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Insights from Partnering with Online Adult Education Providers

Looking back over this year, so much has happened at Ribbon Education! We’re building Ribbon to increase student retention while decreasing operational workload at online adult institutions. In 2022, we’ve moved towards this goal in a few ways this year:

  • Launch our first product that allows institutions to identify students who need attention, communicate with them effectively, and supercharge collaboration by storing all communications and notes in one place.

  • Institute our Learner Success Guild and have conversations, webinars and online discussions with 90+ education professionals about scaling academics and support with a flexible workforce, organizational design for student success teams, diagnostics, and more.

  • Build out our engineering team to continue growing and improving Ribbon.

  • Partner with and learn from some of our amazing customers, like Reach University, Merit America, and Flatiron School.

After working so closely with our customers providing higher ed programs to non-traditional learners, we’ve noticed a few common challenges and solutions across many of the organizations we work with. As the year wraps up, we wanted to share some of what we’ve learned and what we’ve seen work for our partners.

Challenge #1. Providing consistent service delivery with a part-time staff is a struggle

When you have lots of part time staff in all kinds of student-facing roles, be it instructors, student success advisors, or so on, it can be a struggle to provide consistency for learners. Each staff member may offer different levels of communication or support, or may be left creating all their own materials, leading to widely varying levels of quality. In addition, inconsistent staff hours and employee churn means institutions constantly need to provide training for new and current staff. All of this contributes to inconsistent service delivery and quality for learners.

What works to solve this?

Layer on full-time student advisors or student success coaches alongside your instructors.

Student success coaches can provide a regular hand of support for the students of several instructors at the same time. In high-volume online classrooms, this can make student support much more consistent, since someone will be dedicated to doing so, while also scaling economically, since one student success person can attend to several instructor’s student cohorts. This also removes some work from your instructor’s workload, freeing them up to focus on content delivery or support for the students who could use it the most.

Use playbooks, templates and tools that make best-in-class techniques available for every employee.

At Ribbon, our goal is to make instructors and staffs’ lives easier. Playbooks are one way to do this while also providing the highest quality resources and education for students. Developing or implementing playbooks and tools for instructors and other student-facing staff brings consistency by templating easy—and easily repeatable—communications, processes and so on.

Vikram Rangraj, the Chief Academic Officer at Rize Education, has seen standardized experiences and clearly documented processes do wonders for supporting learners at scale. “More students means more variability,” Vikram noted in our Q&A session. “If you can minimize the ‘detractors’ to your experiences, you can reduce the risk of your courses going off the rails in unforeseen ways.”

“More students means more variability. If you can minimize the ‘detractors’ to your experiences, you can reduce the risk of your courses going off the rails in unforeseen ways.”
Vikram Rangraj, Chief Academic Officer at Rize Education

However, when unusual situations occur, staff should have bandwidth for—and be empowered to take action on—creative and personalized solutions. In order to support learners at scale, you need to “build out clearly documented processes,” Rangraj says, “but be willing to change them the moment it becomes clear they aren’t working.” Processes and playbooks should support what you know works, without preventing innovation.

Challenge #2. Data from disparate systems are everywhere

Long story short: data is messy. That’s the case for many online education institutions, with existing data tools struggling to keep up with the pace of online innovation—or online learners or instructors’ needs.

But, as Lauren Jacobsen, Associate Director of Academic Delivery at Emeritus, points out, data is a driving force in maintaining focus and being able to scale education efficiently and affordably.

Even if data is difficult to collect, being able to look at and analyze data to understand the student experience provides exponential impact in terms of offering the right support at the right times—enabling you to make an outsized impact.

What works to solve this?

Just use spreadsheets.

Most institutions want to have a sophisticated and flexible data team to manage their learning data, but often fall back into using spreadsheets, either for want of technology that fits their needs or want of a team to maintain a complex data process.

However, if you have an early or still-evolving process, don’t be afraid to use spreadsheets while you’re building out your wider processes. They’re flexible enough to incorporate new data and processes easily, while also being detailed enough to reveal data you didn’t realize was possible. Not only will this help you use data to focus your resources from the beginning, but it can also give you a clearer idea of the processes and dashboards you need in the future.

For Joe Burgess, one of the founders of Ribbon Education, the practicality and simplicity of spreadsheets was one of the sparks for creating Ribbon! “More often than not,” Joe said, “you’ll think you need a huge set of data to be effective, but frequently end up focusing on just a small subset of it. For example, I used to think I needed to see the grades of all my learners for all of their assignments, when really, I didn’t need to see all the grades. I just needed to know who hadn’t turned in assignments that week.” Using spreadsheets allows you to hone in on the data that will make the biggest impact, even while your process is still in progress.

This has been a key benefit for Lauren Jacobsen at Emeritus as well. “One of the biggest things that has helped me [provide support at scale] is starting with data and asking a lot of questions,” Lauren said in our Q&A interview with her. “Sometimes this has meant being scrappy or manually collecting data for a while until we have systems that can do this for us. But what this has enabled me to do is focus resources on that which will make the biggest impact on the student experience and… understand what moves the needle.”

“One of the biggest things that has helped me [provide support at scale] is starting with data and asking a lot of questions. What this has enabled me to do is focus resources on that which will make the biggest impact on the student experience and… understand what moves the needle.”
Lauren Jacobsen, Emeritus

Over time, you can systemize more and find new tools to meet your growing needs and processes. Early on though, trying to implement complicated processes can slow you down and create more confusion than clarity. Instead, start with what you have, and narrow down your datasets to focus on what can truly create the most impact.

Make dashboards and datasets collaborative.

Whether you’re using a sophisticated data tool or a humble spreadsheet tracking system, ensure that all of your staff and instructors have access to—and are operating off of—the same dashboards and documents.

Whenever there are integral staff members who don’t have access to the primary data and dashboards, or are working with their own spreadsheets or systems, you’ll run into problems with missing data and black holes. This is another reason why spreadsheets can be so useful for early teams and processes—they’re easy to share with the whole team and accessible by everyone. Cloud-based systems and software allow entire teams to collaborate and see updates by each team member in real time.

Over time, as you systemize and develop your process, more sophisticated tools and systems allow you to create and track data more efficiently, while ensuring that data stays clean and complete.

Challenge #3. Encouraging team accountability through documentation is tedious or impossible, given the volume

Many institutions we work with have attempted to encourage team accountability through recording, reporting or otherwise documenting learner-staff communications. However, ultimately, this usually turns out to be an unwieldy process—either tedious to record, difficult to maintain, or simply overwhelming or impossible to keep up with.

All of this manual documentation also leads to a lot of human error—communications are missed or the resulting documentation is so unwieldy that it’s not even useful for accountability and analysis.

What works to solve this?

Make the process effortless.

As with anything, the more effortless and frictionless the experience of doing something is, the more likely we are to repeat it—the same rule applies for documentation, too! There are several ways we’ve seen this done that are easy to implement.

With Plus Addressing: For smaller organizations or teams, staff can BCC a manager’s email and add “+records” to the email (i.e. This plus addressing works with many email providers including Google and most versions of Microsoft. Managers can then set up a separate folder to automatically direct such emails to—filtering them out of their inbox but still creating a paper trail that can be searched as needed.

With a lightweight tool: Ultimately, an easier solution is to implement a communication tool for staff-student interactions that merges communications and logging. For example, Ribbon does this efficiently by allowing staff to bulk email 1:1 conversations through Ribbon. Not only is it easier to send an email directly from your dashboard, but all email sending is automatically recorded in a learner profile that can be accessed later.

Challenge #4. More students need attention than staff has time for

In order to make education more affordable, online education institutions need to find ways to scale—usually by increasing the student:staff ratio. But for many institutions, finding ways to do so without letting learners slip through the cracks or overburdening staff is a challenge.

In many cases, there’s more students that need attention than staff have bandwidth for, but you don’t want to dismiss them from the program. So how do you monitor and provide for student’s support needs without burning out staff?

What works to solve this?

Find a tool or process to help you calibrate flags for attention for each class.

The solution here needs to be a flexible one. Each class is unique, meaning that most classes require quite a bit of refining to get this done correctly. Using a tool to manage learners’ progress highlights students who need extra support and attention—but the key is to find a tool or system that’s easy to understand and configure, so that you can adjust for each class as it shifts and changes.

This is a great area for collaboration between academic staff and student success. How many students can your teams realistically reach out to and help each week? Are there varying types of help needed that can be flagged—for example, if some students need direct instructor access vs. another student who may be served just as well by meeting with a student success advisor?

Be flexible and adapt your system over time until you’ve accurately calibrated the flags for attention with how much your team can reasonably handle.

Do these challenges sound familiar to you? Join our community of leaders in education in the Learner Success Guild. Through monthly events, an online messaging board, and more, you’ll find space to discuss challenges, new ideas and industry trends with other leaders from similar institutions.


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