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A Balancing Act Part I: Technical Support and the Online Instructor

By Jennifer Shamsy / May 2014

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Any instructor or trainer that has taught or managed an online course has received at least one frantic email from a learner concerning technical issues. These often numerous and anxious pleas for help frequently arrive at the beginning of the course or training program when anxiety amongst learners and workload amongst instructors is highest. Questions may range from a general "I don't know how to log in and get into the course?" to a more specific "Why can't I attach a specific .pdf file?" The response to these types of technical questions may be as simple as modifying a software setting or as elaborate as a "face-to-face" conversation utilizing video conferencing software. As the semester or training program comes to a close and the online instructor/trainer has the opportunity to reflect, the real question arises: Is any of this really my responsibility?

The Need for Technical Support

In today's 24/7 accessible learning environments, instructors and trainers are separated from learners only in terms of space, which allows for dynamic delivery of content traversing traditional boundaries of a set time and place. However, the benefits of online learning can be quickly jeopardized when technical difficulties arise. These technical barriers to effective online learning may make the distance learner even more distant [1].

The Internet and associated hardware and software components are the lifeblood of online learning and serve as the medium for content delivery and communication. In a brick-and-mortar classroom, technical difficulties can be quickly overcome with alternatives. However, in an online course or training program, they can bring the presentation of information, as well as class interaction and collaboration, to a halt.

Technical barriers may not only result from the medium, but from the user of that medium. A wide range of skills exist amongst learners with many "jumping into" online learning without fully evaluating their technical abilities or obtaining the basic technical skills considered necessary for online learning success [2].

Whether the medium or the user, technical issues can lead to a multitude of problems for the online learner including:

  • Distraction
  • Frustration
  • Apathy
  • Isolation
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Withdrawal (lack of engagement)
  • Absenteeism
  • Negative perception of online learning
  • Interference with the learning process
  • Adverse effects on the achievement of desired learning outcomes and course success

By reducing technical difficulties and barriers through support mechanisms, learners are free to fully participate in the online educational experience and focus their efforts on the tasks of engaging, collaborating, and learning.

The Role of Technical Support

When technical difficulties are present, it is clear learners become isolated and frustrated, and learning is adversely affected. In order to assist learners, there has been a movement toward the development and implementation of accessible, available, and reliable technical support for both learners and instructors/trainers. This movement has been strengthened through the widespread acceptance of online learning and increased organizational/administrative support [3]. Through a wide variety of support mechanisms, learners can develop the technical skills necessary to navigate online courses, receive assistance when they run into technical difficulties and barriers, and develop independence and a reduced overall need for support. However, despite the need and desire, providing technical support can be difficult especially when at a distance [4]. Part of this difficulty can be attributed to the definition and delegation of technical support roles in an online learning environment.

In the past, roles have been clearly defined through formal policy or traditional practice including elements of teaching, service, and research. However, with the rapidly evolving nature of both technology and online learning, the delegation and even definition of the technical support role is constantly evolving. This requires unique and often less-rigid organizational and administrative arrangements to be put into place resulting in a technical support role that is less formally defined, subject to individual perception, and left to peer and administrative expectations [5].

The lack of a formally defined technical support role and delegation of who should fulfill that role proves an additional barrier in online education.

Who Provides Technical Support?

Zane Berge categorizes the roles of a modern-day online instructor to include pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical. These roles may be fulfilled by one or multiple person(s) and are affected by factors such as time, skill level, type of course and learners, etc. Though, the technical support role often falls to a lower priority, it can quickly dominate when a technical difficulty acts to slow or disable the online learning medium [6].

In present-day online learning, Berge's technical support role is left to a team, to an individual, or a combination of both.

The Team Approach.In a perfect world "…successful online instruction does not happen by magic. It is a collaboration of instructors, administrators, learners, and the community at large" [7]. A team approach to filling the technical support role may include an established online learning technical support person, office, or department, which prepares learners for online studies and answers questions when they stumble.

Within a team approach, learners may develop basic skills during a general program orientation including: using the Internet, navigating specific courseware/learning management systems (LMS), understanding technological requirements of their courses/training program, and obtaining general technical assistance. Detailed information and technical assistance specific to the course or training program such as access to course content or assistance with a software application utilized within the course is provided by the course instructor/program trainer and/or technical support personnel [7].

The Individual Approach. Even with a team approach in place, many online instructors and trainers still find themselves in a position of being the first point of contact for learners with technical questions or issues. These instructors and trainers must decide how much they are willing and/or able to assist learners with technical support issues while balancing personal preference, technological knowledge level/skill, time constraints, and existing workload.

However, not all online instructors/trainers have technical support to fall back on and more importantly the choice of whether or not to take on the role themselves. The limitations of today's budget-strapped learning institutions and organizations may leave some instructors/trainers with the formal or informal assignment of many if not all of Berge's four roles. The instructor is then responsible for course/training program design, development, implementation, instruction, and support including direct instruction in the area of technical support [8].

Why Provide Technical Support?

Whether approaching technical support from an individual or team position, the instructor/trainer has a decision to make when presented with a technical difficulty from the learner: Accept the technical support role as a "reality of the job" and choose to play an active role in assisting the learner [9]; direct the learner to institutionally/organizationally provided or internet-based technical support mechanisms; or leave learners to independently figure out the answer to their technical support issues.

Though the team approach appears to be the predominant and, in many cases, an optimal approach, there are benefits to personally assisting learners with technical support issues: accommodating learner preferences, developing personalized responses to learner technical support needs, and acquiring new technological skills with positive transfer to other areas. Despite the benefits, tasking the instructor/trainer with the technical support role is often an "onerous function for the online teacher" [3] with obvious drawbacks.

Learner preferences. In the one-room schoolhouse of early education, one teacher met the learner's cognitive and social needs. Teachers were responsible for everything and everyone including tending to the stove that provided heat [8]. Though there is no heat stove to tend to and many more resources available in the modern-day online learning environment, the expectations of learners may not be so different. Learners of today still seem to be most comfortable with the one-on-one correspondence model [2] and look to the instructor/trainer as the primary person to fill all four roles [10]—pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical- and act as a point of contact for issues ranging from content to technical, as well as serve as an advocate within in the organization [4].

By accepting the role of technical support and adapting it's meaning with a focus on that of a technical support coordinator, the instructor/trainer can act as a manager of communications between technical support mechanisms and diminish the learner's perception of being "passed around" from person-to-person, as well as reduce confusion or anxiety about whom they should contact regarding support issues.

Personalized response. In addition to assisting in technical issues, these communications act as an opportunity for the instructor/trainer to obtain more personal information about the learner which assists them in tailoring and personalizing responses that are both useful and ensure technical difficulties do not become a barrier to online learning [9]. By ensuring adequate technical support, instructors/trainers can facilitate the learner's participation in the course or training program through adequate accessibility and opportunity for participation.

Acquisition of new skills. For instructors/trainers that are solely tasked with the technical support role, they must quickly become an expert in the content area as well as the medium over which that content is delivered. Though outside resources such as online tutorials, videos, blogs, etc. are useful, the instructor's technical knowledge must be vast enough to assist learners with a variety of technical difficulties. Acquisition of these advanced technological skills may become a heavy burden for some.

Even for instructors/trainers involved in a team approach to technical support, this may be a challenge. As additional technologies come online and/or Web 2.0 tools are more widely implemented, instructors/trainers may have to bridge the gap where the team approach has fallen short in meeting the technological needs of the learner [9].

Recently, many online instructors and trainers are becoming more interested and active participants in areas of instructional design as well as course development and delivery [3]. For some, this interest and participation is a voluntary part of personal development and a welcome set of skills they can transfer to other areas of their work. However, for others-who are neither interested in acquisition of these skills nor in the additional responsibility associated with them-this task quickly becomes a source of unnecessary and unwanted additional workload.

Time Spent in Providing Technical Support

Perhaps, the most easily identifiable and greatest negative to engaging in the technical support role is time lost. Distance learning is notoriously bad at considering human capital investments [11]. Workload and time spent for instructors/trainers is already high especially when measuring on a per-student basis and including development time [12]. Online courses incorporate a different "rhythm" and time spent is often much more fragmented than typically found in a brick-and-mortar classroom course [13]. Adding additional roles such as technical support-or additional technology that requires added skills and/or support needs of learners-may increase workload and time requirements for an instructor/trainer, further detracting from time spent in other areas. This balance between time available and time required (spent) is crucial for the already thin-stretched online instructor/trainer and when disturbed can result in an additional barrier to effective online learning [3].


There may be some relief on the horizon. With the explosion in and employment of more complex technologies like tablets, mobile learning, and advanced software applications in online learning, the technical support role is evolving as advanced technologies become more familiar and intuitive to learners as a whole and online learning becomes more widespread, the overall need for technical support may eventually decrease and/or become more specialized over time [13].

In this first part of this series, we have evaluated the need for technical support with emphasis on its ability to act as a barrier impacting effective utilization of the online medium in online learning environments. Regardless of the individual or team approach to technical support, many instructors/trainers find themselves on the front lines either acting as technical support or at minimum a technical coordinator.

If you as an instructor or trainer should find yourself in the technical support role either voluntarily or involuntarily, Part II of this series will discuss ways in which you may assist learners in overcoming technical support barriers before, during, and even after the course or training program.


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[2] 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.

[3] Liu, X., Bonk, C.J., Magjuka, R.J., Lee, S. and Su, B. Exploring Four Dimensions of Online Instructor Roles: A program level case study. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network 9, 4 (2005), 29-4

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

[5] Wiesenmayer, R., Kupczynski, L., and Ice, P. The Role Of Technical Support and Pedagogical Guidance Provided to Faculty in Online Programs: Considerations for higher education administrators. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 11, 4, (2008).

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

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

[8] Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R. and Archer, W. Assessing Teacher Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5, 2 (2001)

[9] #IOLchat Report: Online instructors on the front lines of tech support. 2013.

[10] Conrad, D. University Instructors' Reflections on Their First Online Teaching Experiences. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 8, 2 (2004), 31-44.

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

[12] Bender, D.M., Wood, B.J. and Vredevoogd, J.D. Teaching Time: Distance education versus classroom instruction. The American Journal of Distance Education 18, 2 (2004), 103-114.

[13] 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).

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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