Many think e-learning is only about teaching. In reality, there is an entire army of people working behind the scenes so the teacher and student can shine. In this post, we will look at support services and how they can be made ready to support e-learning
The support staff is all of the people involved in the online learning experience whose primary function does not involve teaching or leadership. Examples of support staff can include information technology, academic services, finance, student services, and marketing among other possible individuals.
A common problem with support staff is that like many teachers they have never studied or taught online. This means that they may not be familiar or comfortable with supporting students virtually such as in the context of an online experience. In addition, even though they do not teach support staff needs to be familiar with the LMS and other online tools so they can at least communicate basic information to students when it is necessary.
To put things as simply as possible, even the secretaries should be familiar with e-learning ideas an concepts not for the sake of teaching but for the sake of being able to understand students and even teachers’ questions and concerns as they provide support for them. This can only be done through training and some experience.
The IT team has the advantage of being thoroughly comfortable with technology. Therefore, learning about the technical aspects of e-learning is not much of a challenge for them. The problem with IT often is that they constantly want to add more and more technology to solve various problems with the existing technology that you are using. When this happens the new technology clashes with old technology causing bugs and the learning curve to use the LMS grows. This discourages students and teachers from using the system employed by the institution. Therefore, it is important to limit the expansion of technological tools employed for e-learning for the sake of simplicity.
Other problems facing IT is the selection of the LMS. Generally, you want them to be a part of this process to win their future cooperation. If you pick it without them and they know what you picked was bad they will resist supporting the lousy system with 100% commitment. However, if you pick a bad system together you will get full cooperation because of the IT’s ownership in the bad decision.
When deciding on what LMS to pick the choices are essentially free (moodle) and commercial (Blackboard). Free is not free as you have to provide extensive support to get the LMS working which may require hiring additional people. Commercial cost more but is already fully functional.
The choice of LMS also has to consider supporting the system. This includes standard procedures for updates/archives, the appearance of website, security, and how to address technical support. These are all basic IT concepts but they need to be worked out for the e-learning context.
Academic services will need to determine if the Student Information System is going to integrate with the LMS. This is primarily so that information in one system is simultaneously available in the other. Examples of information that may need to be in both systems include grades, student ID, student names, majors, faculties, etc. Doing this is simple for IT (most of the time) but there are security issues that need to be addressed.
It is also important to have all the standard academic policies adapted for the online experience. For example, addressing issues involving plagiarism and cheating need to be adapted for e-learning. Lastly, the academic office needs to think of how tutoring and remedial support can take place in the online context. For example, proficiency exams for entrance, writing support, and additional forms of tutoring needs to be addressed in the online context.
Library Service, Finance & Student Services
The library needs to establish a strong online presence by acquiring ebooks and electronic databases. The staff of the library must also becoming comfortable helping students online rather than face-to-face. For example, library staff may need to make a video recording of how to use online library services which means the staff has to be familiar with technology.
Finance needs to determine the cost of learning online. Students expect the fees to be lower than on-campus because there is no room and board involved. Therefore, there is intense pressure to keep costs down in e-learning.
In addition, contrary to what we see with MOOCs, online classes should be the size of traditional classes at your institution. Teaching 500 students at once cannot be done with 1 person even with all the technology. Students need the individual attention that comes with moderately small classes. With a large class, the institution is forced to higher TAs that quickly start to eat up the budget. Therefore, finance needs to be sure to treat online classes like regular classes financially.
Student services can involve such things as counseling and social activities. Therefore, it is left to Student Services to develop these tools in an online context. Students require emotional support like anybody else.
Another project is for the student service team to develop ways for online students to socialize and get to know each other. This may be done by breaking students into social cohorts who have to interact synchronously at times.
When thinking of all these services, they can be shared by the online program with the university or they can be separate. For example, the online program can share financial services or have its own financial services. There is no right or wrong but what works best for you.
There is a lot involved in support staff to have a quality online experience. Everyone needs to work together for the sake of the students to learn. If anything is neglected the online experience will be negative for many.