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Services to Students: The Evolution Story

How did our approaches to non-academic support services for distance learning students evolve? In the past couple of years, we have seen tremendous growth in colleges and universities using the Web to deliver classes. This growth corresponds to the growth of the Web by the general population in the U.S. This rapid growth in distribution capabilities made it possible for institutions to export their campus- based classes to students who were not coming to a campus. As this growth occurred, the numbers of students using them increased, which brought to light the need to support them.

In the 1980s, colleges and universities took advantage of U.S. Department of Commerce grants that enabled them to develop Instructional Television Fixed-Service systems (ITFS) and the studio-classrooms that could feed them. These ITFS signals reached a limited area in the immediate vicinity of their origination point. Many of the early adopters of these ITFS systems used them initially for engineering classes. The on-campus classes would be televised from the studio-classrooms to companies that employed engineers.

As this trend evolved, so did student demands for services. The National Technological University (NTU) was formed by a group of deans of colleges of engineering under the leadership of Lionel Baldwin. Participating universities contributed televised classes that were distributed throughout the country to students at their places of work. NTU provided technical and administrative services. The students’ academic services were left up to the institution providing the course. A local on-site facilitator assisted students with non-academic services.

As cable television expanded across the country, there was a requirement that some of the systems’ channels be set aside for educational and community use. Many colleges and universities acquired such channels and the funding that allowed them to build broadcasting systems and studio-classrooms. Community colleges took the lead in offering “telecourses” through this medium, but the students were expected to come to the campus for their support services.

All of this activity put more higher education institutions in the business of serving students further and further from their campuses. This gave rise to the first set of concerns of these institutions, ensuring academic and broadcast quality. It quickly became obvious that students had other concerns. They needed special attention and services to be successful.

The Educational Network of Maine, developed by George Connick in the early 1990s, was a statewide higher education system that served entirely different set of students than those using NTU. These students looked more like those served by the community colleges, but the Maine students could not come to a campus for their services. The network’s staff developed ways for these students to have remote access to library resources, electronic registration systems, phone-based academic advising systems, and even degree programs from universities from other states. Their work became a model for multi-institution collaborative student support systems around the country.

Many of the colleges and universities that began their distance learning activities using either ITFS, cable television, or satellite channels for distributing their classes have now migrating to the Web. Institutions just beginning to offer distance learning programs via the Web have a lot they can learn about student support services from these more experienced institutions.

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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