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WCET Partnership Creates New Online Student Services

By Jina Moore (Intern, U.S. Department of Education, FIPSE)
Washington, DC, USA; October 16, 2002

Goodbye, write-and-stick. Hello, point-and-click.

Plastering the wall in Post-It notes is a thing of the past, at least for incoming students at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, where new online technology allows students to mark deadlines, contact advisors, and keep up with department requirements on the Web.

New online student services will be revealed at Regis and two other colleges in Fall 2002, as products and services developed by the partners in a move from final testing stages to the computer monitors of distance-learning students, who will finally have access to services common enough on campus but little-known in online learning communities.

“If student support services are critical to the success of classroom-based students, they cannot be less so for distance students,” said Pat Shea, assistant director at the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and director of the LAAP grant project based there. “All of these partner institutions really understand the importance of taking this opportunity to reengineer student services.”

The project grew out of a 1997 study by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the parent organization of WCET, on the quality of student services for distance learning students. Of the 310 distance learning institutions identified, the study found that only 12 felt their services for distance learners were highly effective. Shea and the staff at WCET and its partner institutions set out to fix this problem with the support of the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), which provided a two-year Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnership (LAAP) grant to fund the initiative.

The key to effective online student services, Shea maintains, is to think about those services from a student’s perspective and to bundle resources together, not simply to create links to resources that already exist. Layers of such links force students to bounce from page to page.

“You go physically from one department to another on campus, and you can see the same thing happening on the Web,” Shea said. “The silos are still there. They’re just electronic ones.”

Shea made a concerted effort to involve various types of institutions in the project, called “Beyond the Administrative Core: Creating Web-Based Student Services for Online Learners.” With the hope that working with different systems would illuminate needs common to most campuses, Regis University, Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, Hawaii, served as sites for developing online student services, ranging from quick-stop tasks like clicking on a personalized portfolio to find outstanding graduation requirements to real-time tutorials or advising appointments.

One of Regis University’s new modules, which orients students to academic advising, serves students even before they arrive on campus. The module tracks the status of admissions and matriculation files and reminds students by e-mail of outstanding paperwork. When students arrive on campus, both they and their advisors know the details of their enrollment status and graduation requirements.

“What in essence this has done for Regis is to automate the first ten minutes of that first advising appointment,” Shea explained. “The advisor can focus more on the student’s educational plan and goals.”

Other tracking modules in production for Regis will make it possible to send students “just in time” reminders of approaching deadlines and outstanding requirements.

“These modules are like slow-release medication for students,” Shea said. “Messages are sent throughout the relationship the student will have with the university, and many are personalized.”

Personalization and continued, consistent contact has driven progress at Kansas State University, where the project allowed for evaluation and expansion of online advising services. KSU’s new electronic tracking modules make it possible for students and faculty to access from a central location information about a student’s degree requirements, academic performance, and overall progress. That information can be displayed on a split screen, allowing students and their advisors to scan academic records and conduct advising appointments, chat-style, simultaneously. Valuable advising time can be spent focusing on the student, rather than the status of a student’s paperwork.

KSU’s new services will eventually enable advisors to attach notes electronically to their advisees’ online records, providing a smoother transition and greater continuity for students who switch advisors or academic programs.

“The goal here is to have not just a backward view of what the student has done, but a forward view as well,” she said. “What else is required? What else will the student need to succeed?”

Addressing student needs proactively may be the key to retaining students in the Kapi’olani Community College (KCC) medical assistance and pre-health programs. With this in mind, KCC developed its online services nearly from scratch. Initially committed to focusing only on tutoring, the college instead bundled tutoring, advising and orientation modules, hoping that this more holistic focus will help lower rates of attrition.

“KCC realized that students might be doing well academically in a math class, but when it came to the point of practicum, and they had to apply that math, they weren’t doing so well. That’s when they were losing students,” Shea said. “So KCC took the approach that tutoring shouldn’t just be at the course level. They wanted to provide some of the soft-skills assistance that students weren’t getting in the classes.”

The focus shifted from class-specific tutorials to what KCC staff call learning support services for its 90 health students. Tutorials like the ask students to skills common to each of the eight health programs. The tutorials focus skills common to each of the eight health programs. One such tutorial, using WebCT, gives students practice in calculating drug dosages. Future soft-skill tutorials will help in learning to take, listen to and read blood pressure, to pronounce and spell medical terms, and to synthesize and understand practice requirements.

The pilot services, available through a portal, also give students the ability to create their own web pages, share documents and data, and link to library resources particular to their program needs. Establishing an online community and site-specific interaction may reduce the isolation and frustration distance learning students experience, Shea explained.

“Students needed more than content support. They needed the emotional and human support that you could get out of building this community,” she said. “It’s important to hear from other students when you’re thinking that it’s too hard, that you just can’t do it.”

KCC also plans to involve local medical professionals in the Web initiative, giving students an insider’s look at the new trends and needs of health care providing.

Software company SCT also joined the project, developing the infrastructure to overcome some of the obstacles each campus faced. Well-known for SCTBanner and SCTPowerCampus products, the company engineered a new Connected Learning Solution. The Solution, now used by 350 schools, gives campuses the middleware necessary to share information between unlike systems.

“When we started out on this project, we said, ‘Uh oh, we have a problem, none of the partners are using SCT’s information system,’” Shea explained, “and SCT realized that institutions are increasingly going to want to collaborate and will need a way to exchange data among their different systems.”

Grades submitted via WebCT are immediately updated in SCT’s student information system. And student registrations, including drop/adds, are synchronized in both applications, providing students with real-time access to their course environments and offering faculty up-to-date class lists.

Participation in the LAAP project resulted in three other new initiatives at SCT. The first enhances the self-service academic advising functionality within SCT’s current solutions. Students can now complete a quick admit process entirely online, run a degree audit for their current program, initiate a “what if” compliance report for a desired program, and request and review transcripts. The second project focuses on creating dynamic communities, allowing students to locate colleagues with similar interests and to build online associations with them. The program will also allow students to ask real-time questions of registration and administration staff. SCT’s third project will provide an environment for learners to track and manage their achievements over a lifetime and to grant access to academic information to professors, advisors, and prospective employers. Accessible from any web browser, these products are expected to be as popular among traditional students as among distance learners.

In fact, traditional students are increasingly demanding online student services, Shea said. A necessity for distance learners, online services are also a convenience utilized more and more by on-campus students. Thinking about how to serve both communities by developing Web technology was the breakthrough for many of the staff involved in implementing the LAAP project. Faculty and administrators, some of whom had not worked with the Web before, realized that improving services for distance learners would likely increase the quality and efficiency of those services for on-campus learners, as well, she noted.

“The split screen for advising with a chat is a good solution for students far away, but displaying data online will work just as well in a face-to-face conversation in an advisor’s office,” noted Shea. “The data is there twenty-four, seven. Sometimes there will be face-to-face encounters, sometimes real-time online interaction, and sometimes it will be asynchronous. There have to be different means of communication for sharing that data.”

Online and on-campus improvements overlap for another reason, however: the traditional distance-learning community is changing. At Kansas State University, 85% of students enrolled in mediated courses are on-campus students, Shea said. While there are no national statistics, stories from higher education administrators and faculty suggest that this trend is growing across the country, she added.

“There are a number of students taking courses online from their dorm rooms,” Shea noted. “They want the convenience. And it allows campuses that have space problems in particular to offer more sections of a course.”

As the project moves through its final stages, the WCET partners will create and disseminate guidelines for other institutions seeking to make similar improvements. The WCET website will host hour-long Webcast conferences with each of the campus directors.

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Last Modified: 01/05/2011