Satisfying Student Expectations: Connected Learning Environments

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College students these days have increasingly higher expectations of how they will use technology in their universities. Meeting those expectations is presenting a challenge for many traditional institutions as well as emerging providers of education. Richard Skinner, president of Georgia's Global Learning Online for Business and Education (GLOBE) explains the challenge as follows:

Students today do everything from research to purchasing goods and services over the Internet, and their experiences are translating into a new set of demands for how an institution—any institution—must meet their needs. These students are accustomed to buying CDs from CD Now and clothes from The Gap, all online, and with a high degree of personal service. Now, they are starting to have those same expectations of academic and learning services. They want information that is up to date, timely, personal to them, and
rich in content. (personal communication, October 2000)

As a result of these expectations, students are prompting universities to integrate technology into every aspect of student life—into classrooms, the registrar’s office, student unions, cafeterias, and on- and off-campus housing. These students expect to live and learn in a “connected learning environment," a term that SCT uses to refer to technology that supports the learning process and the delivery of student services. But a connected learning environment does not refer only to distance learning. Rather, it fosters learning for full-time, traditional students as well as for adults who have never set foot in a physical classroom. Whether they are learning on campus or remotely, all learners require—and demand—electronic access to an institution's full array of services.

Demand Exceeds Available Services

Today, many institutions are satisfying students' expectations about the integration of technology in the university setting. For example, at most universities, students can view Web-based syllabuses, course information, and financial aid balances, as well as pay tuition online. Also, new media like chat and message boards already are popular in many institutions.

However, students also expect electronic access to libraries, bookstores, technical support, and personal and career counseling. Yet most universities so lack these remote services that the U.S. Department of Education has labeled them "orphan services." The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, founded in 1989 by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, is working with providers and users of educational telecommunications to address this issue. “Students working with electronic providers of academic services are waiting for providers to catch up with them in terms of their needs,” says Sally Johnstone, director of the Western Cooperative. “Our project is to address the provision of these electronic services like academic advising, orientation programs that help students understand how to work with electronic providers, technical support systems, career placement and advising services, tutoring, and services for people with disabilities. We need to create a community of learners in an electronic environment” (personal communication, October 2000).

Bob Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University (WGU), echoes her thoughts. WGU is an online degree-granting, competency-based, distance-education institution. WGU was founded and is supported by 19 states and governors as well as 20 leading corporations and foundations.  Current WGU competency-based degree offerings include an M.A. in Learning and Technology, an A.A., three A.A.S. degrees in Information Technology, and an A.A.S. degree in Electronics Manufacturing Technology. “The number one requirement for student services is to provide all information, in an easily accessible way, that students might wish to know,” says Mendenhall. “That includes financial status, academic progress and the ability to interact with faculty. Students also want online bookstores and online libraries. The challenge is to reproduce over the Internet all those services found in a typical campus environment” (personal communication, October 2000).

In order to thrive in this competitive, connected atmosphere, some institutions and providers are partnering to share costs and broaden offerings. GLOBE is one example of this new model. While GLOBE is not a college or university, it provides access to the same online courses, telecourses, and student support services offered throughout the University System of Georgia. 

Other universities are pushing the envelope further, collaborating with profit and not-for-profit education providers across state lines and even oceans. Of course, there are numerous issues that need to be resolved before a global university can become a reality. For example, software that allows institutions to interact with learners in the language, culture, and currency of their choice is required. But issues such as this will be resolved, and eventually, virtual, international collaboratives will co-exist with traditional institutions and a myriad of other models.

Integration Expands Services and Access

Whether an institution’s goal is to better serve its students on campus or to collaborate with institutions abroad, it must find a way to seamlessly integrate learning and services within a single connected environment. A true connected learning environment seamlessly links the data in an administrative system to course-related information and student services. This system requires an integration platform to link the valuable data in administrative databases with all student services and course tools.

An integrated registration process is a good example of the benefits of this kind of linked data system. As soon as students register for courses, they can get online and start reviewing course syllabuses. When a new course section opens in the administrative system, it is immediately available in the online learning environment. Likewise, student enrollment is always synchronized; course drops and adds are immediately reflected in the online learning environment. This level of integration among systems requires real-time, out-of-the-box data synchronization through a single Web sign-on in any browser. This synchronization allows faculty, students, and alumni to access all the resources and data they need [here we will link to video stream showing students using this system].

Today, most institutions achieve integration either through manual re-entry or batch processing. But both methods require labor from staff to either re-key the data or run the batch process. This means that students and other constituents access outdated information for 24 hours or more until these processes are performed.

Also, manual reentry of data places an additional administrative burden on faculty who are teaching connected learning courses. An SCT client in the UK [Please give the name of the SCT client.], a faculty member teaching distance education courses at Leeds Metropolitan University, recently attested to this complication. Her students registered for her course via the Web. However, she still needed to manually type in the names of her 90 students for use in all electronic correspondence, and naturally, she entered some of the names wrong. At the conclusion of the course, she issued surveys to determine her students' satisfaction. She soon realized that the learners with negative comments were the same ones whose names she had inadvertently misspelled. In her words, "a few errors led to major issues with those students. They had a negative disposition from day one" (personal communication, October 2000). With a true integration platform, professors need not re-enter or update names or other student information, reducing the possibility that students will have a negative impression of the course or the institution.

Integration Spurs Distance Learning

Problems will deepen as long as institutions lack real-time data synchronization as they continue to augment classroom learning with online tools or initiate and expand distance learning programs. These endeavors require many more courses supporting many more learners, and systems must scale to accommodate them. Overall, the process requires an extensible integration platform that can support emerging multi-national, virtual consortia. According to Mendenhall:

One of the difficulties we face is data integration. All students register and pay for courses through the WGU portal. Then we need to register students at each of the providing institutions. In most cases, we cannot do this electronically. We face the same challenge when students complete a course. We ask each institution to provide us with their assessment, either a grade or a certificate. The only way we have of getting this information now is through e-mail which we then have to manually enter into our system. Fortunately, the technology is now available to provide this seamless integration, either for integrating technology into on-campus learning or for linking multiple providers. (personal communication, October 2000)

“We are beginning to see the early signs of awareness that a student today will be a student for the rest of his or her life,” says Skinner. "The likelihood that he or she will have numerous sources of providers is tremendous. We cannot stand in the way of that. We need an information system that makes it possible for students to seek the types of learning that they need" (personal communication, October 2000).

Earlier this year, SCT announced a connected learning solution that was developed with WebCT and Campus Pipeline. The solution provides an integration platform that provides real-time, out-of-the-box data integration and synchronization between SCT administrative databases and the WebCT e-learning environment. Campus Pipeline provides an intranet and Internet platform that brings all campus systems into a single user interface with a secured, single point of entry. Such solutions will enable us to meet student expectations in the future.