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Increasing Student and Staff Engagement Through Working Support Sites


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jun 29, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

There are more than 15 Laureate International Universities campuses across Europe, imparting courses in 8 languages. This can pose numerous challenges when running and maintaining an LMS within different institutions. One of the main challenges is providing users support materials that are easy to access and constantly updated. In an interview with Blackboard, Deborah Morris, regional executive director of Strategic Partner Initiatives for Laureate in Europe, talked about the recent developments in Agile Student and Staff Support Sites. She also shared some insights about her experience within the Blackboard Community to help teach and learn about the details of student support.

Morris runs a unit that assists various Laureate universities in Europe with decision-making about e-learning strategies, as well as content and curriculum development. She has spent most of her career working with institutions with a more traditional face-to-face approach to education to help them kick-start their online course and program offering. Among other things, Morris assists them in finding the appropriate technology, platforms, and training for staff. “Some universities are very experienced, and others are just getting into e-learning,” Morris commented. That situation is very representative of institutions around the world. Also, for those that have been doing it for a long time, not all faculty members are involved – it is usually a separate department that handles the LMS or e-learning related topics, but it does not have a big impact over the larger institution.

The Importance of Pedagogical Support in E-Learning

Student support is usually overlooked at institutions that are just getting into e-learning or online learning. It goes beyond technical support for when students forget their password or cannot log in. It is about effectively using the learning platform so that students can become better learners both in the classroom and online, by being more self-directed and independent. Usually, the students that need the support the most are the ones that are least likely to ask for it, so that where student orientation comes in.

In general, there are many misconceptions about e-learning, such as the student’s ability to have a positive learning experience in this type of learning environment, as well as their level of engagement. Similarly, there are also assumptions that online learning is not a different environment from a face-to-face classroom and that students do not need more preparation, support, and orientation. When Morris compares her experience with 20 or 30 students to that of a 100 or 200 student class, which is a common scenario today, the experience is much better online because there is one-to-one contact with students, plus more availability and engagement. However, precisely because of that, students have to receive the right support, as online learning requires a different skill set, which can also depend on specific tools functioning properly.

For Morris, student support is about the pedagogy, the learning experience, and how to use the available tools to create a learning environment that works. It is also essential to prepare the students, as there are times when they do not want to deal with more responsibility than they would in a face-to-face course. Many institutions have “welcome to campus” weeks to introduce students to the platform, but there is also a need for a centralized site, as well as a repository with tutorials, guides, and a Frequently Asked Questions section – a self-service site that students can go to.

Designing a Functional Support Site

A self-service site should be centrally managed, using knowledge-based technology that is flexible enough to be customized by each institution. “When we started doing this, we knew that these universities needed the same thing, but had different brands and student populations that are taught in eight different languages. The challenge, then, was to make something that could be replicated, but also easy to manage and update. We had two options: to provide a centralized set of resources in English, without the university’s identity, which is not ideal, or the second option, to make a separate site for each institution and spend a lot of time in each one. We decided to keep the best of both.”

Most universities want to provide good content and support but, unfortunately, do not always have the time, expertise, staff, and resources to do it themselves. For the site’s design, Morris and her team found it useful to think of Laureate’s network as a multi-campus environment on a global scale. This meant that they could consolidate institutional similarities and be efficient in developing a central site, as well as ensure that common resources were not duplicated and still customizable.

Additionally, the site had been built with the future in mind, meaning constant feedback that translates into relevant and timely updates, where institutional input regarding content and user experience is essential. Potential for collaboration is also important. For example, if a university develops a useful resource or tool, it should be easily shared with others, so they can adapt it quickly to their needs. Likewise, Laureate’s partnership with Blackboard means Morris has access to support videos and tutorials that can be rebranded and translated for each institution.

Morris wanted resources that were thorough, yet very easy for people to access and that did not require a lot of training. Much like Blackboard but residing outside of the platform to provide effective support (if the resources were placed inside the LMS and a student couldn’t log in, then he/she could not get to the support materials).

Getting Everyone on Board

To improve the student and faculty user experience, all stakeholders must know precisely what can be achieved with an LMS. Morris and her team hold workshops to show instructors everything they can do with the platform. They are usually surprised, as Morris herself shared, “They say they had always wanted to do certain things but didn’t know how. There’s also fear giving students a bad experience. Of course, this is going to be difficult. There’s going to be challenges, but once they are solved, everyone’s going to have a better experience.”

Before moving forward with a similar project, Morris suggests it’s important to understand the expectations of students and faculty members in certain contexts and cultures. Institutions must show them how the change is going to better fulfill their expectations, help them understand the benefits and how it will meet their needs. Albeit, it also depends on the institutional culture. “For instance, if the institution has face-to-face student orientation, that’s a great way to introduce it. When students first get to campus, make it a big deal within that orientation experience. A lot of time and resources were spent putting this in place, so universities can have demos and testimonials of students from similar institutions about how great the change was for them. So, that’s a way to do it. It’s almost like an internal marketing campaign. You have to go over the top.”