This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
I’ve been in higher education for over 20 years and during that time have seen student support services go from being almost an afterthought to being an integral factor in student motivation and learning. But if you are involved with the administration of online education on your campus ask yourself a question — when was the last time you conducted a comprehensive review of the student support services available to online learners at your institution?
Here’s my own answer: In preparation for this article, I contacted the directors of ten units/offices on my campus that are directly involved with supporting students. And the fact is I hadn’t done it for the past couple of years. Needless to say, I learned some things. I learned that some of the units/offices have new directors. I learned that some have initiatives planned specifically for online learners. And I learned that some need to work on providing better access to their services for students not physically located on our campus.
The goal for institutions should be to offer the same quality support services to online learners as are offered to on-campus students. Why is this important?
An item not on the list above because I feel it needs special attention is technology support. This can range from supporting new students who might be having difficulty signing into their university email account, to navigating through the university’s learning management system for the first time, to using technology in online courses.
I think we frequently make the mistake of thinking that our students, often referred to as “digital natives,” are comfortable with any and all technology. Not true! If faculty are using technology in their online courses and having students do things like participate in blogs, wikis and synchronous sessions, or create PowerPoints, Prezi’s, podcasts and videos, then either the faculty member or an IT support desk should be available when students have questions. This can be especially important with adult learners who sometimes have high levels of fear and apprehension when it comes to technology.
So, what types of units/offices/services are we talking about? I’ve already mentioned the importance of orientations; here is a list of some other possibilities. You will likely be able to identify more on your campus:
Keep in mind that you may need to create special policies and procedures to support and accommodate online learners. For example, the procedure at UW-La Crosse for dropping a face-to-face course is that students pick up a class-drop form and have that signed by their instructor or advisor, and they turn that in to the Office of Records and Registration. That’s fine for on-campus students, but it didn’t work, for example, when one of my online students in Germany wanted to drop my class. We now have an electronic course-drop procedure for online learners.
Online administrators can be very busy people; their duties can range from helping plan and implement new online initiatives to ensuring the quality of existing online courses and degree programs. Workdays can be filled with meetings, generating reports, and dealing with situations that need immediate attention. If it’s been a couple of years since you’ve reached out to the student support services offices on your campus, or if that is something you have never done, I encourage you to add that to your “to-do” list and make it a priority. I’m giving myself a B on my student support services grade, but with a few changes and improvements, I’m hoping to move that up to an A- in the near future!