March/April 2003 // Commentary
A Model for Effectively Supporting e-Learning
by Leslie P. Hitch and Pamela MacBrayne
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Leslie P. Hitch and Pamela MacBrayne "A Model for Effectively Supporting e-Learning" The Technology Source, March/April 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Colleges and universities throughout the world are finding ways to integrate technology into the teaching and learning process. However, despite the rising use of information technology (IT) in instruction, both in the traditional classroom and at a distance, there remains a substantial gap in providing off-campus students with an array of academic and support services equivalent to the on-campus resources.

Institutions that provide e-learning, whether they offer totally online or hybrid (i.e., blending face-to-face with online instruction) courses, must provide concurrent e-student support mechanisms. The absence of physical contact with students creates the need for new structures for recruiting and retaining students. This change in the traditional means of attracting students—and recording data pertinent to teaching and to providing service—requires a strong partnership with an element once foreign to teaching, learning, and student services: information technology. In turn, the new reliance on technology demands the development of connections between faculty and student support professionals and between academic offerings and student services.

In this article, we discuss three interrelated segments necessary for connecting educational programs and content to the support services essential for student (and faculty) success, both on campus and off: technological support, superior student services, and faculty support. Rather than highlighting any particular institutions, this article challenges the reader to consider the processes and organizational structures needed to provide student support that molds to the particular institutional culture.

The Model

We propose a three-part model for developing robust e-learning programs (Figure 1). To be effective, institutions must have (1) a flexible yet solid technological infrastructure, (2) one-stop student services that mirror those found on the campus but that are delivered more cohesively and conveniently, and (3) creative faculty and academic development support that enhances learning. See Exhibit 1 for a list of initial questions pertaining to this model.

Our premise is that remote and/or hybrid educational delivery is a complete process that fully integrates the learning experience with student services. Remote students and faculty require ongoing technological support and access. Student services encompass everything from registering for classes to receiving assistance with disabilities. To be truly effective, all of these services should be available 24/7/365.

Implementing the Model

The question is how to reorganize support delivery efficiently. There is no one right way to replicate the services offered on-campus, but there is a consistent pattern among the most successful institutions. First, each has adopted a systemic approach to providing student support services to those who do not or cannot come to the campus. They have shifted or consolidated resources to meet this goal. By cross-training staff or combining offices, institutions are finding ways to provide services in a more seamless manner. The result is a one-stop approach that provides a combination of Web services, paper information, and personalized support from well-trained generalists and specialists. These staff can access the technology needed to answer questions, resolve problems, and facilitate transactions.

Second, because of the concern that receiving education from a distance may be isolating at times, effective e-learning support must be personalized. Someone who understands and can answer students' questions—and who is qualified to give significant programmatic or administrative advice—must be available.

Technological Infrastructure

The glue for this systemic approach is a solid technological infrastructure; the technological design is integral to the smooth functioning of all other segments. Traditionally, registration, teaching, bill paying, testing, and the library are stand-alone entities from both a student and systems perspective. Figure 2 illustrates how standard processes that institutions have traditionally delivered independently become intertwined with technology in electronic educational delivery. When institutions begin distance education programs, technology becomes the conduit for all transactions with the college, from registering to learning to creating friendships.

Because of the organizational need to technologically and administratively coordinate services, many campuses have taken a more centralized approach to student (and faculty) support in the e-learning environment. The centralized mechanism is often called a call center.

The Call Center: Student Support

Call centers provide a single point of contact supported by an integrated system of resources; they offer services to students on an anytime, anywhere basis. Call centers afford colleges and universities the ability to be both technologically sophisticated in their support of e-learning and capable of offering highly personalized service. The goal is to provide the highest possible quality, accuracy, and responsiveness to services that have been designed from the perspective of the student, not the institution.

Call centers are different from the traditional information technology help desk because their scope goes beyond responding to computer-related problems. Call center staff can also respond to admission requests and course selection queries, monitor enrollment in classes, and provide academic advice, personal assistance, degree audit and financial aid assistance, and an array of other services that students need to complete a course or degree program. (Some call centers include a technical help desk; other institutions maintain the call center and technical help desk separately.) Staffed by trained, customer service-oriented people, the call center provides a centralized tracking and management system for all inquiries, issues, and support needs. The staff members use telephones, advanced Web interfaces, integrated databases, and tracking software, all of which allow students to contact the call center for personal support and appropriate resolution of issues ranging from how to register to complaints about course materials.

When trained effectively, call center generalists can assist students with information on course and degree requirements and in selecting the appropriate degree program; they can offer help in completing admissions applications; they can provide information on financial aid and placement testing; and they can help students understand technical requirements and solve technical problems. Most importantly, call center staff members are well-versed in understanding the fundamental differences between a traditional and a technology-enhanced course or degree program—in terms of both their relative strengths and weaknesses.

The creation of call centers can be achieved by adding new staff or by shifting staff and responsibilities from other offices. What is most important is that the affected offices be involved in planning the new center and new processes. Many call centers are designed with the assumption that 70% of student interactions will take place via self-service, 20% via generalists, and 10% via specialists. Careful examination of the services, in relation to campus culture and to future needs, is an excellent way to determine which functions can be shifted to student services generalists and which should remain in the existing unit to be handled by specialists such as faculty members, academic advisors, program directors, and deans.

Several examples may help illustrate this point. Call center staff are capable of helping students understand what hardware, software, and telecommunications capacity they will need to participate in an online course. The specialists at the technical help desk, however, may best answer more difficult technical questions. Likewise, call center staff can answer an array of questions about financial aid and provide students with an update of their status, whereas more complex questions are best answered by the financial aid specialists. While call center staff often provide academic information to prospective students and academic advising to those who have not declared a major, advising of majors is generally left to the department faculty. Beyond those services that help students resolve specific issues, some institutions provide retention support, by telephone or e-mail, to ensure that online students adapt and succeed in what is sometimes a new environment. For example, students registered for their first online class may be sent to an online orientation link designed to help them understand e-learning. Those having academic difficulty part way through the semester may be given information on tutorial services, while those who have not logged on in several days may receive a phone call to see if they need help (see Exhibit 2 for examples of call centers).

The Call Center: Faculty Support

Call centers also provide support to faculty, particularly those who do not reside on campus. However, even campus-based faculty may need assistance with the logistics of getting printed material to distant students and tracking student assignments. In some instances, the call center may be involved with training faculty in the use of the learning content management system and assisting instructors who have students with disabilities. Additional faculty support can include finding the most appropriate tutoring for students, arbitrating student/faculty conflicts, and helping with international student issues. Particularly for distance education faculty, the call center may offer help with book ordering procedures, copyright clearance processes, and additional orientation materials that outline the rules and regulations of the particular institution. The call center can also give technical assistance and replace forgotten passwords.

Cost of the Call Center

One common question is whether the cost of the call center will be prohibitive. The answer can vary. Costs may be borne by shifting resources from other campus segments into one location. There may be a cadre of individuals, from help desk personnel to the people in admissions, who have regular contact with students, faculty, or both. They are already trained in some of the services needed to support e-learning. Institutions with an adult and continuing education unit are repositories for people who have considerable expertise in assisting students. Combining some of these areas may actually consolidate and reduce costs.

However, one-stop services require a cross-trained staff with a breadth of knowledge and a high level of responsibility. It is likely that institutions will need to increase training budgets, and they may well see additional costs associated with reclassifying positions to higher levels. While, in the end, there may be greater productivity gains and return on investment, institutions may need to redistribute funds to accommodate these shifts.

No Service Left Behind

Additional support services are critical in an online environment. These services both complement and enrich the online experience, but there are costs associated with each. Such services include the following:

  • Library: Leading the list is the library. Accrediting agencies require library access. Library services online are becoming more and more sophisticated, allowing students and faculty to access databases remotely. Some traditional libraries are moving to ensure that students have access to librarians, in real time, 24 hours a day, by establishing a consortium that crosses timelines.
  • Tutoring: Online students may require tutoring. Several commercial firms such as SMARTHINKING and have established excellent 24/7/365 online services that employ tutors trained in assisting students virtually. Tutoring is especially critical when English is not the primary language of the distant student.
  • Students with Disabilities: The Web opens up dimensions to students with disabilities. Conversely, it also may impede access. This problem needs to be addressed through course design, delivery, and policy. Institutions may have to keep available audio recordings of online text or provide audio-enabled text readers such as those offered through CAST.
  • Software and Textbooks: Student access to academic software may require an additional distribution process or cost, since licensing agreements vary greatly. Current licensing contracts may need to be reviewed and revised. The bookstore will need to be electronically mediated so that students can purchase textbooks and even sweatshirts and mugs online, which may necessitate the renegotiation of profit-sharing or other agreements.
  • General Policies: Due to privacy concerns, many institutions have re-examined and redesigned policies and procedures for reviewing transcripts, submitting grades, obtaining grades, and updating student information. Even in an online environment, discipline procedures are needed for hacking, sending inappropriate e-mail, harassing fellow students or faculty online, cheating, and plagiarism.

Supporting the Model

Electronic learning is an institutional commitment. It will draw on the resources of IT and other units, from the registrar to career services. There will be an associated cost, for both delivery of the service and the support required, to ensure that the service is available 24/7. Although higher education budgets have traditionally amortized investments over 10 years (or more), technology changes rapidly; repair and replacement must occur on a shorter cycle. To stay current with new tools, the institution will have ongoing costs for technological enhancement.

The best IT structure in the world will not work if there is inconsistency or an inability to achieve scale in administrative policy. Therefore, it is in the structure of higher education that the implications of e-learning are most profound. Institutions will have to examine closely their internal policies to ensure that different parts of the campus do not offer disparate support to the distant learner. Services such as admissions, financial aid, payment, calendar, and add/drop have to be consistent, as the distant student will see the entire picture almost at once.

The traditional clear division between student services, academic affairs, back-office administration, and specific disciplines stifles collaboration and, consequently, the effective delivery of e-services. To address this issue, some institutions have merged offices. Others have adopted a cross-functional approach in which units remain independent but collaborate, cross-train staff, and engage in joint planning. New technologies will continue to provide an opportunity to rethink the traditional roles and responsibilities of staff, faculty, and administration.

E-learning and a global society that demands speed and 24/7 services are requiring changes in higher education. Effectively supporting e-learning means connecting segments of institutions never intimately related before. Areas of the university, such as information technology and student services, previously not seen as linked to the core mission of delivering education are now critical to the delivery of that mission. It will be through structural change that the gap between students and efficient services, between administrative processes and the classroom, will narrow. Structural change will open channels for the model to work: flexibility, one-stop services, and creative faculty and academic processes that enhance learning. The result may be a more administratively coherent system that leads to enhanced teaching and learning.

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