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When Online Services Reflect Bad Policies

For years, students have been held captive by institutional policies and practices that have not been holistically designed. Students have been going from office to office on campus to get the advice of the only people who know how to fill out a financial aid form correctly for veterans, for example, or whether a course offered every third term is really the only one that can be used to fulfill a unique degree requirement.

When students first began working with institutions electronically, planners quickly realized that they would need to be able to collect tuition and fees online. They were also fairly fast to recognize that institutions needed Web sites that would enable students to easily find which courses they could take at a distance. Now they are realizing that there are a lot of other online services that students would like to have, but few have succeeded in providing them in a usable manner.

Distance learning students are rarely in a position to know exactly who they need to contact to solve a particular problem. But as they move through the system, they become very familiar with the inconsistencies and conflicts among the way separate services are made available.

As my colleague at the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, Pat Shea, tells me, planners at Kapi’olani Community College in Hawaii did not want their students to have to struggle with this confusion, so they are testing a new approach in an online pilot project. New “learning support services” will be available to pre-health and medical assisting students through a Web portal developed specifically for the college. The idea is to build a community of health sciences learners—from prospective students through alumni—who will help one another learn.

Several critical services are integrated, including orientation, admissions, academic advising, and tutoring. For example, a prospective student can find out about the eight medical programs available at Kapi’olani, receive advice on how to decide among them, and apply to a selected program. Once the student is admitted, she can customize her personal page, share documents with other students via their projects pages, and receive and share information through bulletin boards and news groups. One section features several calendars: institution, program, and student activity, along with a dining calendar to entice students to meet socially for lunch.

Through the Web portal, students can find financial aid designed specifically for learners in the medical programs as well as links to the aid available through the campus financial aid office. They can also link to library learning resources that support their required courses. In addition, they can participate in assessments of their skills and get online-tutoring modules designed to address their weaknesses.

Academic advisers are available both via e-mail and in a chat room at times published on the portal. Future plans call for making portions of the portal public and encouraging medical personnel and consumers of medical services to use it to seek and supply information pertinent to the medical programs.

By designing services for online access from the student’s point of view—and especially by using a holistic, integrated approach—many policy and procedural issues within the campus can be addressed. Just as integrating technological tools into the teaching and learning process has forced a re-examination of policies and practices in the classroom, so do these tools become an opportunity to re-think how the whole institution provides services to students.

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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