Supporting the online learner at the site: some new initiatives

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Interviews were conducted with seven site coordinators in three countries. The interviews were semi-structured and basically asked respondents to speak freely on four areas: what type of student support they provided to online learners, how they provided it, why they provided it and when they provided it, (that is, with what frequency). While this framework was intended to govern all the interviews, in at least one instance, an adjustment had to be made to accommodate one interviewee who considered it important that her concerns be highlighted. Those concerns will be outlined at the end of the section.

One function that several of the interviewees identified can be described as getting students’ questions answered and/or their problems solved. In some cases, students would turn to the site coordinator when, as they claimed, there was no response to messages either posted in the online learning forum, or e-mailed to a tutor or the helpdesk. Students would therefore ask the site coordinator to intervene to get a response from a tutor to a question posted some time earlier. Other requests may be to find out when grades for a particular learning activity would be released, since the due date had passed. Students would also seek out their site coordinator when they needed to query the accuracy of a grade, entered in the Student Administration System.

The typical channels used for sending these requests to the site coordinators are the telephone and to a lesser extent, email. One site coordinator said that once she received the solution to the problem from the relevant source, if she felt that other students in the same course group also experienced the problem, she would email the solution to all students registered in the same course.

Several site coordinators would also send brief announcements and reminders. In some instances, it would appear that site coordinators would retrieve the relevant information from the course websites, for example, a change in the submission date for an assignment or the deadline date for a quiz, and make this information available to students. When questioned further about the reason for this practice, one site coordinator explained that it was important to do this, either because some students do not log on often enough to get the information themselves in a timely fashion, or because students do not always notice information posted in the course website. Announcements would also be sent when there is a change in the date for a teleconference or to inform students of a face-to-face tutorial; a limited number of both are still part of the current blended delivery mode.

The main medium used for making announcements is the telephone. When asked about email, given the fact that the institution has provided all students with an email address, the site coordinators claim that many students do not use the email. In a few cases, a site coordinator would send the announcement using the email lists and follow up with telephone calls. Another site coordinator reported that given the large number of students at the site, her staff used text messages to send these notices.

Sites also provide a range of technical services as requested by students, either face-to-face or via the telephone. These services include advice about acquiring a home system, troubleshooting a problem with an existing system, having a quiz reset when difficulties of one type or another arise during an attempt, determining the location of a discussion forum posting that is not where it is supposed to have been posted. Technicians at the sites appear to spend a lot of time assisting students uploading assignments. Students are encouraged to come to the sites to perform this task if they think they are likely to encounter problems on their own.

Some site coordinators actively facilitate the formation of on site self-help study groups. They view this feature of the conventional distance delivery mode as still being beneficial, in particular for courses with a mathematical underpinning. One site coordinator reported that a Level 2 student was assisting Level 1 students in an Accounting course that she had already completed. The more usual situation is that students doing the same course would meet to work through problems together. In such instances, the site will make available a room and other requirements such as a whiteboard and markers.

Sites also assist with online registration procedures. Even though students are free to register anywhere and at anytime, some of the site coordinators reported that a sizeable proportion of students still use the site’s computer facilities for this purpose. Whether at the site or elsewhere, members of site staff receive requests for assistance with registrations – usually that students are trying to register for courses that do not appear on the menu available to them. One site requires all its students to register at the site to ensure that the process runs smoothly for all.

Finally, there is counseling, done face-to-face. Site coordinators report that they are approached by students who often say that they want to drop out because they are unable to combine the amount of work that study requires with their other responsibilities. One aspect of the online learning experience is the continuous assessment that is a feature of all courses. Students are required to undertake compulsory graded learning activities at regular intervals. While learning activities were always embedded in the course materials in the traditional delivery mode, students did not normally pay attention to them and tutors did not necessarily insist that they were to be done. Site coordinators are therefore required to address the issue of the management of time and workload with students.

Not all the site coordinators interviewed discussed the matter of support for students in the manner described above. While two of them may have undertaken one or other of the above tasks from time to time, the dominant feeling was that, with the advent of online tutoring, students no longer saw the site as their point of contact. According to one of them, previously students relied on the site more; they trusted the information they received from the site. Nowadays, they ‘do their own thing’. Now that they have the use of email, they write directly to the campus-based senior staff and the local sites have lost the control they previously had. Students only used the site as a last resort, when they did not get their problems solved by going directly to the Centre.