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.
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.