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A Balancing Act Part III: Technical support on the front lines of modern-day online education

By Jennifer A. Shamsy / September 2014

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In Part I of this series the who, what, where, and when of filling the technical support role in online learning environments was explored. Though there are many great benefits to this, there can be equally as many drawbacks for the budget conscious, time-strapped modern-day online educator. Part II outlined a multitude of ways in which those who are involved in the technical support role can assist online learners before, during, and even after an online course or training program.

Part III is the last of this series and will continue to explore the relationship between online educators and the technical support role highlighting the points-of-view from those on the front line of online education.

Online Learners May Struggle but Still Persevere

Many of today's diverse online learners possess a higher level of technological skills when compared with learners of the past. This coupled with more intuitive learning management systems [1] and more accessible support resources makes the possibility for successful online education even more achievable than just a few years ago. However, despite this, "online education is still a mystery to most people—they have no real idea how it works" [2].

In March 2014, I conducted a short online survey followed by more in-depth personal interviews with several online educators, online course/training program designers, and educational technology professionals. More than half of the respondents felt, in general, online learners were not prepared for and did not possess the required skills necessary to be successful in an online learning course/training program. However, despite this initial skill deficiency, the vast majority of students seem to persevere by seeking out assistance when they stumble or achieving proficiency through trial-and-error to quickly acquire the needed technical skills [3].

Technical Support Roles Remain Accidental

As described in Part I and reiterated by survey respondents, the technical support role including the definition and delegation of that role, continues to vary from organization to organization. Though there appears to be a movement toward more formal role definition and delegation, many survey respondents report the technical support role is still loosely defined and delegated or in some cases not even recognized or addressed. Many institutions still assume the instructor/trainer will handle a majority of learner technical issues.

Just as there is a greater preference for a more formalized technical support definition and delegation, there is also a greater preference for the team approach. Survey respondents indicated the individual approach to technical support is still present in many online courses and training programs with the instructor/trainer filling the primary role of technical support or at minimum acting as a point-of-contact/technical coordinator. However, the team approach—encompassing resources such as the course/training program instructor/trainer, instructional designer, technical specialist, administrative support, etc.—remains highly desirable and viewed as the optimal approach by almost all of the respondents.

However, the team approach to technical support is not perfect or without challenges. One source of frustration amongst respondents lies in the staffing and administrative support of those teams. Despite advances in a proactive and collaborative approach to technical support, administrators must still provide training, tools, and adequate staffing to meet the needs of online learners [4]. By realistically, comprehensively, and continuously evaluating support needs, administrators can provide instructors/trainers with the technical support knowledge and mechanisms they need to support learners with engaging in a quality education, increasing growth of the online learning program, promoting personal satisfaction of the instructor/trainer, and fostering employee buy-in [5].

Online Educators Help Where They Can

It is well established that technological barriers must be removed and technology made transparent to fully take advantage of the online learning medium [6]. "Online education is inherently a technology communication platform that offers another method for student instruction. It is up to the instructor to make it great" [7].

Whether the online educator finds him/herself either partially or fully in the technical support role by designation or by accident, he/she should include it as part of a continued focus on what one can do to contribute to a quality educational experience for the learner [8]. By proactively introducing new software and hardware elements, diagnosing and addressing technical concerns, referring learners to and/or coordinating with other sources of specialized support, and giving learners time to master new software and hardware elements, those in the technical support role can reduce technical issues as a barrier to online learning [9]. More specific ideas of how to do this can be referenced in Part II of this series.

Many online educators, as supported by survey responses, possess this "make it great" philosophy and engage in providing technical support to the level in which they can or are able. Though not part of their formal responsibilities, instructors/trainers may find that assisting in technical support can often be more efficient than referring to another resource if the instructor/trainer has the knowledge or ability to address the particular issue, when in time critical situations such as in a short semester, or when established technical support mechanisms are nearing capacity.

Remembering the Benefits

In an interview with Colin Easom, online faculty coordinator for Pima Medical Institute and Online Educator, he summarized some of the benefits of putting yourself on the front lines of technical support: "…provides great customer service, it adds to the instructor's credibility, and students definitely perceive the instructor as being approachable and solutions-driven; that's important if the student is to truly engage in a learning partnership with the instructor" [2].

In addition to Easom's comments, Part Iof this series also explored the benefits of participating in the technical support role including meeting the preferences of the learner, acquisition of technical skills, and personalized responses. These and several other benefits were noted by survey respondents including:

  • On-demand/just-in-time and personalized technical assistance.
  • Quicker knowledge of background information relevant to the support issue.
  • Empowerment of learners by providing tools.
  • Acquisition of data to better design future courses/training programs.
  • Contribution to instructors/trainers awareness on issues learners face.
  • Increased perception of instructor/trainer competence.
  • Increased instructor/trainer satisfaction.

  • Debbie Morrison, an instructional designer/blogger for Online Learning Insights, indicates in addition to some of the short term benefits listed above there may also be long lasting benefits of engaging in front-line technical support. "The benefits are many, one is that I am able to see what the needs are of students, the types of questions they ask, and the challenges they face with online learning. This helps in the design of online courses, building in mechanisms to minimize the challenges" [3].

    For the online educator, taking on the role of technical support either in part or in full can be beneficial and purposeful. By focusing on empowering learners with the tools that they need to access and engage in online learning, not only are there gains in learner satisfaction and success but also a greater awareness of the learner's needs and challenges leading to better course/training program and support mechanism development. Ultimately, arming instructors/trainers with the knowledge and tools necessary to assist learners in the area of technical support may be much more valuable and long-lasting than focusing on support through impersonal support mechanisms [5].

    Acknowledging the Drawbacks

    It is easy to recognize that there are great benefits to participating in the technical support role. However, as discussed in Part I drawbacks are still a reality mainly in the area of skill acquisition and time investment.

    There remains an unarguable desire on behalf of online educators to provide high quality instruction and support learners. However, this must be carefully balanced with minimizing workload for the time-strapped online educator [10]. Survey respondents emphasized this workload-time balance when considering the effects of engaging in technical support roles whether big or small. Many felt participating in the technical support role may rob instructor/trainer time and attention from other important tasks such as instruction, grading, providing feedback, etc.

    In addition to the time element, instructors/trainers may also lack the skill set or administrative tools necessary to provide comprehensive solutions for the variety of technical issues that may be present during the span of an online course/training program. This may lead to the learner's poor perception of an instructor/trainer further exasperated when the learner expects immediate round-the-clock access to the instructor/trainer as not only a teacher of content but technical support mechanism.

    These frustrations coupled with time constraints, acquisition of technical skills, and being all things to all people is reiterated by one survey participant: "Not what I am hired to do! I fully expect to spend time making sure that 'I' am up to speed, and everything works properly in the course, but I can't teach content and teach students how to access the content, AND be their troubleshooter when things don't seem to go right. Just as there are, or should be, full-time advisors to help students navigate getting registered and picking classes, and just as there are financial aid advisors to help with aid, there should be tech support advisors to help students ramp up their skills so they can access online offerings. Faculty cannot be expected to fulfill all these roles, and if they are trying to do so, then I'm sure they are not best serving the students."

    Looking Toward the Future as a Team

    Though Van de Vord and Pogue in 2012 predicted that technical support needs may actually decrease over time with implementation of more complex and intuitive technologies, survey respondents appear to disagree [11]. A majority of survey respondents felt that there will actually be an increase in need for technical support mechanisms in the future. Respondents indicated that more numerous, complex, and incompatible technologies confuse instead of assist the online learner and continue to reinforce technical barriers to online learning. This is especially true for those online learners that seek the online learning medium out of desire for flexibility versus engagement with technology [2].

    Today's online educator must meet the varied needs of many different types of learners and their preferences as well as interface with numerous software/hardware systems and devices. Though online learners utilize a variety of different devices, prefer having choices and autonomy, and want "just in time" answers; it may not be feasible or even desirable to have one person, specifically the instructor/trainer, fill all of these demands.

    As part of course/training program design and development, it is important to identify the specific needs of the real-world learners and determine how many and what types of technical support mechanisms are desirable and needed to support the online learning environment. If the opinions and experiences of survey respondents are any indication, technical support roles should be:

    • Formally defined
    • Formally delegated
    • Incorporate a team approach
    • Designate specialists/"gurus" in particular areas (Apple MAC vs. Windows)

    As stated in Part I , Yang and Cornelious remind us that "successful online instruction does not happen by magic. It is a collaboration of instructors, administrators, learners, and the community at large" [8]. Though online educators may competently and willingly be able to fulfill the technical support role in its entirety, spreading that technical support role amongst a collaborative and trained team of resources may not only reduce the workload and time investment but allow the learner to be served by the right person at the right time with solutions that eliminate technical barriers to online learning and support ultimate success.


    [1] Hallmon, D. Personal communication, March 12, 2014

    [2] Easom, C. Personal communication, March 12, 2014

    [3] Morrison, D. Personal communication, March 18, 2014

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

    [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]Hootstein, E. Wearing four pairs of shoes: The roles of e-learning facilitators. Learning Circuits (2002).

    [7]Stolz-Loike, M. Incentives and Training. Inside HigherEd, (Dec. 18 2013).

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

    [9]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).

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

    [11] SVan 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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