Alignment and Integration of e-Learning Support Mechanisms in Online IST

Cole Camplese, Director, Education and Training Solutions
Kristin Camplese, Manager, Instructional Design and Research

April 7, 2001


An e-Learning course is only as good as the support that is provided to both students and instructors. The School of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) at Penn State University has focused heavily on aligning e-Learning support mechanisms. The approach has been to provide integrated faculty development, student development, and print documentation in the form of the “Roadmap.” This presentation will provide an overview of the Online IST curriculum and detail the support mechanisms that have been pivotal to the success of this e-Learning initiative.

Online IST Background

The Penn State School of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) formally opened in 1999 to develop leaders for the emerging e-world—professionals who put technology to work in any setting, whether it is business or social service, government, or education. Within the School, the Solutions Institute has been responsible for the translation of this innovative curriculum to an online world. The Online IST Curriculum was made real in the fall of 2000 when IST 110, An Introduction to Information Sciences and Technology, was delivered to a Penn State University IST audience. Since this initial roll out, approximately one additional course has gone online every semester. Future plans include online courses for the full undergraduate core and courses for the Professional Masters degree.

Online IST courses are built through a collaborative effort with thought-leaders in information sciences and technology, corporate partners and an experienced instructional design team. All of the courses are founded on the basic principles of Problem Based Learning, where students learn through solving real-world problems in cooperation with course materials, external research and team-based interaction. The courses are designed to be total packages—that is, they are designed from start to finish and can be taught with no additional design effort from faculty, if they so choose.

The Support Problem

As IST began to roll out online course offerings, we immediately realized that — no matter how good the online curriculum was — we needed the support and backing of IST faculty and students. In order to gain this, we needed to support them in their efforts to disseminate the online courses. Faculty members were excited about the new approach, but most had little experience implementing a course like this from both a technological and pedagogical perspective. They needed tools and information to help them in their quests to deliver our courses online. In addition, few, if any, students had experience in an online, problem-based course. The Institute needed to be able to provide teaching, learning, and administrative/ technological support in order to ensure widespread adoption of the courses. Beyond the instructional and technological issues, we had to be prepared to deal with the many change management and institutional issues that are always at the core of information technology projects.

The Support Solution

The support solutions that were envisioned considered all of our various stakeholders: faculty, students, administration, and staff/team members. We also realized that some of the support issues were really marketing issues in disguise. This meant we needed to create positive public relations through marketing materials. Some of these included “online course trailers” which introduced the courses as “coming attractions.” As part of this, a “customer support line” was also established. In short, we had to treat this like a business. However, teaching and learning could not be sacrificed.

Online IST Support Mechanisms

Several support pieces evolved as the delivery of the Online IST Curriculum continued. The Course Roadmap is the most important piece of the offering. The Roadmap is a printed manual (usually about 100 pages long) that walks both faculty and students through the course. It includes information about all course activities, grading rubrics, assignment checklists, technical set up, problem descriptions, and strategies for success in the course. Students are told “all of the answers to their questions are in the Roadmap.” The expectation is that they should consult that document before they go anywhere else. The document is the first line of support and has a nice byproduct—its comprehensive nature reduces the load on faculty members who are generally forced to answer hundreds of emails regarding the same course issues.

Faculty Development is the second key piece of our support puzzle. In anticipation of each semester, a faculty development session is held to prepare instructors both from a technical and learning perspective. In addition, the Solutions Institute holds the Faculty Academy (, which is an event that helps teachers integrate technology into their classrooms. Special sessions at this event focus on Online IST.

Student Development is also important to the Online IST Support effort. The courses are designed to focus the first two to three sessions solely on course familiarization and team building. Called Module Zero and repeated in all online IST courses, these sessions go a long way in preparing students for the expectations of the course and help them immensely with team issues.

The final piece of the support effort is the Online IST Support Specialist whose main job is the support of both faculty and students in the online courses. The Support Specialist is also responsible for maintaining the online Solutions Support Suite, which includes many set up and support resources, as well as just in time training, and contact information on the web.

Beyond Support…

The alignment of these support mechanisms is also a very important idea to consider.

Alignment with Marketing: Along with the actual support events and sites, we provide marketing material to get faculty and students excited about upcoming learning opportunities. The Course Trailers that were referred to previously have been core to this effort.

Alignment with Administration and Curricular Goals: From the beginning of this effort, our Dean and administrative leadership have been in full support of the curriculum and its approach. Faculty and students are encouraged to get involved in the courses, and materials are freely available to the IST community. This support and institutional transformation enables high-level, high-energy, creative work and education.

Alignment with Design and Development Team: Our Instructional Design and Development Team within the Solutions Institute is a highly motivated and talented team. We have a shared vision of creating online learning that is educationally sound, practical, “implementable,” and fully supported for both faculty and students. Without this type of team alignment, our courses could not be successful.

Lessons Learned

We have begun to distill our experiences regarding support into a few “lessons learned.” To summarize:

  • Faculty and students do not want to feel disconnected.
  • Importance of “physical” support pieces (Paper!)
  • Importance of availability (Phone, IM, E-Mail)
  • Importance of some face to face contact (Hybrid Approach)
  • Faculty and students do not have a lot of experience in these types of learning models.
  • Importance of support before the course begins
  • Even with the “perfect” interfaces and ID models, they will still need support!
  • Remember it is a change management issue as well.
  • Technology always brings out the need for support
  • Be prepared to support your users’ technology needs or find someone who will.

The Bottom Line

The Solutions Institute approach has placed faculty and student support at the heart of every instructional design and development project. In addition, support specialists are valued members of every instructional design team. Ignoring the human element in these projects is the first step toward non-adoption. And without adoption, very few projects are successful.

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