Published on 2014/08/14

How to Shape Services to Match Student Needs

How to Shape Services to Match Student Needs
The first step to ensuring online and hybrid students feel connected to the campus is understanding their particular needs and expectations, as this information will shape the types of services they need.
Online learning can feel like a long trip through a lonely desert, even in the best-designed online classes. Support services are usually available, but adjusting to a virtual services structure can be daunting for those new to the world of digitized instruction. All institutions provide infrastructure support and wraparound services, but it’s difficult to replicate a building-based services structure when you don’t have the building. After all, you can see a building as you walk to class — the student has a clear place — but this is not as easy online.

What and how to deliver services virtually is the first question, and the second is always: if you build those virtual services, will they come?

For example, we can create virtual learning networks, social networks (such as LinkedIn, secure Facebook pages and groups and Snapchat), Wikis and communicate through Skype, blogs, instant messaging, virtual reality and many more online services. But the challenge is motivating students to use the service provided. Why do students often miss tutoring or library help when it’s offered virtually, or simply refuse to reach out for virtual advising?

Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions and creating services to answer those wrong questions. Maybe the question to ask students is about what’s relevant to their specific learning and life experiences. Virtual, digital and online students, as well as their traditional, face-to-face counterparts, learn and work in different styles. Most online students work asynchronously and are not time bound other than due dates and log on requirements. These students plan their times for work and research. But even for synchronous students, social media and on-demand smart services are common. Some of the questions to help guide an institution on the services they should provide could seek to understand their student information literacy demographic and the challenges of having students from different generations and technology orientations.

A blog may work for some groups, Facebook for others and certain groups will only use the learning management system (LMS). Part of the answer may lie in course design. For example, course designs could be structured to guide students into other resources such as writing workshops, where the draft with corrections becomes part of the assignment. This shows the student actually used the writing lab. Integrating social learning with a class that requires research on geography is another example.

What we may be missing, though, are the contemporary ways our students get regular information; we could call it social research with information literacy defining their ability. Before the Internet, we got information from local newspapers and specialized journals. We had to go to a physical place called a library to find our research sources. In other words, we needed to get something or go somewhere for information. Current education, pedagogy and andragogy are all based on dated models for research and information sourcing that weren’t built with the modern student’s information literacy or social research in mind.

Information-literate students are those who do a Google search on a smart device the second they have a question, rather than traverse to a book, a place or a library to determine which journal or other media research to peruse for the answer. We could say college education has not caught up to contemporary practices of information literacy and social research. There are stories of students using smart phones to answer questions, but much fewer about faculty using Twitter in a course.

Students enter college with greater research ability in their hands than ever before and with an ability to consume large amounts of chunked data. Yet our current models often revolve around going somewhere and clicking some link. They are much less organic than the fluidity of the sourcing being done on a daily basis. We’re thinking of services we would have liked when we were in school having the technology we have now, rather than what today’s students need based on their information literacy aptitude and daily research practices. Ask a student a question, now see how many pick up a smart phone to locate a place, get an answer, or drill down through a series of URLs to learn about some remote topic. Why aren’t we redefining education, learning and research using the new paradigms our students already possess?

Victims of our training, unable to jump out of the box of our pedigree, or just comfortable with what worked for us; there are a number of reasons. But are any valid enough to not change?

As colleges try to determine the best services for students, we may want to study what students do in their personal lives that can transfer to what we need for them to do to learn. Build services that are not time bound, link bound or building based; create seamless services built into curricula that don’t look like the service structure of old.

Social learning will change how the LMS of the future will look and how new resources are provided in new ways for students. If we’re going to see fewer higher education institutions in the coming years, the remaining ones are going to need streamlined, seamless and cost-effective resources that are not labor intensive but highly productive and delivered to a mobile device.

To make students feel connected, we need to make them feel heard and make services relevant to their needs … not the needs of students 20 years ago.

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Readers Comments

Stacy Wong, PhD 2014/08/14 at 12:25 pm

I appreciate Dull’s point about how we often ask the wrong question and, consequently, get the wrong answers from adult students. I would say most institutions could have a better process for seeking feedback from current and former students, and then implementing them in a way that’s recognizable to the target audience. Perhaps some people can share their best practices for collecting this type of info in the comments below.

Ellen Ramsay 2014/08/15 at 6:48 am

I agree with the example of social media, and how we tend to jump to conclusions about what our students need simply because “everyone else is doing it.” In practice, it’s as much about the individuals in the course as it is the subject matter. I teach a lower-level political science course and there have been times I’ve used Twitter and times when I took the account offline because none of my students wanted to engage on that channel. The key is to review your course every semester and make changes or implement new tools only when needed. It’s a bit more work at the start of a semester, to really figure out what will work for this particular cohort, but worth the effort.

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