The widening participation agenda brings with it an added impetus to improve student retention rates. Retention is also a powerful institutional driver in its own right. Although the UK has a higher record of HE student retention than most other OECD countries, across the sector around 22% of students failed to complete their studies in 2006, although there is considerable variation in retention rates between individual institutions.
Student retention is considered at a strategic level at most (if not all) UK HE institutions in relation to widening participation, learning, teaching and assessment, and staff development. The provision of proactive student support, with e-portfolios providing a mechanism to encourage collaboration, communication and feedback can play a role in improving student retention rates.
In the Individualised Support for Learning through E-portfolios (ISLE) project, a tentative link was made between e-portfolio use and improving student retention. By breaking down their learning processes through reflection, it was felt that learners were able to set achievable goals for themselves – this meant that learners were less likely to give up early in the programme. However tutors that mentioned this change were at a very early stage in the implementation of e-portfolio.
The SOLVS project found that:
'The ability for a potential learner to self-assess their suitability for a particular course before applying is particularly powerful in terms of student retention – having undertaken this process a student should be less likely to withdraw at an early stage due to the course being unsuitable.'
At Sheffield Hallam University, learners are being introduced to an e-portfolio and ePDP in a first-year skills module. Tutors have been concerned that learners are becoming less involved with the institution especially at transition points such as the first few weeks of study. The e-portfolio is seen as a learning space where learners can feel at home and through which they can become more independent and self-reliant. Through a series of video clips, Serena Bufton from Sheffield Hallam discusses this implementation of the e-portfolio and its aims to encourage learners to become more involved and connected with the institution.
Dumfries and Galloway College has noted increased retention figures since implementing e-portfolios:
'Retention and achievement figures for learners with eportfolios have consistently shown an increase. A comparison of these figures between 2007 and 2008 showed that computing classes increased retention by between 21 and 50 percent while construction classes increased retention by 29%. Achievement during the same period for computing increased up to 22% and in construction by up to 47%.'
The Tangible Benefits of e-Learning project sought out evidence that technology-enhanced learning is delivering benefit for learners, teachers and institutions. One of the case studies from the University of Wolverhampton clearly identified the potential of e-portfolio use in improving retention.
Case study - University of Wolverhampton
Gayle is a student nurse in the second year of her Diploma in Nursing programme. When she commenced on the programme she lacked confidence in herself and was not in the habit of utilising e-learning. She did not own a computer. This is her comment on how she found using the e-portfolio system originally.
"I admit that when we were first introduced to PebblePad I hated it. I could not see how it would benefit us or help us to gel as a community (and I am a technophobe). However to be perfectly blunt, I would have been well and truly lost without PebblePad whilst out on placement. It is easy to think you will cope, you are self aware and confident whilst you are in the safe surroundings of the university’s four walls. However when you are actually out on placement it is nothing like you expect (speaking for myself of course). You encounter experiences and see things you never dreamed of and whilst we are privileged in one respect, it can also be a frustrating and isolated time. We were in university for four months, we saw each other for five days a week and we became a close knit community. I don’t think any of us had much idea just how hard it would be adjusting to not being ‘together’.
"I suppose I was lucky in a way because I was on placement with two members of our little family but I know others who were totally on their own (as in they had no one on placement with them from our community). At times it was puzzling, frustrating, lonely and left you feeling shocked and on occasion angry by the things you saw. Having access to PebblePad and being able to ‘keep in touch’ helped me immensely. On more than one occasion during placement I have had to question myself, my views and beliefs and without the aid of PebblePad and being able to share things with you all I would have joined others from our community and quit!
"You can become very blinkered about your views and only see one side of things no matter how self aware you are, having the opportunity to share these thoughts with others and ask for their input has been of tremendous help to me over the past few months.
"I can honestly say it has to be one of the best things I have learnt from my short time at university and I would sincerely like to thank ******* and ******* for giving us this wonderful learning opportunity THANK YOU!"