Student support services are an essential component of e-learning provision. Their design should cover the pedagogic, resource and technical aspects that affect the online learner. Support services should be accessible in the first instance via the student's homepage or other entry route to the institution's online learning system. Students should be provided with information about their specific courses and the range of generic services available.
Students are likely to be working to flexible schedules. Static information such as course specifications on web pages are always available but help desk and advisory services should also be provided at times appropriate to student need.
Students should be provided with an identified academic contact who will provide feedback and support. Students may also be supported through online communities, through either an internal VLE or possibly via external social networking sites.
This benchmark is designed to assess the extent to which an institution offers support to students before they commit to undertaking their e-learning studies, as well as during their studies.
Good performance against this benchmark will indicate that the institution has directed its attention to informed student recruitment and effective preparation for study by e-learning.
Students must be informed through course information of the pedagogical skills they will be expected to use during their study. Preparatory materials for the acquisition of required learning skills must be available to students in advance.
The institution should monitor the needs of their students in order to inform their planning of support services for e-learners. Different student groups may display differing experience of relevant technologies and learning methods.
E-learning students are likely to use online access to investigate programme availability; a curriculum map and advisory notes should be prepared by the curriculum design team and be available to potential students from programme launch.
Good performance in this area indicates that the institution has fully addressed its responsibility to provide adequate information to students on e-learning programmes. The information may be derived from that provided for face-to-face students but should be presented in an integrated form. Students following e-learning programmes should have easy access to all information relevant to their mode of study.
Students need to be advised on what the institution will provide to support their learning (e.g. support for any special requirements), and also what expectations are placed on students themselves (e.g. that they can access appropriate computer hardware; that they will take an active role in collaborative learning tasks etc.)
33. Online social networking opportunities are provided in order to build and support student communities. This may be achieved using the institution’s VLE or through external social networking sites, as appropriate.
The traditions of higher education place a high value of student participation in a community of scholarship. This benchmark is intended to evaluate how these traditions of participation are translated to the e-learning environment.
Creation of online communities of students is important as it reduces the isolation that may be experienced by many online learners. Tools for online contact enable students to share learning-related concerns and problems with their peers, going someway to replicate the mutual support mechanisms available to campus-based students.
Online communities may be formed by students (or staff) in external social networking environments such as Facebook or LinkedIn. Consideration needs to be given to handling any problems that may arise (such as collusion, disagreements among students, privacy issues, blurring of boundaries between social and academic life).
Institutions must identify those "community centred" activities that are essential to the achievement of course objectives and those activities that are essentially social in nature. In the development of policies regarding participation in an online community, the institution should make comparisons between the requirements on e-learners and those on campus-based students in the equivalent activity. (For example, is attendance at lectures and tutorials mandatory and monitored?)
The institution should provide guidelines on appropriate behavior in respect of informal collaboration during study, and should apply an etiquette code to online exchanges. Students should be strongly encouraged to apply these etiquette codes in any public social networking spaces which they use in relation to their studies.
Good performance against this benchmark indicates that the institution has designed and implemented a comprehensive suite of learner support services that address technical support, learning and broad counselling requirements.
An institution may perform well against some of the factors identified and less well against others; actions for improvement may, therefore, be needed on a topic by topic basis.
The staff resources on which students may draw, the roles are undertaken by different staff and the levels of support available should be made clear to students at the start of their course or programme.
Where there is a transition from either face-to-face or distance learning to e-learning, the staff roles should be redefined to ensure that they adequately address the requirements for support of e-learners.
There should be mechanisms for students to give formal feedback on their experience of the course or programme, and to receive staff responses.
35. Students have access to learning resources including online library access, study skills development and a study advisor.
Many aspects of student support are provided via access to resource materials and services.
The library service is one aspect of resource provision that is widely available to campus-based students: extension of the service to online students is essential for effective delivery of many HE programmes. Digital (online) library facilities provide a good solution for e-learners, as well as being useful for campus-based students and staff.
Support for the development of e-learning skills can be an important contributor to student success. Potential students are advised on the services will be available to help them develop the necessary skills. Responsibility for this may be managed at an institutional level by a library or information services division.
Study advisors should be available to help with course choice. Modular programmes may be difficult for students to understand, particularly at the outset of their studies. The institution should, therefore, make every effort to help students to construct a programme that addresses their needs.