Standardizing and enhancing the student support role of the site
As indicated earlier, not all the site coordinators interviewed were following a clearly defined approach to supporting the online students attached to their sites. The reason for this may lie in the inadequacy of the communication from the campus-based coordinating team. It is likely that the new tasks were not articulated as clearly as they should have been. In that regard, the activities that characterize the current practice of some site staff, as described above, can serve as a basis for formalizing this aspect of the support role of site staff.
Having said that, one is also aware that it is possible to have a more direct communication between students and the institution. I would argue however, that given the overall lack of confidence and competence among students, as suggested by the questionnaire results, and the fact that delivery systems may not always function as efficiently as they should, the intermediary facilitating role of the site coordinator and other site staff needs to be maintained at least in the medium term, and appropriately adjusted to meet the demands of the still somewhat insecure online learner.
While not minimizing the importance of the tasks outlined above, I would argue that the role of the site must go beyond that of ensuring that students’ queries and concerns are efficiently dealt with. The four factors singled out in Table 3 above represent tasks that provide important support in the overall learning process. These are the tasks that collectively determine whether one can consider oneself as being a capable functionary in the environment; these capabilities serve as a platform to support learning at a higher level in the online classroom. For example, if one is not sensitive to the role of labeling in the discussion forum, or if one has persistent problems uploading a document, or if one does not develop a facility for using links to do online searches, then one’s capacity to manage one’s learning as conceptualized in the student questionnaire will be seriously compromised.
It should be noted that these skills were all addressed in the various orientation courses offered to incoming students. However, based on the questionnaire results, it would appear that there is need to provide opportunity for students to build these skills over a sustained period of time rather than in a single event. In that regard I am proposing that the site coordinator and staff be given the responsibility for building and maintaining a ‘learning space’ in which students can continue to develop their online learning skills at their own pace, outside of the more time-bound examination-oriented learning management system.