Online support services for learners can be as important to their academic success as the actual teaching. Following are guidelines on how to select and design online services, respond to issues such as what are the challenges of online learning, determine which services are essential for learner success, and bring these services into an institution.

The Challenge: Providing Online Learners with the Best Opportunity for Success

To have the best opportunity for success in their studies, online learners need access to more than course content and effective teaching. They need access to a wide range of support services that help them to engage with their institution and instructors, succeed in their studies, connect with each other, and make a successful transition to the workplace.
Online students need access to all the services available to on-campus students: recruitment, enrolment management, orientation, advising and counseling, records, registration, credit evaluation, financial aid, academic skills assessment and development, academic writing centres, advocacy, special needs assistance, learning resource centres and libraries, bookstores, and computer labs and technical help desks.

Watch the following video by Professor Asha Kanwar, COL President & CEO, on “Building Resilient Education Systems for the Future: Role of ODL” to get an idea of challenges and solutions for learners and teachers in ODFL. [watch time: 16.14]

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by Commonwealth of Learning

Needs of Online Learners

Core Services

There are at least four purposes that should drive the development of core services for learners:

Some core services meet more than one of the four identified purposes. For example, academic skills development helps students succeed in their studies, as well as provides them with transferable skills for a successful transition to the workplace. Prior learning assessment helps students to engage with the institution, gives them a head start in their studies, and helps develop a portfolio to facilitate their entry to the workplace.

Characteristics of Effective Online Learner Support

Support services for learners are all those measures taken to facilitate learning persistence and success, and to improve the quality of the learning experience through engagement and integration into the academic community. From a student perspective, learner support services should have the following characteristics:

  • Purposeful: exist to support learners in their studies from first inquiry through graduation and beyond; integrated into institutional mission and strategic objectives
  • Transparent: provide clear points of contact; clear standards of service identified
  • Accessible: available on demand according to the needs of the learner; 24/7 where possible
  • Responsive: responsive to individual needs; provide efficient turnaround
  • Interactive: encourage and facilitate interaction among and between students(s), faculty, student support staff, and academic content
  • Self-directed and developmental: facilitate self-management of processes and development of skills and attitudes necessary for independence and lifelong learning
  • Integrated: demonstrate a high level of cross-functional collaboration that results in services being experienced as seamless by the learner
  • Open to Change: evolve continuously to accommodate new learner populations, educational developments, economic conditions, technological advances, and findings from research and evaluation.

Steps to Building Effective Online Learner Support Services

  1. Build a solid base of support with institutional leadership. The commitment of the executive team is essential to going forward.
  2. Identify team leaders and create a cross-functional team to develop a strategic plan for student services. To integrate student services across units and academic departments and create a new way of conceptualising learner support, the team needs a broad representation that might include individuals from the following units:
    • Student Services/Student Affairs (e.g. information, advising, career and personal counseling)
    • Academic Support (e.g. academic skills assessment and development, writing centre)
    • Student Disabilities/Special Needs
    • Continuing Education (traditionally the location of services for distance learners)
    • Registrar’s Office (student information systems, admissions, transfer credit, enrolment management)
    • Student Recruitment
    • Institutional Research
    • Deans of Faculties
    • Public Affairs
    • WebMasters
    • Programme Directors
    • Faculty Representatives
    • Student Awards and Financial Aid
    • Information Technology
  3. Highlight student representation on the cross-functional team. These positions might be filled by student government leaders, advertised and selected using a transparent process, or through a call for proposals from students asking for ideas about how student services can be improved and/or made more accessible through the innovative application of technology.
  4. Create an environment conducive to creative thinking and risk-taking. A relaxed and comfortable atmosphere will help project team members brainstorm to elicit the best ideas for re-engineering existing and inventing new support, services, and systems. A retreat or some other type of group process activity is a good way to initiate such projects.
  5. Clearly identify the objectives to be achieved by making the transition to online student services and how achievement of these objectives will be measured, e.g. improved satisfaction with services for all students, retention, skill development, and engagement.
  6. Conduct an audit of how well current students are being served. Identify gaps in service such as online students without access to technical help or academic advising beyond regular office hours. Identify services that can make the most positive difference to student performance and satisfaction.
  7. Collect any relevant information to be considered: online learner characteristics, data about the impact of existing services, student needs surveys, reports from online faculty about the need for referral points, research about future needs, e.g. trends in student demographics, graduate skills most in demand by employers, best practice models and guidelines.
  8. Develop a strategic plan for online learner support services that is aligned with the institutional mission and strategic directions. Include a plan for data collection and evaluation.
  9. Begin with one or two areas of services where significant impact can be made with a transition to online delivery, where there is a high level of certainty for success, and where there are existing models or examples (e.g. online library access; technical help desk; FAQ page for academic advising; automation of administrative and/or financial transactions; self-administered online study readiness assessment; tutorials for skill development; extended hours online contact with financial aid or academic advising staff).
  10. Find partners who have similar needs and share development responsibilities and resources. Seek funding sources that favour collaborative arrangements and result in the potential for system-wide innovation and benefit.
  11. Evaluate results such as the impact on students (retention, learning outcomes, skills development, satisfaction, engagement, and participation); impact on faculty (support for online teaching); cost efficiencies; deployment of staff; overall objective achievement; potential impact on system (use by other institutions).
  12. Publish results and make developments available to others.
  13. Develop a Full Range of Online Academic Support Services

The next step is to work toward developing a full range of online academic support services that characterise quality learning environments. The challenge is to provide all our students, especially our under-served populations, with the breadth and quality of support they need and deserve in a user-friendly format so they can be nurtured, encouraged and supported throughout their academic careers.

Many of our online learners face challenges and barriers in their learning. Student support is critical for overcoming barriers to learning and ensuring learner engagement, motivation, and success in online higher education. It is also necessary for us, as educators, to shift to a more personalised yet holistic approach to student support.