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Learning Management Systems and the Help Desk: A need for strategic integration

In a time of major change tied to introducing a new LMS, a well-prepared "help desk" is a prime stress reducer for the user, as well as for those supporting the LMS. In addition, this relationship should have a strong influence on the LMS adoption process and argues for stakeholder compromises that allow a campus to present a unified LMS, and unified help desk, to its students.

In the first week of Ohio State University's 2003 Autumn quarter, 2,600 faculty, student, and staff calls were recorded at 8-HELP, the main number for Ohio State's technology support center (TSC). Even though the number of calls is large and OSU's support generally successful (average response time less than two minutes, discontinuance rate less than two percent), student and faculty needs for technology assistance continue to grow. E-mail questions are trending upward and self-help is on the horizon. From the user's perspective, the "help desk" is often one of the earliest experiences they have with a learning management system, particularly when that system is new. That first impression can be critical in establishing a positive relationship between the university, a new service, and members of its community. For all of these reasons, it is imperative to have the campus technology support center well integrated with learning management system support.

We reference a particular case study to remind ourselves why a unified help environment is so important to our students. Five years ago, the spouse of our director of Continuing Education enrolled in her first distance education course at Ohio State University. She spent half a day away from her job to register, pay fees, and receive her password and course log-in instructions. Her experience didn't persuasively demonstrate the convenience of distance education for the nontraditional student, though it certainly did convince us to pay more attention to student support needs.

Ohio State is planning to install a new learning management system in the upcoming academic year. We anticipate an increase in user support needs because of the change, and a further escalation of the importance of the TSC. Not only can TSC staff provide particular insights into what end users find challenging, they are expert in evaluating proposed solutions. In a time of major change tied to introducing a new LMS, a well-prepared TSC is a prime stress reducer for the user, and for those supporting the LMS as well. In addition, the TSC offers an excellent source of baseline metrics that hopefully, over time, will substantiate our continuous quality improvement efforts.

Besides reducing stress on the overall learning support system, collaborations between the Technology Support Center and instructional design staff can increase student satisfaction with the LMS. The instructional designers can create a repository of learning objects drawn from frequently asked questions gathered at the help desk. This searchable database is then re-cycled to support TSC agents and also can be incorporated into an introductory course for new students. By using the LMS to deliver the self-help course, end users gain experience with the new LMS and simultaneously receive answers to their questions.

This discussion has much to say about the LMS adoption process as well-and argues strongly for stakeholder compromises that allow a campus to present a unified LMS, and unified help desk, to its students. Too many campuses have been placed in the unfortunate position of supporting more than one course management system. One of the hidden costs of offering competing systems is that a student with problems may not know who to call for help. Once contacted, support staff may be unable to assist for a number of reasons- they haven't been trained on that system, they lack access to the course website, or they don't have the needed permissions to re-set the user's password. The student leaves bewildered and feeling that the university is unresponsive.

Our experiences strongly suggest that our Help Desk should not be a "back room service" but a greeting and referral center for students and faculty, and the LMS team that supports them. The Technology Support Center has frequent and early contact with our customers and can help us diagnose problems before they become epidemic on campus. In an era of accountability, the information they gather (number of calls, compliments vs. complaints, response time to problem resolution) are important data for maintaining support for IT functions in the challenging financial climate in which we all operate. To avoid the "paradox of success," a decline in help requests because of a well-integrated support system, it is important to measure overall satisfaction with the learning management system as well as the traditional help desk metrics.

When reporting increased LMS satisfaction, highlight the help center's role in designing and populating self-help modules. Hold regular meetings among the LMS team and all student support groups, in particular the TSC. The LMS support group will find these dialogues useful as a source of insights into the real needs of the end user, as well as a sounding board for strategies to meet their own job responsibilities. The end-user will experience a single, helpful face for your institution rather than a maze of boutique student services in need of integration.

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