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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 particular challenges of online learning, determine which services are essential for learner success, and bring these services into an institution.
Services that help learners succeed in their studies
- Readiness for online learning and academic preparedness assessment
- Academic advising (program planning, transfer and credential requirements)
- Prior learning assessment
- Academic skills assessment and skills development (writing, numeracy, reading)
- Study skills assistance (time management, exam preparation, reading, note taking)
- Personal counseling to promote mental health and address problems that present barriers to study
- Library access, librarian assistance, and information literacy skills development (finding and evaluating information, literature reviews, citing)
- Special needs assistance for students with disabilities or other special requirements that may present barriers to study
There are at least four purposes that should drive the development of core services for learners:
Services that help learners engage with the institution
- A website that welcomes visitors and learners, gives them a feel for institutional culture, and makes information and services easily accessible within a click or two
- Information such as education and training opportunities, course and program descriptions and availability, transfer arrangements, credential requirements, faculty and staff bios
- Student advocacy (human rights, complaints and disputes, policy and procedure review)
- Responsive administrative systems: admission, credit assessment, self-management of student information (enrolment, transcripts, progress toward credential) and other administrative transactions
- Financial aid and student awards assistance
- Orientation (to the institution, to online learning, to the program of choice)
- Bookstore (textbooks, learning materials)
- Help desk to assist with technical problems with institutional systems such as portals, e-mail and other communication systems, learning management systems, student information systems, administrative and financial systems
Needs of Online Learners
Unique demands of online learning
Online learners have some unique needs due to the nature of their mode of study, such as time management and self-directed learning. Reading quickly with good comprehension, communicating effectively in writing, taking initiative in communicating with peers, and working collaboratively online in small and large groups are essential skills in a virtual environment.
When online learners drop their studies, they do so early, usually at the very beginning of their first course, and not surprisingly, a learner who completes one online course successfully is much more likely to continue with their online studies. The critical nature of the first year experience has been recognized on campus with the development of support services specifically designed to meet this need.
Online students are characterized by their diversity. Attracted by the accessibility of online study, these learners include many working adults as well as younger students who are combining online learning with classroom courses for great flexibility. Prospective learners who have been away from formal study for a significant period likely need help with assessing academic preparedness. First Nations students may benefit from services that are responsive to their cultural needs and values. Younger students may need assistance with the developing skills such as time management.
Isolation resulting from insufficient academic and social is a reason that distance learners may drop out. Somewhat ironically, improved efficiency in the form of online self-service transactions can contribute to a sense of anonymity, making efforts to create a social atmosphere for online learners that much more important.
Web-based technologies offer unique opportunities to facilitate the important social component of belonging to an academic community, facilitate peer to peer support, and teach critical skills of collaborative online learning.
Equally importantly, as institutions grapple with how to provide quality support to greater numbers of students, it is likely that learning communities offering peer support will become that much more critical.