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A Balancing Act Part II: Providing technical support before, during and after the online course

By Jennifer A. Shamsy / July 2014

TYPE: INSTRUCTOR DEVELOPMENT
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Part I of this series explored the need for and role of technical support in online learning, introduced different approaches to fulfilling this role, and considered some factors involved in fulfilling the role of technical support as an instructor/trainer and why this may be perceived as both beneficial and problematic.

Whether you are sharing the technical support role with a team or have assumed the role on your own, presented herein are some tips that can meet the big technical support needs of learners before, during, or after the online course or training program.

Before The Course: Planning

There is a significant amount of planning that should include elements of technical support before the course begins. This planning should include assessing the instructor's technical skills, evaluating the needs of the learners, determine what type of support is available, and developing a comprehensive plan.

Assess Yourself as an Instructor/Trainer. Assess your technical/online skills through proficiency and readiness evaluation tools. Take advantage of personal development activities and mentoring programs to obtain support and fill gaps in needed skill levels. In 2009, the Southern Regional Education Board issued a set of useful guidelines.

Determine the Needs. Maintain a learner-centered focus by determining the type of technical support that learners will need such as FAQs, video/audio documentation, tutorials, 24/7 help desk, etc. and ensure these are developed and accessible. Implementation of several tools/approaches may be necessary [1].

Find and Use Administrative Support. Determine what support services are available within the administrative/institutional/organizational infrastructure, who to contact, and how to obtain them [2].

Develop a Plan. Develop a comprehensive action plan that includes the who, what, where, when, and how to obtain technical support during the course. This plan should be dynamic, be specific to the organization, include multiple points of contact/channels to obtain technical support, and ensure support is available when learners may need assistance (e.g. nights and weekends) [3].

Give Some Time. Build some time into the course timeline to ensure learners have enough time to learn new hardware and software and work out any technical difficulties that may arise [4]. Block off the first week of the course as an opportunity to get settled in and work out any technical "kinks" that may be present before introduction of content begins.

Be Standard. Utilize a consistent content delivery template that standardizes presentation, facilitates location of technical support mechanisms by your learners, and reduces overall technical issues and questions [5].

Don't Reinvent the Wheel. Utilize available tools and methods that are already in place and are successful. Monitor effectiveness in a specific course/training program and adjust as necessary [6].

Help Learners Assess and Develop Skills. Create learner self-assessment and readiness tools that identify technical weaknesses which may interfere with successful online learning. Construct a remedial skills course or program/course introduction module that will meet the needs of the individual learner and provide basic online learning technical skills [7]. This evaluation process is especially important with the influx of adult and multi-cultural learners in online education [8].

During the Course: Deployment

During the course or training program, the instructor/trainer can offer effective technical support by being positive, specific, and proactive as well as reduce his/her workload by providing specific methods for obtaining technical support, utilizing automated tools to the extent that they are effective, and collaborating with other support mechanisms for a comprehensive approach.

Be Positive. Maintain a positive attitude, confidence in your abilities as instructor/trainer, motivation, and commitment to your learners. Attitude and the overall course/program tone are linked with the success of learner outcomes [1].

Be Supportive. Support learners utilizing the providing academic and relational support (PARS) framework [9] by:
  1. Guiding Support—helping them to acquire needed technical skills.
  2. Clarifying—coaching them through technical difficulties
  3. Encouraging—acting as a cheerleader.
  4. Monitoring—supporting them when it is needed.

Be Specific. Ensure your learners are aware of how to specifically obtain technical support [10]. Provide multiple channels for doing so including easy-to-find links on the homepage, notations in the syllabus, emphasis in a welcome message, mention during program or course orientation, and through announcements and/or emails.

Be Proactive. Be proactive and ensure technology is not a distraction to your learners. Utilize forum questions, polls, LMS tracking tools, emails, assessments, etc. to determine presence of technical issues [6]. Provide a low-risk anonymous method for those embarrassed to ask questions or ask for assistance.

Provide a Place for Questions. Create a question folder or student lounge forum for learner questions regarding technical support [8]. Monitor these folders/forums often; quickly reply to questions; and utilize screen-capture/video/audio conferencing software, telephone calls, email, virtual office hours, etc. as necessary to provide comprehensive answers to your learners' technical questions.

Collaborate with Other Support Mechanisms. Collaborate with technical support channels such as help desks and ask to be copied on learner tech support help desk tickets to keep abreast of technical issues [7].

Automate. Utilize automated tools and functions such as online tutorials, FAQs, and automated feedback replies to provide rapid technical support to learners and reduce instructor workload. Make learners aware of outstanding technical issues that may be present to reduce redundant questions [7].

Let Learners Help Each Other. Utilize learners in the course/training program for assistance in answering technical support questions from other learners [7], allowing learners to collaborate, build relationships, and create and maintain a sense of community within the learning environment.

After the Course: Utilizing feedback

Finally, technical support should not conclude when the course is finished. Learner feedback and continual professional development allows online instructors to continually hone their technical support skills, reduce time and workload investment, and increase overall effectiveness.

Ask For Feedback. Solicit feedback from learners during and after the course to pinpoint areas of technical difficulty, distraction, and error through a survey, discussion, etc. Utilize this feedback to rethink, redesign, or amend course materials [11].

Continue Learning. Continue your self-assessment of online design and instruction skills, tools, and techniques, as well as technical competency. Engage in personal development activities including advanced education, webinars, conferences, social media chats (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), and/or reading articles/journals/blogs, etc. [6].

Conclusion

With the recent explosion of online education enrollment; the demand for accessible, flexible, and personalized online courses; as well as educational technology software programs and the like, there is a real need for technical support as part of a learner-centered approach to online education. Learner access and engagement in the online classroom is vital to online learning and when technical barriers are present things can rapidly come to a halt.

As mentioned in Part I of this series, the role of the online instructor and trainer is continually evolving and becoming more demanding and multifaceted. Instructors and trainers can meet the demands of the technical support role either in full or in part by developing a plan of action including completion of training and readiness activities; continuously assessing abilities and weaknesses in the area of technology and instructional methods; obtaining support through personal development activities and mentoring opportunities; and designing, developing, implementing, analyzing, and amending specific and accessible technical support information and mechanisms into courses and training programs.

In Part III of this series, we will continue to explore the "why" of technical support in online learning environments through the opinions and point-of-view of those involved on the frontlines of online courses and training programs.

References

[1]Valentine, D. Distance Learning: Promises, problems, and possibilities. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 5, 3 (2002).

[2]Hobgood, B. Becoming an Online Teacher. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education. (n.d.).

[3] Gahungu, A., Dereshiwsky, M.I., and Moan, E. Finally I Can be with My Students 24/7, Individually and in Group: A survey of faculty teaching online. Journal of Interactive Online Learning 5, 2 (2006), 118-142.

[4] Berge, Z. (n.d.). The Role of Online Instructor/facilitator.

[5]Van de Vord, R. and Pogue, K. Teaching Time Investment: Does online really take more time than face-to-face? The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 13, 3 (2012).

[6]Venable, M. #IOLchat Report: Online instructors on the front lines of tech support. OnlineCollege.org. 2013.

[7]Southern Regional Education Board. Guidelines for Professional Development of Online Teachers. . (2009, March).

[8]Shank, P. More on Designing and Teaching Online Courses with Adult Students in Mind. Faculty Focus. March 14, 2013.

[9]Lowe, S.D. Responding to learner needs in distance education: Providing academic and relational support (PARS). In Making Distance Education Work S.J. Levin (Ed.). 2005.

[10]Yang, Y. and Cornelious, L.F. Preparing Instructors for Quality Online Instruction. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 8, 1 (2005).

[11] Sheridan, R. Reducing the Online Instructor's Workload. Educause Quarterly 29, 3 (2006), 65 - 67.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Shamsy is an Airline Captain by day and online course developer/instructor by night. Her formal academic training includes an associates and bachelor's of science in aviation technology from Purdue University and master's of aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Over the last seven years, Jennifer has combined her love of aviation with passion for e-learning through online course design and development as well as online instruction of hundreds of future aviation professionals at several higher education institutions including the University of Nebraska - Omaha, Miramar College, and Utah Valley University. You can find Jennifer on Twitter at @jshamsy

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