Online Education – A Step to Improving User Support Services – Education Service

Developing a world-class online education program requires more than just a good delivery system. All too frequently, newcomers to online education consider only the technical aspects of what they need to offer such courses. They neglect the human infrastructure necessary to maintain and support online programs.For example, a recent survey conducted by the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications found that nearly 40 percent of institutions that offered distance learning via technology reported they relied on faculty to provide technical support to students. This is definitely not advisable, and obviously a poor use of faculty resources.Ideally, within the online environment, a student’s time is spent learning and faculty time is spent developing instruction and teaching courses. Both groups should have convenient access to support services. However, even with the easiest-to-use interfaces, users will continue to experience both technological and human barriers – knowledge and skills, for example that require ongoing attention, especially as the functionality of online education delivery systems continues to increase at such a rapid rate.Additionally, even with online materials that address common questions, a percentage of users will bypass this avenue and opt for a human response to questions, either by phone or by e-mail. There also are instances where users have more sophisticated questions that simply cannot be answered by a standard set of FAQ’s. As a result, “real life” user support services are part and parcel of any effective online education strategy.Moreover, the flexibility and convenience of online learning, teaching and learning independent of place and time has given rise to increased expectations about user support services. Users are expecting support to be available during the times they are teaching or learning, which is now 24 hours a day and seven days a week. As such, the quality of user support services in online education is far more complex than simply answering user questions.Borrowing from the service quality literature of Schneider & Bowen’s 1995 “Winning the Service Game,” the quality of user support can be viewed within the following four general categories:Reliability: How dependable and accurate are the support services provided?Responsiveness: How convenient, available and prompt are the support services?Assurance: How knowledgeable and professional are support staff?Empathy: How well do support staff understand the needs of users?Real Education has made it a point to develop a service climate that is sensitive to users’ expectations in these four service areas. For example, these aspects of service quality have been integrated into the performance management systems used for user support staff in our organization. In addition, both students and faculty can access professional support personnel 24 hours a day.Users have Web, e-mail and telephone options to receive support. We also offer face-to-face workshops for both students and instructors. Ultimately, however, it is up to the users to let us know the quality of our support services. As such, we ask users how well we are doing. We regularly gather feedback from users to see how well the services stack up to expectations through a service quality research plan. The results of this research then fuel our ongoing service improvement.If this sounds like a lot of work and resources, you are right. So, how can an institution cost effectively provide high-quality support services to faculty and students?Quite honestly, institutions will be hard pressed to provide on-campus cost-effective alternatives to what an outsourced partner can provide. That is why we are seeing more and more of these partnerships formed. In general, maintaining a highly skilled user support infrastructure both technological and human is expensive. However, this expense can be lessened by outsourcing to an organization that can defray the costs over a larger client base.Outsourced organizations also can better “afford” to have a constant supply of full-time trained staff always available to faculty and students, whereas it may be difficult for an institution to maintain the same staffing given the peaks and valleys in demand. Work is usually on a project basis and not constant; demand levels may vary with turnover in faculty and academic terms.Making service quality a part of how user support is provided can benefit institutions, organizations, students and instructors. Whether an institution can develop the human infrastructure necessary to maintain and support online programs, or it decides to outsource this component, quality user support services should be part of an institution’s overall online education plan.