Increasing Student and Staff Engagement Through Working Support Sites

Sebastián Pulido
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Portland, Oregon, United States

There are more than 15 Laureate International Universities campuses across Europe, imparting courses in 8 languages. This poses numerous challenges when running and maintaining an LMS in different institutions. One challenge is providing support materials to the users that are easy to access and constantly updated. In an interview with E-Learn, 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 insight through her experience within the Blackboard Community to help teach and learn about the details of student support.

Morris runs a unit that assists Laureate’s various universities in Europe with making decisions about e-learning strategies, as well as content and curriculum development. She has spent most of her career working with institutions that have a more traditional face-to-face approach to help them start offering online courses and programs. Among other things, Morris assists them with 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, in 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 on the larger institution.

The pedagogical importance of support in e-learning

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

In general, there are many misconceptions about e-learning, the student’s ability to have a good learning experience in this environment, and their level of engagement. Similarly, there are also assumptions that online learning is not a different environment than 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 get support, because online learning requires a different skill set, which also depends 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 because there are times when they do not want to deal with more responsibility than they do 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 FAQs; 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 at a world level. This meant that they could consolidate the similarities of the institutions and be efficient in order to develop a central site and ensure that common resources were not duplicated and still customizable.

Additionally, the site had to be cognizant of the future, meaning constant feedback that translates in relevant and timely updates, where institution input regarding content and user experience is essential. There is also a potential for collaboration; if a university develops a useful resource or tool, it can be easily shared with others that 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 for each institution and translated.

Morris wanted resources that are thorough yet very easy for people to access, and do not require a lot of training. Very much like Blackboard, but outside of the platform to provide effective support (if the resources are placed inside the LMS, and a student can’t log in, then he/she cannot get to the support materials).

Getting people on board

To improve the students’ and faculty members’ user experience, everyone has to know what can be achieved with a LMS. Morris and her team make workshops to show the instructors all the things they can do. They are surprised, as Morris herself said: “They say they had always wanted to do certain things but didn’t know how. There’s also fear of 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 project like this, Morris suggests it is 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 fulfill their expectations better, to help them understand the benefits it has for them and how it meets their needs. 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.”

Deborah Morris – Regional Executive Director, Strategic Partner Initiatives, Europe. Laureate Education, Inc. Photo: iStock.

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