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Distance-Learning Survey Shows Growing Concern for Student Services

At community colleges, enrollment in online programs is growing at a faster pace than in traditional courses, and that means new challenges for administrators who must now provide student services and other support in a virtual realm. That’s according to a new survey by the Instructional Technology Council.

In this year’s survey, college administrators ranked “adequate student services for distance-education students” as their greatest challenge, raising it two spots from No. 3 in the previous year’s survey. For the past seven years, “support staff need for training and technical assistance” has been the biggest obstacle identified by administrators answering the survey. Other challenges included adequate assessment of distance-education classes, compliance with new financial-aid requirements, and operating and equipment budgets.

“With the greater focus on distance learning, colleges’ expectations are increasing,” says Christine P. Mullins, executive director of the Instructional Technology Council. “They’re realizing that student services, like library services, student orientation, tutoring, and counseling are needed to provide a well-rounded education.”

Another reason for the greater concern for student services could also be because “regional accrediting also requires that institutions offer distance-learning students support services equivalent to their face-to-face counterparts,” a report on the survey says.

Despite the concern, respondents reported a decline in their online student-support services. For example, online counseling and advising services have decreased by 11 percent compared with the prior year’s survey, from 60 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, student orientation for distance classes has decreased by 16 percent since 2010. Ms. Mullins says that the decline has much to do with budget cuts and reduced staff numbers.

In addition, a greater number of distance-learning administrators are reporting to the academic instead of the technological side of institutions. More than 72 percent of respondents indicated they reported to the vice president of academic affairs or an academic dean. This figure is up more than two percentage points over last year’s results. Only about 3 percent answered to a vice president for technology, and seven and a half percent reported to a nonacademic dean.

But technology training and support is still ever-present. Sixty four percent of colleges require faculty to take distance-education training programs, and among those that offer training, 59 percent require more than eight hours of it.

The survey also shows that 79 percent of colleges are creating their own online course content, which requires staff members with experience and knowledge of instructional design. Nineteen percent use content created by textbook publishers, and 2 percent contract or license materials from some other content provider.

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