The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 9

Chapter 9: Institutional and Library Services for Distance Education Courses and Programs[1]

Elizabeth Buchanan
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.

OVERVIEW

Institutions are quickly embracing distance education in the forms of online or web-based courses and programs at phenomenal rates. Often, however, significant institutional structures, including such areas as registration, advising, library, and technical support are overlooked until too late. Institutions must have clear, well-planned strategies in place in order to maximize their students’ learning experiences and overall satisfaction with distance education programs to avoid attrition and maximize retention. This chapter provides many useful and easy to implement strategies for institutions considering distance education, as well as for those already engaged in serving students online.

[1]I am particularly grateful to the graduate students in the School of Information Studies course, “Library and Information Services and Resources for Distance Education,” (Winter 2001) for their insights and keen articulation of a student-centered perspective on serving distance students.

INTRODUCTION

With the emergence of distance education in the form of web-based or online education, new challenges materialize for students, faculty, and institutions. These challenges range widely from adequate library support to student mentoring and advising to institutional coherence and transparency in serving their distant students. This chapter provides an overview of best practices—potential solutions to these many challenges.

This work has grown out of the author’s experience as a Distance Education Coordinator and later as a faculty member teaching distance courses. Distance education has reached yet another new phase, a phase in which a systemic change in perspective must occur. Instead of maintaining that it is the student who is remote or distant, institutions, including faculty, staff, and particularly librarians and information specialists, must see it is indeed they who are remote. These entities can begin to address the many challenges surrounding efficacious distance education programs by adopting a student-centered perspective in the institutional approach to meeting distance education students’ needs. This chapter must be considered a work in progress, as best practices for intuitions must be revisited and continually revised as distance education continues to mature and change. It is an attempt to raise awareness of services and support that contribute to the most rewarding experiences for distance education students. This chapter concentrates primarily on institutional and library services, as best practices and guidelines for online faculty and instructors can be easily identified in the literature.

Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (1997) reveals great increases in the number of institutions offering distance education programs or coursework. An analogous rise in formal, well-planned institutional support policies appears to be missing, as many institutions concentrate first and foremost on converting curriculum to an online format and secondly on the delivery and technological infrastructure. However, distance students need and deserve accommodations above and beyond their on-campus counterparts; while many of these recommendations will apply to and will assist all students, institutions must be cognizant of the extenuating circumstances that contribute to a distant student’s frustrations, and in many cases, attrition. The recommendations here are predicated on some institutional monetary commitment as well, though many can be accomplished with small budget lines. It is the hope of the author that institutions and programs of all sizes can adapt the recommendations on a scale appropriate to them while avoiding budgetary crises.

By initiating, maintaining, and guaranteeing a sound policy for services and support of distance education students, an institution will promote the most efficacious and enjoyable learning experience for every student—near and far.

FIRST STEPS

Planning

Institutions cannot jump into distance education without forethought and careful preparation. Institutions must develop solid and strategic plans for meeting the needs of distance students—including resources and services, not only course delivery. To assess those needs, individual programs and the institution as a whole should develop and administer student needs-surveys on an annual or semiannual basis. To assist in the development of the needs assessment, a distance education student advisory board comprised of four to five students at various stages in the program or institution should be established. The board should meet regularly through virtual means with key players in the institution. The student advisory board serves as a liaison between the students and the institution.

Communication is key, and all students need to know they have a voice and a role in their educational process. Recall that typical characteristics of distance students include being an adult in some form of employment and moreover, they are characterized by autonomy, persistence, maturity and independence, self-direction and motivation, and experience; as Schrum and Luetkehans (1997) suggest, “The great majority of adults learning at a distance were reported to be in the 20-40 age range and studying on a part-time basis from their homes while maintaining full-time jobs” (p. 13). Institutions should capitalize on this knowledge and experience of their distance students in order to create an optimal learning environment; the student advisory board contributes greatly to this environment.

Institutional goals and objectives must be clearly defined and how these will be met according to an institutional timeline must be established. Again, the distance student advisory board contributes to the formation and ongoing assessment of the goals and objectives. The institution’s right hand must know every move the left hand is making, to avoid problems such as incorrect billing for out-of-state fees, requiring identification cards when a student may never be on campus to acquire one, inconvenient course scheduling, sudden technological changes in course delivery, among others. Student complaints often revolve around a serious lack of institutional coherence and efficiency, noting that calls (often long distance if a toll free number has not been implemented) must be made to numerous offices in attempts to find the “right person” for their particular questions. An institution must maintain a clear line of contact for questions related specifically to distance education. In the planning stages, institutions would be wise to identify the staff contacts for particular issues and make this listing extremely easy to find and use; such a listing should be maintained on the institution’s distance education Web page and it should be mailed to every student with each semester’s registration materials. Include such contacts as:

  1. Registration Questions

  2. Billing Questions

  3. Financial Aid Questions

  4. Course Access/Technical Questions

  5. Library Services

  6. Student Services (Advising, Book Store)

Ideally, an “800” number will allow students to be transferred to the appropriate contact at no additional cost to the student. Since 24/7 human contact is most likely impossible, a voice recording of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and answers should be available. A separate “Network Operations” phone line should exist and alert students to scheduled down-times or unexpected network crashes. If students are unable to access their online course, they should know why and for approximately how long. If institutions do consider themselves as remote, time zones should be irrelevant and complete access should be readily available for anyone at any time. This is a service model towards which institutions are moving.

In addition, institutions should have mandatory staff briefings on their distance education programs, so any individual is competent in answering questions or referring students to the appropriate person. Staff should be aware of distance offerings at the program, course, and non-degree levels; residency, differences in tuition or billing, technology requirements, computer/information literacy requirements must be understood. By allowing the distance student advisory board to assist in the staff briefings through video streams or net conferencing, staff will become immersed in the student-centered perspective and realize that there are many questions students consider that the institution never has. Even if an individual is far-removed from the operations of the distance program, she or he should be aware of the institutional commitment to and investment in distance education. This is the systemic change towards which institutions committed to distance education will move.

Moreover, ongoing needs assessment, virtual focus groups, and pre- and post-course surveys should be administered regularly so institutions remain informed and able to meet the shifting needs of distance students. In particular, the surveys should be available on the distance education Web page and should ask for questions, concerns, or needs of students ahead of time. Returning students could offer suggestions based on previous experience. Anticipation of problems is key in the distance environment: time is of the essence. As many involved in distance education know, if a problem causes a student to fall behind in course work, it becomes very difficult to catch up in the fast-paced DE environment. The post-course survey would offer an opportunity for students to evaluate the course, the professor, and the institution, and encourage students’ suggestions for improvement. Of note, since many faculty are learning how to teach online as they do it, student recommendations for faculty provide significant information.

The maintenance of a distinct distance education Web page proves critical. These Web pages should follow the guidelines of the Center for Applied Special Technology for Accessibility (1997). Students should have multiple means of access, including text-only versions of Web pages, voice recordings, and easy access from the lowest modem rate connections and computers that are not only state of the art. As the Web Accessibility Initiative points out, “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect” (http://www.w3.org/WAI/). While many online course programs, including Blackboard, WebCT, and Top Class currently fail to comply with the accessibility guidelines, institutions should be demanding accessible software from vendors and requesting significant improvements in this area. The main distance education information pages are distinct from the Student Services Web page described below, though both sites should be consistent in content, layout, form, and function. Institutions may also wish to implement a standard template for course design, based on the look and feel of the public Web pages, while still allowing faculty artistic and intellectual individuality. Students will appreciate some conformity and standards among course logins and modules.

Finally, institutions must ensure that students have immediate access to all pertinent institutional information, including student handbooks (a separate distance student handbook is encouraged), policy guidelines, support services, contact information, and any other formal materials. While these should be posted online, a paper copy must be sent to all distance students immediately after the student contacts the institution for information.

Understand Distance Education and Its Specificity

As noted above, institutions must identify their key players in the distance programs early on and staff briefings on the state of distance education should be offered regularly. In order for distance students’ needs to be served in the best possible way, faculty, librarians, and other key players at the host institution need to understand and embrace distance education and its particularities. Individuals responsible for working with the distance programs must be introduced to its pedagogical specificity, characteristics of students, technological mechanisms used in the course offerings, and the distance program in general.

Understanding and staying informed are critical. Institutions and individuals responsible for administering distance programs must become advocates for distance education at the host institution and work to promote quality and best practices throughout all aspects of the program. Anyone involved must believe in what they are doing. Students quickly recognize when an instructor or institution as a whole is disengaged from the philosophy of distance education. All key players must receive appropriate training and institutions should be prepared to hire more staff to meet the labor intensity of distance education programming. Depending on the size of the institution, number of students enrolled in the distance programs, number of courses available, and support structures within individual programs, institutions can formulate an appropriate ratio of support staff.

Likewise, students embarking on distance education should be aware of the pedagogical specificity of this form of education. Buchanan (2000) has suggested that students and faculty engage in pre-assessment tests to determine their suitability in a web-based environment. Institutions may want to be less formal and instead have a question on application materials that simply asks, “Why is distance education right for you?”[2] . This will encourage distance students to consider their commitment to distance education in a nonthreatening manner. Guest access to online courses, with prospective students encouraged to examine a course prior to enrollment is recommended in order to allow students to make informed decisions concerning the appropriateness of distance education for them.

[2]Thanks to David Jordan for this succinct question.

IMPLEMENTATION

Efficient and Effective Communication and Support

Distance students rely on efficient communication in the forms of email, chat rooms, toll-free phone lines, faxes, or other electronic means as their academic lifelines. Lack of clear communication feeds into student dissatisfaction and ultimately, attrition. As more institutions and for-profit ventures offer distance education, students do not have to settle for inadequate services—they have choices and will explore them if an institution cannot or will not meet their needs.

A 24/7 service should be offered. Institutions should advise students to leave their time zone when making requests or inquiries so proper response times can be established. As part of staff development, individuals should learn the basics of computer-mediated communication. For instance, in the library setting, librarians should be trained on virtual bibliographic instruction, including virtual reference interviews. Individuals working with distance students must learn more effective interviewing techniques in the absence of voice intonation or facial and body expression.

Academic advisors working with distance students must learn the emerging legal issues surrounding student records privacy. Advisors should exercise caution when sending personal information to a distance student who uses a family email account, for instance. Headers indicating “This message is intended for—and may contain confidential information for that individual only” should be used. All correspondence should be thoroughly documented, and upon completion of telephone discussions with distance students, advisors or other individuals should write a report of the conversation, send it to the student for confirmation, and place it in the student file.

Importantly too, advisors must explore creative ways of advising students at a distance, many of whom are changing careers. Institutions must consider video streams and/or archived video files of student services such as resume writing, job hunting, and the like.

To assist with student advising and peer networking, institutions should develop a voluntary peer mentor system. This is simple and extremely cost- effective: The institutional distance education coordinator maintains a database of students and their status in the program (how many courses taken) and he/she will coordinate pairs of mentor/mentees. When a new student enrolls, he/she should be paired with a veteran DE student who has agreed to serve as a mentor. Emails and phone numbers should be exchanged. The mentor can share process advice, technological advice, and student support. Remember that attrition rates remain high in distance education programs (See for instance, Terry, 2001; Carr, 2000; Morgan & Tam, 1999); this peer relationship may help curb this by providing an informal networking and peer support system within a program. The mentee can feel comfortable asking a peer for advice on the ins and outs of the DE program, securing materials, course participation, and maneuvering through the institutional channels.

Finally, distance students need syllabi, reading lists, other resources lists, and course access available at least three weeks prior to the inception of a class. Faculty teaching distance education must be alerted to this, and they must be able to comply; teaching online requires great planning, organization, and forethought. Faculty cannot expect to “wing it” online, and an institutional commitment to a rigorous timeline for distance programs may alleviate many common complaints of online faculty and coursework. While faculty may complain about this additional burden, preparedness is a major key in successful distance education.

This enables students to prepare, gather materials through whatever means necessary, work out technical glitches in access and course participation, and be ready to engage in the actual learning process when the course begins. Since many distance students need to acquire course materials through interlibrary loan, purchase through an online or campus bookstore, or download materials from online resources, three weeks provides ample time. If faculty recognize that they have large files to download, a CD-ROM or other format option should be available.

Student-to-Student Services

In addition to student mentoring, the host institution should establish a course module for Student-to-Student Services for use only by students. This is a place where students can sell or trade course texts with each other, share group information; it serves as a virtual lounge. The Student Services site is both formal and informal, serving to unite distance students in a friendly way, as well as serving as a formal point of information dissemination.

FAQs (in nontechnical language) can be posted within the module; course schedules, syllabi and readings lists, and other institutional information can be disseminated easily. Anonymous postings on a bulletin board should be allowed, however, guidelines for responsible and appropriate use of the forums must be established. Distance students should have the same safe place to talk about instructors, courses, or other issues as on-site students who whisper to each other before or after classes in the hallways. The distance education coordinator should monitor the module and update it regularly, however, the coordinator must respect the rights and privacy of distance students’ and their communications.

To keep this student site most effective, define the goals and objectives of the site, and remain focused on that audience and those objectives as the site materializes. The distance student advisory board will be active in the creation and ongoing revisions of the site. All distance students should be polled on what kinds of information they would find useful and valuable on the site, and key players from the institution should be polled on the types of questions to which they frequently respond.

The site must comply with accessibility guidelines, and it must be designed based on feedback from distance students and graduates. Keep the perspective entirely student-centered. Do a rough web-ready version of the general structure and post it to the Web and ask your student advisory board to provide feedback. Revise as needed. The site should be readily available to students, and it should be a “one-stop shop.” Ongoing maintenance is requisite, and in the institutional goals and objectives, a revision schedule for the student services website must be established and adhered to. Continue to be mindful of the initial objectives and audience so that the site does not gradually stray from its intended purpose.[3]

[3]Thanks to Lori Pesik for her suggestions here.

LIBRARY AND INFORMATION RESOURCES

Finally, library services and support for distance education must be considered. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ guidelines (1998) define distance education library services as “those library services in support of college, university, or other post-secondary courses and programs offered away from a main campus, or in the absence of a traditional campus, and regardless of where credit is given…The phrase is inclusive of courses in all post-secondary programs designated as: extension, extended, off-campus, extended campus, distance, distributed, open, flexible, franchising, virtual, synchronous or asynchronous.” The ACRL’s guidelines are a major step in the appropriate provision of services for distance students. They address eight main areas:

  1. Management

  2. Finances

  3. Personnel

  4. Facilities

  5. Resources

  6. Services

  7. Documentation

  8. Library Education

Ultimately, the guidelines call for libraries and information centers to assume a new-found and prominent role in light of distance education. Libraries are integral to the institution as a whole and should work in close collaboration with their parent institutions in the development and delivery of distance education. Just as libraries must engage in collection development for any institutional programs, the library must be active in determining how it will meet the needs of off-campus students through collection development. As distance education continues to lack credence in some circles, a proactive library and library staff can contribute to a sound pedagogical experience for students by ensuring high-quality, scholarly materials in a number of formats. It cannot be assumed that distance students can acquire scholarly materials easily through their local libraries or “online.” Mechanisms must be established to ensure quality resources for all students.

Partnerships and Relationships with Multiple Libraries

While politics and the mighty dollar still prohibit true resource sharing across states and even within states, advances are being made through different means such as the Z39.50 information retrieval protocol, interlibrary loans, and commercial enterprises. The impetus falls on the delivering institution, however, to contact local libraries where their distance students live, and to provide information on the types of resources that would be needed locally for the student. Depending on the size of the distance education program, this may prove impossible, but institutions must recognize that they need to support the student. If the institutional library does not make resources available electronically or through delivery mechanisms, some formal channels of communication should occur to provide a solid library and information resource base. For instance, the Open University partners with the Indiana University library system, and other consortial agreements are emerging as beneficial for meeting distance education students’ information needs.

Electronic Resources Available Easily and Efficiently

More specifically, libraries can engage in best practices that will provide efficient and effective use by their distance students. A reliable electronic reserve system should be established with respect to the emerging copyright laws (see the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for details). The e-reserve system must be kept updated, with each semester’s materials available well ahead of the course inception (three weeks). The system’s downtime, if any, must be minimal, with advance notice to students of the scheduled downtime. Information concerning the library’s network should be updated on the “Network Operations” line mentioned earlier.

Documents available for electronic reserve must be of superior quality; the scans should be done at the highest possible resolution, with large documents separated into parts, with file size indicated. Articles’ “black space,” the result of poor photocopying, should be trimmed to save students’ printer ink. Provide a chart of download times for different access rates. If a student cannot obtain the electronic reserve materials, mechanisms for sending a paper copy or CD-ROM must be in place.

Students must have 24/7 access to online indexes and databases, preferably full text if possible. Importantly, the library must know what programs and courses are available throughout the institution so that temporary license agreements can be established if students will need particular resources. Verification of students can be ensured through proxy servers or other secure logins. Automation systems that allow browsing of “shelves” and in particular, tables of contents are desirable. Catalogers are now regularly using a variable length contents field (the 505 field) for MARC records that enables tables of contents to be included in records. This is particularly valuable for distance students who may need to request a book, only to receive it two weeks later to find it is inappropriate. Libraries may also want to explore links to book reviews and other authoritative sources within their circulation systems.

The library should follow the guidelines established by the institution closely, adhering to accessible Web pages, a toll-free line for reference requests, appropriate mechanisms for borrowing privileges (which should be longer for distance students than on-site students)—and clear points of contact and information. Libraries would be wise to employ a full-time distance education librarian[4] who serves actively throughout the institution on committees and curriculum groups. The distance education librarian must be able to coordinate resources, services, and materials, as well as serve a liaison between students and computer resources. He or she will be conversant with the “techies” but also able to articulate clearly to students who may need assistance with the technological aspects of library use. The distance education librarian should hold virtual bibliographic instruction sessions at the inception of each semester. These sessions should be videotaped or digitally recorded so students are comfortably literate with the library and its online resources; these should be available for circulation, ensuring multiple copies are available, or download. Finally, libraries must be committed to implementing a synchronous chat room and email line for ready reference and other “quick” questions. Services for database searching should be available at a cost not prohibitive to students.

With the rapid changes impacting libraries, these strategies may become quickly obsolete. Librarians are encouraged to keep up with revisions and announcements from the ACRL, attend distance education conferences, and remain committed to proactive communication, visibility on campus, and to serving distance education students with library and information resources in the best possible ways.

[4]Librarians are encouraged to take courses such as “Library and Information Resources and Services for Distance Education” to learn strategies, procedures, resources, and instructional techniques for serving distance students. Traditional library and information science coursework does not address distance services directly, thus, elective courses are advised.

SUGGESTED TIMELINE FOR INSTITUTIONAL PLANNING

In the best scenario, an institution will have close to a year of preparation time before the inception of courses. This preparation time will allow staff to be trained and/or hired, marketing and recruitment efforts implemented, and departments, library and computer services revised and reorganized. Many institutions of higher education will also need to work with curriculum committees, accreditation bodies, and graduate schools for online course approval. This will vary by institution.

Unfortunately, most institutions will not have a year of planning and preparation. A strategic plan of action is recommended, in which priorities are established and implementation plans arranged. The strategic plan, which will impact all layers of the institution and must be coordinated.

 

Table 1: The five steps

Step One

Faculty and staff training and awareness of distance education pedagogy and specificity. This is truly a top level priority, as lack of commitment and embrace of distance education shows to students. A superficial attempt at launching a distance program is worse than no attempt at all.

Step Two

Establish advisory boards and conduct focus groups to develop institutional policies. Include major stakeholders from various facets of the institution. Develop a mission, strategic plan, institutional objectives and goals, and a timeline for meeting these.

Stage Three

Prepare the library and computing services for the new programs. The question is not will additional resources and personnel be required, but how much and of what type? Institutions may implement an additional fee structure for distance tuition to offset some of the additional personnel lines and resources.

Stage Four

Design, develop, and go public with distance student services web pages and be sure to include the requisite information, including course schedules projected to at least one year out. Be certain the web pages are updated frequently and reflect an accessible, student-centered perspective.

Stage Five

Ongoing needs assessment, revision, review of institutional goals and objectives and their completion, new programs and courses brought online, ongoing marketing and recruitment—all done in close consultation with Student Advisory Board and focus groups. A sample checklist is included in Appendix A.

CONCLUSIONS

This chapter has offered various strategies for best serving distance education students. They are certain to change as distance education itself evolves, but it provides a strategic starting point for planning and implementation of distance education. With the library as an integral component in student success, various library strategies were described. Each institution would be wise to consider these strategies, assemble your student advisory group, and embark on a needs assessment. This will be an ongoing process—your institutional work will not end once your programs or courses are online. Consider and maintain the student perspective, for it is the students who will make or break your distance education initiatives; be ready to embrace change, and most importantly, embrace the philosophy of distance education. The challenges will not stop, but you will be armed with solutions and strategies for efficacious distance education.

REFERENCES

Association of College and Research Libraries. (1998). ACRL Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services. Chicago: ALA.

Buchanan, E. (2000). Assessment measures: Pretests for successful distance teaching and learning? Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 2(4). Available on the World Wide Web at: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/buchanan24.html.

Carr, S. (2000). As distance education comes of age, the challenge is keeping the students. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(23), A39-A41.

Center for Applied Special Technology. (1997). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Available on the World Wide Web at: http://www.w3.org/WAI/.

Morgan, C. and Tam, M. (1999). Unraveling the complexities of distance education student attrition. Distance Education-An International Journal, 20(1), 96-108.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1997). Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions. Available on the World Wide Web at: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/distance/.

Schrum, L. and Luetkehans, L. (1997). A Primer on Distance Education :Considerations for Decision Makers. Washington, DC: AECT.

Terry, N. (2001). Assessing enrollment and attrition rates for the online MBA. T.H.E. Journal, 28(7), 64-69.

APPENDIX A: SAMPLE INSTITUTIONAL CHECKLIST

Goal/Objective/Action

Stakeholders Involved

Budget Allocation

Date Completed

Next Steps

Faculty and staff have received appropriate training.

Institutional Distance Education Committee and Student Advisory Board established.

Institutional goals, objectives, and plans established with reasonable timeline for completion.

Departments and programs oriented to distance education services and provisions.

Marketing plans implemented.

Student services, materials and web pages created and made available.

Schedule for ongoing assessment and review established and supported throughout the institution.