Learner Experience and Support

Learner Concierge Services

Most successful online programs have excellent customer service, though it is referred to by different names.  Many programs use the terminology “Advisor” like Southern New Hampshire University; Western Governors University uses a “Student Mentor” who is attached to the learner throughout their entire degree program.

This is typically set apart from an intake team, which would be more attached to the recruitment function.  In institutions who have successfully scaled online programs, it is typically a “caseload” approach whereby the advisor or learner concierge-type role is attached to a group of learners that they are with through the entirety of their degree program, coordinating the back end processes in order to be a single Point of Contact (POC) for the learner.  This insulates the learner from having to go separately to individual departments, where things often get dropped in between departments.  These other departments that a learner would interact with includes:

  • Financial Aid
  • Registrar
  • Bursar
  • Academic Support
  • Accessibility Services

Centralizing that POC for the learner provides a simple, streamlined customer service experience for the learner.  As the marketplace of fully online programs continues to grow, it also attracts more and more institutions looking to serve the post-traditional learner, and, in many cases, to support declining on-campus enrollments.  This additional competition has pushed the learner expectations for support.  Aligned with this, learners expect to be able to receive anytime/anywhere service and support, including self-service and chat functions.  More about that in the technology discussions.

Learning Experience

The learning experience is perhaps the most central to the actual “business” of higher education:  providing high-quality learning experiences that provide the learner with relevant KSADs (Knowledge, Skills, Abilities and Dispositions) in order to be successful in future endeavors.  Fully online programs that scale typically support robust learning experiences through centrally designed and developed courses, whereby instructional designers (or Learning Experience Designers) work with faculty or SMEs (short for Subject Matter Experts) to create consistent, high-quality courses.

In institutions that don’t have robust online programs, oftentimes faculty design and develop courses independent of a central support function, in many cases without even instructional design resources or faculty training.  This is particularly problematic for accessibility.  Many institutions are out of compliance with accessibility requirements that are in law as applied to Section 504 of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act,) as well as the RA (Rehabilitation Act).  Title II and Title III of ADA apply to both public institutions, those that receive federal funding, and “places of public accommodation”; in practice this means that accessibility requirements apply across all online learning experiences and websites.  The criteria for compliance is pro-active rather than reactive in online environments.  Faculty and institutions cannot wait until after learners need accommodations; instead courses need to be accessible on the front end[i].

Disability-Related Civil Rights Laws[ii]

From the CAST website:  http://udloncampus.cast.org/page/policy_legal#.WyWPxKczrD4

In addition to accessibility concerns, there are pedagogical (or rather andragogical) practices that are different in online environments.  Active learning, high-impact practices, and even the User Interface (UI) of the learning environment contribute to learner success.

The below section is drawn from Quality in Online Learning, Instructional Design and Professional Development (S. Thackaberry, 2015).

Within a course-specific context, Smith, Jaggars & Xu (2013) organized these into four primary themes “(1) the extent to which the course interface is well organized and easy to navigate; (2) the clarity of learning objectives and performance standards; (3) the strength and diversity of interpersonal interaction; and (4) the extent to which technology is effectively used” (p. 7).  A wide variety of evidence supports each of these components, however social engagement in the online environment was heavily supported in being a critical component to student success – both learner to faculty (e.g., Arbaugh, 2001; Picciano, 2002; Young, 2006) and learner to learner (e.g., Bangert, 2006; Matthew, Felvegi, & Callaway, 2009; Balaji & Chakrabarti, 2010) (as cited in Smith, Jaggars & Xu, 2013, p. 10).  The authors noted that

“…while it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions due to our small sample size, it seems that courses in which the instructor posted frequently, invited student questions through a variety of modalities, responded to student queries quickly, solicited and incorporated student feedback, and (perhaps most importantly) demonstrated a sense of “caring” created an online environment that encouraged students to commit themselves to the course and perform stronger academically” (Smith Jaggars & Xu, 2013, p. 26).

There are many quality tools that are used to guide quality instructional design practices, along these, Quality Matters is a leader in the field.  They have a rubric and a process, both designed to proactively create high-quality courses and to ensure quality control.

Academic integrity is also a concern.  In particular, ensuring that learners are who they say they are, ensuring that the individual who is being assessed is the learner taking the course are both critical.  Remote proctoring and plagiarism checkers [iii]can support the latter, however only robust authentication generally ensures the former.[iv]

Academic & Wraparound Support

There are many different types of academic support that are needed to set learners up for success in online courses and programs, much like those that are needed for on-campus learners.  Some distinctions in the types of services are obviously focused on delivery mechanism – these services need to be online.

Cuyahoga Community College, through a Title III grant, created a recap of the components they put into place in order to support an infrastructure for success for online learners.  Most of this pertains to those support services – also called Virtual Student Support.

As indicated, these types of services include:

  • Student Advising
  • eTutoring
  • Academic Interventions
  • Library Services
  • Accessibility Services
  • Health Services
  • Participation in Virtual Events, etc.

A couple examples of how these services can be centrally displayed to learners are below.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[i] Smith, Jaggars, S., & Xu, D. (2013). Predicting online student outcomes from a measure of course quality (57). Retrieved from Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University website: http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/predicting-online-student-outcomes-and-course-quality.html

[ii] http://udloncampus.cast.org/page/policy_legal#.WyWPxKczrD4

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism_detection

[iv] https://library.educause.edu/resources/2016/5/7-things-you-should-know-about-remote-proctoring