March/April 2001 // Commentary
Satisfying Student Expectations:
Connected Learning Environments
by Rodney L. Everhart
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Rodney L. Everhart "Satisfying Student Expectations:
Connected Learning Environments" The Technology Source, March/April 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

University students have increasingly high expectations for using technology in their studies. Meeting those expectations presents a challenge for traditional institutions as well as emerging online education providers. Richard Skinner, president of Global Learning Online for Business and Education, explains the challenge as follows:

Students today do everything from research to shopping onlineall with a high degree of customer serviceand their experiences are translating into a new set of demands and expectations for universities. They want information accessible online that is up to date, timely, personal, and rich (personal communication, October 2000).

Students are prompting universities to integrate technology into every aspect of student life: classrooms, the registrar’s office, student unions, cafeterias, and housing. These students expect to live and learn in a connected learning environment, a term SCT uses to refer to technology that supports learning and student services. But a connected learning environment does not support only distance learning. It fosters learning for full-time, traditional students as well as for adults who have never set foot in a physical classroom. Whether on campus or off, all learners expect electronic access to an institution's full array of services.

Demand Exceeds Available Services

Some institutions are satisfying these expectations. At these universities, students can view Web-based syllabi, course information, and financial aid balances. The students there no longer stand in lines to pay their tuition at the beginning of the semester because they can pay it online. And they use new media such as chat rooms, instant messaging, and message boards to communicate with their peers.

But students also expect electronic access to libraries, bookstores, technical support, and academic and career counseling. Most universities so lack these services that the U.S. Department of Education has labeled them "orphan services." Bob Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University (WGU), a degree-granting, distance-education institution, says that "the number one requirement for student services is to provide all information students might want, and in an easily accessible way. That includes financial status and academic progress. Students also want online bookstores and libraries. The challenge is to reproduce online all those services found in a typical campus environment" (personal communication, October 2000).

New Partnerships Provide Needed Services Online

The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications is partnering with educational partners to make available online such services as academic advising, orientation programs that help students understand how to work with electronic providers, technical support systems, career placement and advising services, tutoring, and services for people with disabilities. As the director of the Cooperative, Sally Johnstone, says, "We need to create a community of learners in an electronic environment" (personal communication, October 2000).

In order to thrive in this competitive, connected atmosphere, some institutions and other educational providers are forming partnerships to share costs and broaden offerings. Global Learning Online for Business and Education (GLOBE) is a model of such a partnership. While GLOBE is not a college or university, it provides access to the same online courses, telecourses, and student support services offered throughout the University System of Georgia.

Other universities are pushing the envelope further, collaborating with profit and not-for-profit education providers across state lines and even oceans. There are issues to be resolved before a global university can become realityfor example, software that allows institutions to interact with learners in the language, culture, and currency of their choice is requiredbut these issues will eventually be resolved, allowing virtual international collaboratives to co-exist with traditional institutions.

Integration Expands Services and Access

Whether an institution’s goal is to serve its on-campus students better or to collaborate with foreign institutions, it must find a way to integrate learning and student services in a single connected environment. A true connected learning environment seamlessly links the data in an administrative system to course-related information and student services.

Course registration is a good example of the benefits of a linked data system. As soon as students register for courses, they can review syllabi online. When a new course section opens, it is immediately available in the online learning environment. Likewise, student enrollment is always synchronized: course drops and adds are immediately reflected in the online learning environment. This level of integration among systems requires real-time data synchronization through a single Web sign-on. This synchronization allows faculty, students, and alumni to access all the resources and data they need.

Today, most institutions achieve integration either through manual re-entry or batch processing. Both methods require staff labor, meaning that data is out of date until staff members complete the tasks. Manual re-entry also places an administrative burden on faculty members teaching connected learning courses. According to a senior lecturer in health sciences at Leeds Metropolitan University (UK), manually re-entering the names of her 90 students in a distance learning courseall of whom registered via the Websparked a negative reaction from students. The instructor entered a few names incorrectly, and student surveys at the end of the course revealed that the students with negative comments were the same ones whose names she had inadvertently misspelled. In her words, "a few errors led to major issues with those students. They had a negative disposition from day one" (Jill Taylor, personal communication, October 2000). With a true integration platform, professors need not re-enter or update student information, reducing the possibility that students will have a negative impression of the course or the institution.

Integration Spurs Distance Learning

As institutions continue to augment classroom learning with online tools or initiate and expand distance learning programs, problems will worsen as long as they lack real-time data synchronization. These endeavors require many more courses supporting many more learners, and systems must scale to accommodate them. Overall, the process requires an expandable integration platform that can support multi-national, virtual consortia. According to Mendenhall:

One of the difficulties we face is data integration. All students register and pay for courses through the WGU portal. Then we register students at each of the providing institutions. In most cases, we cannot do this electronically. We face the same challenge when students complete a course. We ask each institution to provide us with assessment, either a grade or a certificate. The only way we have of getting this information now is through e-mail that we then manually enter into our system. Fortunately, the technology is now available to provide this seamless integration, either for integrating technology into on-campus learning or for linking multiple providers (personal communication, October 2000).

Similarly, Skinner notes that "we are beginning to see early signs that a student today will be a student for the rest of his or her life. The likelihood that he or she will have numerous providers is tremendous. We cannot stand in the way of that. We need an information system that makes it possible for students to seek the types of learning they need" (personal communication, October 2000).

Earlier this year, SCT announced a connected learning solution that was developed with WebCT and Campus Pipeline. It provides an integration platform with real-time, out-of-the-box data integration and synchronization between SCT administrative databases and the WebCT e-learning environment. Campus Pipeline provides an intranet and Internet platform that brings all campus systems into a single user interface with a secured, single point of entry. Such solutions will enable us to meet student expectations in the future.

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