Because of the independent nature of online courses, students in the online learning environment often experience a sense of isolation. This sense can be even more pronounced for students from historically disadvantaged groups. Wake Tech’s award-winning First in the World grant project, COMPASS (Constructing an Online Model to Promote At-Risk Student Success), was designed to increase retention and success rates of students in online courses by leveraging technology and intentional outreach strategies to improve academic outcomes. The four-year research study showed promising results, particularly for students of color.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded First in the World grants to support innovation in the promotion of evidence-based solutions to pervasive issues for at-risk populations in higher education. Wake Tech’s Project COMPASS (U.S. Department of Education Grant #P116F150082), was particularly interested in improving outcomes for students of color, for whom baseline data showed lower retention and success rates in the three high-enrollment, low-success gateway courses at our open-enrollment institution.

The online courses included in the project – General Psychology, Intro to Business and Intro to Computers – were selected because they are high-enrollment courses with lower-than-average student success rates and large achievement gaps between demographic groups. As gateway courses, they often serve as gatekeepers to student success and academic progression. Unsatisfactory student performance can prolong or derail the acquisition of credentials and increase educational costs to students. COMPASS sought to address this.

To support unbiased and quality research results, Wake Tech collaborated with a third-party evaluation team at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The study was designed to meet What Works Clearinghouse standards without reservations.

Project goal and objectives

The goal of Project COMPASS was to improve the success of high-need students in high-demand online courses through a redesign to increase teaching, social and cognitive presence. COMPASS focused on two objectives: promoting active and engaged learning in online gateway courses through the integration of low-cost tools that promote online presence and systematically improving faculty instructional designs and strategies used in online courses.

Project protocol

COMPASS protocols were developed under the Community of Inquiry framework, seeking to improve three principle elements of the online educational experience: teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence.

  • Teaching presence involves the instructor’s design, facilitation and climate setting of the course that lead to meaningful learning outcomes.
  • Social presence relates to a supportive learning community for students.
  • Cognitive presence relates to collaborative activities – inquiry, critical thinking and problem-solving – that allow students to construct the meaning of course content.

As a part of Wake Tech’s innovative intervention, Project COMPASS instructors employed "high-tech" tools and "high-touch" course redesign strategies that enhance the student experience and increase teaching, social and cognitive presence in the online environment. Following are some technologies used in the project:

  • New "one-button" studios that served as free, easy-to-use tools for students and instructors to create high-quality course videos without prior video production experience
  • Web conferencing technology for synchronous instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction
  • Opt-in, secure texting technologies to engage students with immediacy
  • Traditional/LMS-based and/or web-hosted video threaded discussions to increase social and cognitive presence

The "high-touch" student engagement elements included the following:

  • Instructors’ intentional, proactive and highly responsive communication with students
  • Proactive intervention strategies designed to identify student issues before they arise
  • The intentional inclusion of people of color throughout course materials to minimize social, teaching and cognitive presence barriers to students in the target population

Results and impact

Key takeaways:

  • Students exposed to the online engagement model reported experiencing a higher online presence
  • Students engaged in more online participation (in the LMS)
  • Students were less likely to drop or withdraw from the course
  • Incremental improvements in student success rates
  • Positive impact on students persisting to the next academic year
  • Students from lower-income backgrounds benefited more from the online engagement model
  • Students with previous low performance benefited more
  • A greater impact on male students

Dissemination in development

Wake Tech has begun scaling the COMPASS intervention to other courses and colleges and is in the process of developing formal training modules for instructors who desire to adopt innovative student success and retention strategies.

The project team actively participated in opportunities to share best practices from the intervention at national conferences. COMPASS team members delivered nearly 40 presentations at national and local conferences and published nearly 20 conference proceedings and articles.


Awards and honors

  • 2018 Blackboard Exemplary Course Award (one of 11 winners worldwide)
  • 2019 Ellucian Impact Award (one of three winners worldwide)
  • 2109 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Leading Change (one of six winners worldwide in this category)
  • 2019 NC Community College Association of Distance Learning Innovator of the Year

Project team

  • Senior Vice President Bryan Ryan, principle investigator
  • Dr. Kai Wang, lead  co-principle investigator
  • Dr. Carlos McCormick, co-principle investigator
  • Dr. Pooneh Lari, co-principle investigator
  • Dr. Christopher Roddenberry, co-principle investigator and lead faculty for General Psychology
  • Laila Shahid-El, project coordinator
  • Tom Rankin, lead faculty for Intro to Business
  • Matthew Henry, lead faculty for Intro to Computers
  • Belinda Profitko, data analyst
  • Shelley Evans, instructional designer
  • Cindy Bowers, instructional technologist
  • Sarah Rothman, media production assistant

Other participating faculty

  • Marny Rhodes, Intro to Business
  • Stephanie Grossman, Intro to Business
  • Amy Minor, General Psychology
  • Robyn Arnette, General Psychology
  • Claire McElvany, General Psychology
  • Cyntria Bouknight-Lyons, Intro to Computers
  • Alecia Anderson, Intro to Computers