Behind LX: Environments and Support

eLearning Environment

The eLearning environment is often referred to as an ecosystem now.  The shift to describing it as an ecosystem is in reference to the many interdependencies between elements that must interact in order to create a robust learning environment.  There are different philosophies behind eLearning environments, from that which is highly restricted – or a “Walled Garden” approach, to that which is explicitly open, whereby faculty and learners utilize distributed options for technology.  This article, from 2014, illustrates the differences in philosophies.  You will note two things:  (1) though it was written in 2014, it is just as relevant today, as eLearning technologies within institutions have not evolved much, and (2) different types of institutions will lean towards different philosophies.

Read Phil Hill’s article, Opening Up the LMS Walled Garden. If you have a problem with the link, find a backup copy here.

In institutions with large online programs, the responsibilities for the eLearning environment are often parsed into two components, whereby the instructional technology, or academic technology components reside within Academics, and the technical back end resides within Information Technology.   Many institutions with a smaller emphasis in online learning have one academic technology department that serves on-campus and online programs and faculty.

Saint Leo University combines academic technology, innovation, learning design and support into one division.

The University of Alabama’s Office of Information Technology runs a Faculty Resource Center that supports their learning technologies, including Blackboard, Blackboard Collaborate, Box, Respondus, Tegrity, Turnitin, Voicethread and others.  Check out this example from Brandman University, which also has combined instructional design, innovation, and academic technology divisions. Note the many different roles and associated titles necessary to support online learning at scale.

The below visual provides a representation of the types of technologies that articulate in a robust learning environment.

Graphic representing how the LMS needs many ancillary tools to plug into it.

You will note that in the above illustration, each of those integrations is an opportunity to track, store, and access actionable data.  Though data is not explicitly addressed here, it is a critical component of an overall successful online learning program.  In fact, without tracking user data, it is difficult to know what learners are “getting out” of any particular resource or interaction.  Intervening at the right point in the learning journey can positively impact learner retention and success.

Faculty Support

Faculty support is inextricably interwoven to the other aspects of the “Behind the Scenes” necessary to support online programs.  Faculty support is representative of a range of services, including:

  • Professional development on instructional/learning experience design
  • Training on how to use technologies associated with online learning
  • Technical support (help desk)

Nearly all institutions that have successfully scaled online education require faculty training in order to teach online.  As such, professional development is a core component of such support.  Sometimes this includes development on how to serve as a SME (Subject Matter Expert) as part of a design team or partnership.

Explore the Online Teaching page at Kent State University.  Take a look at the types of professional development offered.  Note that traditionally, faculty technical support is still routed through an IT department.  

Examples of some faculty sites for teaching and learning can be seen below:


Check out this under-one-minute video tour of the support website at Louisiana State University:


Use of Quality Tools for Professional Development

Quality tools such as the Quality Matters rubric can be a foundation of professional development.  How are these quality tools utilized institutionally to raise the quality of online and blended or hybrid courses?  A variety of professional development offerings, supports, designs and models have been implemented across the range of institutions of higher education to improve learning and teaching in online environments.  Of chief academic officers who participated in the Babson Research Study Grade Level:  Tracking Online Education in the U.S., only 28% indicated that their faculty “accept the “value and legitimacy of online education,” a rate substantially the same as it was in 2003″ (Allen & Seaman, 2015, p. 6). This lack of belief in the effectiveness of online education – despite a depth and breadth of evidence to the contrary – presents a cultural challenge to a robust change effort to holistically improve student success online.  Many colleges have discovered effective ways for implementing professional development to positively impact student outcomes.

Research on the impact of professional development on student outcomes has largely indicated that professional development has a positive effect on student outcomes (Stes, Gijbels, & Petegem, 2012).  The wide variety in breadth, depth, methodology and engagement in professional development programs for faculty may contribute to the difficulty in determining which types of professional development programs are most effective.  A recent study on instructional development in university tutors found little impact on students’ learning outcomes (Stes et al, 2012).  An earlier study on the effectiveness of professional development programs on student outcomes using the Approaches to Teaching Inventory (ATI) indicated some improvement following the professional development program, but that the effect “was not strong or very distinct” (Stes, Coertjens, & Petegem, 2009, p. 201).

Herman (2012) notes that the professional development provided currently by teaching and learning centers and departments within higher education is regarded by faculty as either “average” or “below average.”  Herman reviewed twenty-five faculty professional development programs for teaching online.  The results of the study indicated that many institutions are offering programs in a variety of formats.  Some were using existing quality assurance programs like Quality Matters.  The professional development programs fell into one of six primary categories:  “(1) institutionally-supported self-teaching opportunities, (2) peer mentoring, (3) collaborative course design, (4) workshops, (5) online training, and (6) quality assurance evaluation programs” (Herman, 2012, p. 88).

Notwithstanding the wide variety of quality of professional development for faculty, there is still substantive evidence that it is critical to student success.  Responding to the needs of online teachers through effective professional development programs in higher education has a strong association with the quality of online programs (Baran & Correia, 2014).  A study of the results of implementing training for faculty in the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – one of the set of tools analyzed here – indicated that students’ perceptions changed about how their instructors share content, engaged with students, and enabled students to demonstrate their learning as a result of their intervention (Schelly, Davies & Spooner, 2011).

It is not simply the presence of professional development programs for quality teaching in online courses that results in improved student outcomes, but rather that the design and delivery of such professional development is instrumental to the success of the program itself.  Matching the professional development to the institution is critical; there is no “one size fits all” effective professional development recipe (Lieberman, 2005). Current programs typically offer training in multiple modalities and methodologies like workshops, short training sessions, one-on-one assistance, and hands-on activities (Meyer & Murrell, 2014).  Some consistent themes from research into existing professional development programs has emerged.  The content areas of instructional design, assessment, creating community in online environments, student learning styles, and the more technical skills associated with teaching in a Learning Management System are those most commonly found within professional development programs (Myer et al., 2014).

Centers of learning and teaching have developed in many higher education institutions.  They were created in response to the need to positively impact student success from a pedagogical perspective.  The move to these types of centers for professional development shifted the focus from “teaching” to one of “learning” – away from information delivery and towards social constructivism.  One element that is seen frequently among the professional development programs from these centers is an emphasis on reflective practice (Lieberman, 2005).  Reflective practice has been utilized in professional development programs as a tool to improve teaching skills and student outcomes.  How reflective practice is utilized varies widely, though there is general agreement that it can positively impact learning and teaching (Hubball, Collins & Pratt, 20015).

Review the examples of faculty professional development on this page here.

Academic and Wrap-Around Support

In the college and university environments, quality online programs offer robust learner support.  Some learning models in higher education, like MOOCs and micro-credentials, offer very little in the way of human-based support, or have differentiated financial models whereby support, feedback, and assessments are available to learners who pay for the course, but individuals could also audit a course and receive the “bare bones” version.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of what support services are available.  It’s important to note that support services take a variety of terms – everything from Virtual Student Support to Online Student Services, and several other terms in between!  In many cases, support services designed for online learners are also gaining adoption from on-campus learners, as the anytime/anywhere aspect of the support is quickly becoming both a consumer expectation, and is also a necessity of modern life.  Remember that the post-traditional learner often targeted for online programs oftentimes both works and has a family.  Traditional “business hours” aren’t relevant to their lives – they need help to meet them where they are.

Support services include:

  • eTutoring
  • Career Services
  • Academic Advising
  • Orientation
  • FYE (First Year Experience)
  • Accessibility Centers

Typically technical help is also provided as a resource, as is the library.

Valencia College

Valencia offers a range of support services online.  Check out their website that lists their support services here.

Penn State World Campus

Penn State University has a large online presence called World Campus.  Some of the support services available at Penn State World Campus are described in this selection from their site quoted below.

We can help you:

— get started by walking you through the course application process, including identifying the required supporting documentation; finding financial aid, scholarships, and other types of financial support; and preparing you for learning in an online environment

— use our University systems so you can access course syllabi and assignments; interact with professors and peers; make tuition payments; get your textbooks and software through the online bookstore; and use the University Libraries system, the 9th largest research library in North America, with a collection of more than 662 online research databases, 386,000 e-books, 105,000 scholarly journals (many available online and in full text) and 7.3 million print materials (books, maps, CDs, DVDs, and more) available for check out.

— take advantage of resources for online students including undergraduate advising, career counseling, exam proctoring, tech support, and tutoring in writing and several math-related fields.

— link with communities and special services for military members and veterans, international students, alumni, corporate education, students with disabilities, and those transferring from other universities and colleges

— stay connected in the Penn State community by keeping you up-to-date with events, important dates, and Penn State news

— determine if Transitions, a college and career prep class is a good fit for you. Participants in the nine-week course offered free of charge are selected after a discussion with the faculty. Structured like a standard online course, Transitions eases students back into the learning environment, while helping to improve basic skills, such as computer, study skills and research. The course also provides resources for understanding financial aid and career planning. An admissions counselor can tell you more about possible involvement in the course.

Watch this video on their support services.