Really Serving Students at a Distance
As students come to take the
availability of online courses for granted, the institutions that serve them are
getting more and more demands for full online services. The real distance
learning students do not want to have to come to a campus for any of the
academic or non-academic chores of studenthood. Consequently, many institutions
are moving their student support services, or parts of them, to the Web. This is
an enormous task.
Thanks to support from the U.S. Department of Education's
for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), my colleague,
Pat Shea, assistant director of the Western Cooperative for Educational
Telecommunications (WCET), is leading efforts to help institutions figure out
Pat typically asks the campus leadership to appoint a
team that represents the interests of both academic and student services. The
team members then go through role-playing exercises that put them in the role of
a distance learning student. They quickly begin to understand how difficult it
can be for someone needing information and help when that person is not on
As she tells me, these exercises are quite revealing. It is rare for
any of these people to consider how the advice they give a student might
conflict with advice or procedures given by other offices with which the student
must work. And that can be risky. For example, if counseling office staff people
do not understand how the financial aid office operates, they might put a
student’s funding in jeopardy by suggesting he or she drop a class as a solution
to a personal problem.
Pat also has some interesting observations about how
institutions go about the process of integrating and automating their services
for distance learners. As she tells it, institutions trying to put their student
services online do so in stages, on a continuum of increasing functionality.
Frequently, the stages look something like this:
One. The first
stage is an information-only set of static Web pages for most of the services.
This allows a visitor to the Web site an opportunity to read about what services
Two. The next stage is to add interactive forms, self-assessment
tools, and e-mail capability. This allows the student to use the Web site as a
communication tool for getting assistance from staff.
Three. Some institutions have moved to the next stage in which some
personalized services are offered. A one-on-one relationship with the student is
established. He or she can access his or her own records and customize the
display of this information on his or her personal home page.
Four. A few institutions have gone on to the next stage and use Web
portals to establish communities of interest and to build an ongoing
relationship between the student and the institution.
Five. A very select few are really harnessing the power of the Web
to integrate their services and use artificial intelligence to provide students
with better service than ever before.
Pat says this last level is optimal,
but very hard to obtain. She has not seen any institutions fully operating at
that level, but she has found a few that have some individual services at the
final stage. Pat points out that getting there requires a new vision, changes in
campus staff structures, and a strategic plan to get and keep things moving.
What's amazing to me is that institutions are finding ways of getting there!
Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.