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SOL (Support-on-Line)
Direct Academic Support for Distance Students

Reams of references and logs of data predict trends and breakthroughs in support services for distance learning students. In the midst of great debate over and dismissal of the Internet, the impact of technology on student support services is yet to be realized. With many noted precursors to the future of student services in community colleges, most agree that either/or is not the answer. In a recent study, Cross (2000) conducted an online survey of 50 community college educators representing the full range of student service functions and analyzed results according to a three-stage process: (1) Duplication (replication of existing services using technology tools); (2) Application (new experimentation and application of new technological uses); and (3) Transformation (full adoption of new technologies and new student service processes). Results of the survey indicate that the highest percentage of respondents (over 60%) are in the Duplication stage, while less than 20% of responses could be categorized as Transformational processes. Cross concludes that "student services must simultaneously diversify-as with registration which can be conducted in person, by mail, by on-campus kiosk, by off-campus Internet, or by telephone-and integrate, creating a seamless flow of information with many different entry points and options" (p.155). College faculty, staff, and administrators must find ways to accommodate student needs, often through thoughtful use of information technology, to develop structures that are unbound by time and space and that integrate multiple informational sources and delivery formats.

Amidst the conjecture that surrounds educational technology, Kirkwood Community College, through experience, application, and analysis, is recognizing distinct patterns among distance learning students and responding with new developments and services for online learners. Through a FIPSE-funded project, Kirkwood has created a team of service leaders and formed Support-on-Line (SOL) offering targeted services for online learners. Kirkwood faculty and student service leaders believe that many distance students encounter three primary problems that potentially result in their failure to thrive in college. First, they do not enjoy membership in a physical learning community; second, they often enroll in the wrong courses; and finally, academic support is less accessible in virtual life than in real life. Faced with these problems, many students fail to complete distance courses or fail out of the college environment. While some call for curbs on distance learning, the Support-on-Line (SOL) Project at Kirkwood Community College seeks to provide placement assistance, academic support, and a sense of community to help students succeed in online courses.

Development of SOL

At Kirkwood, as at many other colleges, a high percentage of distance students concurrently attend traditional classes on campus. In theory, that should make all on-campus student services readily available to them. In reality, many traditional students can be on campus only for their classes, leaving immediately to fulfill family or work obligations. Through conversations with faculty, advisors, academic support counselors and students, Kirkwood researchers identified a need to provide academic support in alternative formats.

The decision was made to select specific student services and apply them to specific classes offered both at a distance and in a traditional format. Faculty were surveyed regarding their interest, and courses were chosen based on the availability of willing faculty members, the typical completion rate of students in the course, and the participation of students in traditional sections in on-campus support.

SOL created support teams, led by selected course instructors, that consisted of a tutor, a supplemental instruction leader, and an advisor. Initially, three courses were targeted, Accounting I & II and Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. The accounting courses were chosen because data indicated they had a very low completion rate, regardless of format, and many accounting students were already seeking campus-based support. Anthropology was chosen because the completion rate was slightly above average, regardless of format. Theories were developed and questions raised regarding student service participation: Would the students in Anthropology be as hungry for assistance as students in Accounting, knowing they were currently not taking advantage of campus based support as often as Accounting students? Would online support make a significant difference in a class in which most students were already successful?

Project goals in Year 2 included the addition of Statistical Ideas, Payroll Accounting, Chemistry and Human Biology as online course support targets. All had fair to good completion rates, with students on campus seeking tutoring support at a higher average than for other courses in their respective departments. These factors seemed positive indicators that SOL services would be welcome.

Within the teams the faculty member's role was to mentor the advisor, tutor, and supplemental instruction (SI) leader to be good support for students in the class. The tutor provided help with specific assignments and the SI leader provided study skills and test-taking support that was specific to the discipline but not necessarily to the course. The advisor served as a resource for students before they enrolled in the class and as an expert in the options available should the student find the course not going well.

Results of SOL

Project staff conducted data analysis to determine what factors contribute to student success in distance delivered classes. Factors for success can be categorized under two distinctions: student-related and college-based.

In the scope of analysis, results demonstrated that only some of the factors influencing a student's success are college based. The most common reason students cited for failing or failing to complete a distance-delivered course is "personal problems that made it impossible to complete the work." These students often chose the distance format because they believed it would allow them to work around a specific short- or long-term barrier. However, once enrolled, they discovered that the obstacles that negatively affected their participation in a traditional class were as likely to have the same effect in a distance class. Staff used that information in advising students who elect this format and encounter personal problems.

The analysis also showed, however, that some factors are more college based. For example, students sometimes fail because the course expects a level of knowledge or skill, upon enrolling, students do not possess and do not realize they need for success in the course. For example, Introduction to Sociology requires the ability to research professional journals and report that information in a paper without plagiarizing or violating APA documentation guidelines. These are skills learned in first year composition courses, but those courses are not prerequisites for sociology.

Lessons Learned and Other Significant Findings

In spite of disappointingly small samples from which to draw data, it was clear that offering academic support to distance students via e-mail, a website and other electronic means was useful in increasing the number of students who stayed in the course. SOL services directly impacted persistence rates for online learners, but did not significantly change the average grade earned.

Student surveys indicated that many students appreciated having a resource for their distance course other than the instructor, and many expressed greater willingness to contact a tutor or supplemental instruction leader rather than the instructor for assistance. Instructors reported that students who did contact them often did so the first time at the urging of the tutor or SI leader, but then made follow up calls on their own. Identifying an advisor with special expertise in helping distance students was also a positive experience for both teachers and students.

However, many students said they did not take advantage of the additional support because they perceived it as a potential waste of time. "Didn't want to take the time" was the second most commonly cited reason for not using the SOL services. "Didn't know about them," was the most frequent, a clear indicator that staff should more aggressively market this support throughout the semester and perhaps that faculty should be encouraged to build participation in the support services into their assessment criteria.

In continuing the initiatives of the SOL Project and moving toward transformational changes in service delivery, project plans include:

  • Target all sections of courses with SOL services and standardize service delivery for on-campus learners and distance learners.
  • Participation in SOL services includes faculty commitment of assessment activities in selecting courses to supplement.
  • Clearer contact lines and connections for students will be made, and the SI leader and tutor will be collapsed into one position.

SOL Project Staff are very interested in hearing about other academic support activities offered online and other experiences using designated advisors for distance learning students.

For additional information, please contact:
Michele Payne
Director, Learning Initiatives
SOL Project Director



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