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E-learning basics: case study: support in a distance education environment

By Karen Al-Ashkar / November 2002

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Evidence is accumulating, both empirical and anecdotal, that a key ingredient for success in distance education programs is support—for both faculty and student participants. Although many assume that faculty members have a basic understanding and familiarity with software applications and other tools for teaching online, this is not always true. While many faculty members do in fact use technology and other e-tools in their teaching, many come from a more traditional face-to-face lecture environment, and in fact may know less than the students they are about to instruct.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we do not expect faculty in our programs to have familiarity with the tools we use, so we provide initial and ongoing support for the teaching staff. This means that each faculty member works with an instructional design team whose members are familiar with the tools and the online environment. Existing courses can then be modified or new courses can be built from the ground up to ensure that the selected tools are appropriate for the content and the environment faculty members want to create and maintain for their course. Instructors are then able to devise sessions where they and their students can become fully engaged.

There is also one-to-one instruction for instructors who wish to learn how to use new tools to manage online records, discussions, quizzes, etc. In addition, technical support is offered throughout the semester to make sure that the instructors' access to the online environment is just as seamless and engaging as the students'. Some faculty members report that understanding and using new tools for online instruction has heightened the enjoyment in teaching in an online environment, and improved their teaching methods in other settings.

Students in online classes need courses that are designed to enable interaction between instructor and student, as well as among students. This interaction engages learners and faculty members, and encourages students to feel that they are part of a community.

For off-campus students, access to supplementary services—such as writing centers and libraries—is also important. It allows these students to enjoy and benefit from the same range of services as their on-campus counterparts. This means that the university's support staff must make sure early in the program-development process that these services will be available for students visiting campus electronically.

Background: Our Program
These activities were part of the three-pronged approach that the Department of Engineering Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison undertook when designing and planning a Master's degree in engineering—the Master of Engineering in Professional Practice.

The first prong was course content and design. Our decisions in this area were based on gaining an understanding or what engineers needed to be effective practitioners in technical management settings. This understanding came from contact with engineers and their employers (via questionnaire to 8000 graduates of our university) and by a search of the available literature on the topic. We asked ourselves two questions based on the information we gathered: What content did engineers need to become more effective and efficient practitioners and what course design characteristics were relevant to these engineers?

The second prong was the process of course delivery. Our choices were predicated on the desire to create and maintain an environment where students, faculty, and staff could attain a high level of contact and interaction. We were not going to let technology dictate the environment; we selected technology to enhance and maintain the environment we wanted to create.

The focus of the third prong was based around the experiences we anticipated for our students. Ours is a traditional land grant university with all of the wonderful and sometimes inconvenient practices this implies. The term tradition as it is used in this article is defined as the practices of staff that have dealt almost exclusively with on-campus students and the situations created by those practices. Since the impact of traditional practice has dominated my interaction with adult and off-campus students since 1994, this article's main focus will be these practices, the interventions or changes they necessitated, and the development of new practices to include a new population of students.

Factors That Affect Students in Distance Education Programs

Hara & Kling (1999) state that if students are not motivated internally, there is little any outside agent can do to change this. Motivation is the one factor that has been described as a critical reason that students continue in distance education programs (Wlodkowski, 1989). If a student is in a program because he has to be there, nothing an educator can do will have much effect in motivating him (Hara & Kling, 1999). Instructors can make the courses engaging and make the path to completion as smooth as possible, but they can't control the student's world. There will always be obstacles that the student himself must navigate (Al-Ashkar, 2000).

Outside Influences
Though instructors can help their students in many ways—by helping them to manage their time more effectively, intervening on their behalf with struggles that are unrelated to their courses—they can only do so much. Instructors must take into consideration that students have other commitments, such as family obligations that demand a lot of time and attention. Or a job that requires extensive travel. These are the outside influences that play a major role in students' lives (Tennant & Pogson, 1995).

It is important that instructors understand that these obligations are an ongoing thing and that students may not have the luxury of putting them aside. Furthermore, instructors should remember that students are responsible adults who are members of communities other than the school's, and that their priorities will shift as relevance (or emergency) dictates. In the end, it is up to students to manage their own lives.

Students who attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison have very similar educational backgrounds (especially since the first admission requirement is an accredited degree in engineering). However, their life experiences, such as where they worked and what they learned elsewhere, might be vastly different. These experiences may have a profound impact on the student's performance in the program, and in their readiness and enthusiasm to learn (Brookfield, 1993).

Local Support
A student's level of involvement can be greatly influenced by the support that they receive at home. Is the spouse supportive? Does he or she understand the student's commitment to the program? Is the spouse willing to re-negotiate some home and family obligations during the time the student is studying? Has the student taken the time and made the effort to bring about some understanding on the part of the spouse? By providing materials for the spouse so that he or she might meet the staff electronically, the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides some avenue for spouses to compare notes.

Adult Learners
Tennant and Pogson (1995) discussed several studies of adult students that indicate adults approach education with needs and expectations that are different from younger students. Adults seem more interested in incorporating new learning into a familiar context; they are also more likely to challenge their instructors with knowledge gained from their personal and professional experiences. Adults bring a rich variety of experiences and expectations to the class environment (Caffarella, 1994), and incorporating these into the class setting gives adults a sense of belonging and contribution.

For off-campus students it is imperative that they have access to a highly interactive media so that they can form study groups, and have use of on-campus resources and support. This guarantees that students have every bit as much interpersonal contact and program support as their on-campus colleagues.

With advances in technology, there is a great temptation to use a product based on its popularity (Paulsen, 1998). Resisting the hype takes courage and commitment and a thorough understanding of the impact of that technology on the program and its participants. The decision to use new media or applications should be driven by need and not by the attention given to the new tool (Walshok, 1989).

Policy vs. Practice at a Traditional Institution
This is an often covert factor, but one that derails many good intentions of program developers (Spitzberg, 1994). Campus policies may be written to include all students, but practice over the years has developed with the on-campus young adult in mind. It may be driven by convenience to staff, by articulation agreements between departments, or by a number of other factors, but many times practice can set traps for unwary support staff (Portman, 1993).

Whether it's the office of Student Financial Services, the Student Health Insurance Program (federally mandated for international students), the Office of the Registrar, or the International Studies and Scholars program, there are many entities on campus that require personal interviews with students for a variety of reasons or require that the student visit the office to fill out applications. This is obviously difficult for the student in California or Connecticut to accomplish without actually coming to the campus. Since the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed the distance education program expressly for students who could not come to the campus, it was necessary for the university to work with campus agencies such as the ones mentioned above to develop ways for off-campus students to meet the agencies' requirements without making them travel to the campus for interviews.

In many cases, interviews can be accomplished by email, forms can be mailed out and sent back, and communication can occur via telephone. In all cases what it took was an understanding on the university's—and its various agencies—part of how the work needed to be accomplished and how to collect the information the agencies needed.

In a traditional higher-education environment, it is important that the support staff of a university build a relationship with whoever provides supplementary services to off-campus students. It's also important that the personnel in these service areas understand who the students are and how their needs can be met. Planning ahead and looking for the potential bumps in the road for students who will not be on campus to represent themselves is also crucial. To do this, the support staff must try to anticipate what students will encounter as they learn about and enter the programs.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the biggest challenges we faced as developers of a new program were based on what we discovered when we put ourselves in our students' (and faculty's) shoes. Whether it concerned the application process, course enrollment, financial-aid application, visa status, relevance of course materials, or ease of access to the on-line environment, our focus was always—and is still—on what it takes to make everyone's experience beneficial and enjoyable. We were, and still are interested in more than access; we are driven toward success (Gibson, 1996).

For all of us on the development team and for those of us who are involved in the day-to-day operations of the program, this is truly a labor of love. It involves a high level of commitment on the part of staff, faculty, and students, as well as a high level of support from campus and college administration. None of us could have done it alone.

In fact, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has just admitted their 4th cohort of 30 students and graduated their second cohort of 30 students. Since the program's first breath in 1999, when the 1st cohort was accepted, only one student—who left engineering altogether—was lost. There are a number of factors that contribute to the success of the distance education program at the university and without everyone working in concert, it would not be as successful as it is.

Karen Al-Ashkar is a Senior Advisor in the Department of Engineering Professional Development, College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a B.A. in Medical Technology/Clinical Chemistry from Edgewood College, an M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling and Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is defending her Ph.D. dissertation in Distance Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in October 2002. She has worked with adult students since 1992, and has counseled students in distance degree programs since 1994. In 1995, she began working with other EPD staff and faculty to develop a Master of Engineering degree program for off-campus learners.

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