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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 Fund
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 how to
do this.
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 campus.
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 are available.

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!

About the Author

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.

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