided weekly touchpoints for students with the persistence team,” Burns said. “We let them know how they did in the last week and what the recommended assignments for the upcoming week are. Students get those updates so they have a sense of how they’re doing and know how to reach out to us if they need any changes.”

Giving Students Support, Not Rules

The timelines give students encouragement and meaningful ways to measure their progress. They are not, Burns emphasized, punitive: no student is ever penalized for straying from their timelines. Instead, a student who doesn’t meet their goals is offered assistance and support. 

“I cannot emphasize enough that timelines are recommendations based on the students’ own goals!” she said. “They’re not hard and fast due dates that students have to follow. Every student is different – they have different technical experience, different work situations, family situations. Timelines are a guide and a tool we have because students who use them get better results, but students are always able to change timelines to be more or less aggressive whenever they need, or to just take a break.”

In fact, one of the advantages of having timelines mapped out is that if students need to take a break from their studies, they can be given a clear sense of exactly how much that is likely to delay their program’s completion, or how much extra time they’d need to spend to catch up.

“Timelines give students more information and support, not rules,” Burns said.

Making Online Education Better For Everyone

Timelines have now been rolled out in every Calbright program, and each program requires its own unique evaluation: timelines for the IT Support program will be completely different from timelines for the Cybersecurity program, or the Data Analysis program, since each has different tasks and requirements.

Even so, the impact of timelines as they are applied to each program has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Quantitatively we track how students are progressing through their programs every week, and we continue to see a significant positive impact,” Burns said. “More students are completing more work, more quickly. We also continue to refine the program through data, measuring things like when we can intervene with students who are struggling, in order to have a bigger impact. We’re also always trying to improve our communications with students so that they feel more connected, and get the benefits of connection.”

The program is clearly working, just by the numbers, but Burns said that “it’s the communications we get from students every week that really inspire me. They thank us for the nudges, thank us for helping them understand what they need to do for the week ahead, and it’s just been so rewarding.”

It’s a new approach, based on research and data, that can have a big impact not just for Calbright students, but on the future of online education. 

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