User support snapshots

Educause this year included a number of quick fire sessions where presenters had five minutes to get their message across. I went to the user services session; which had a number of highlights.

Appalachian University spoke on the use of instructional design for training needs. They noted that the experts on software don’t necessarily know how to teach so looked to improve their courses by focussing on instructional design. The first principle was to
develop clear learning objectives to help focus the session so trainees know what they will be able to do after the session you will be able to…. The second was formative evaluation – trying out drafts on the materials before rolling out to the remainder of the community. Finally the third is relevance – explaining why concepts are important to the trainee. Their overall message was to start by asking who the learners are and what they need to do before forming the course. Whilst this may seem obvious perhaps IT services do just assume sometimes that we know what our customers want.

Louisiana State spoke on the use of text messaging as part of their emergency notification processes. The Virginia Tech shootings proved the catalyst for many institutions to review their emergency notification systems and the need to have such systems is now enshrined in law. They assumed that that text messaging was the best technology for notification. They set up a text system within two months of Virginia Tech but when system had to be used they found that only 200 out of 5000 messages were delivered. This demonstrated that text messaging for tens of thousands messages doesn’t work in a timely fashion. Another problem was that not all the students have SMS. They latterly discovered that the infrastructure was not all that robust – the mobile phone network went down during the last hurricane. There was no clear message from the presentation other than it is unwise to rely on one single technology in an emergency.

Empire State College highlighted a project to give early assistance to students struggling with their course to try and get them back on track. The focus was to give proactive academic support through their course management system. In addition to having links to tutors embedded within the materials, they included a system that allowed academics to request their students to attend tutorials by a simple interface that required the academic to select the student, pick an issue from a defined list and then submit the tutorial request. The student gets notified through the Course Management System. I wasn’t entirely sure about the benefits of this approach and there wasn’t enough time to present any evidence of its success in improving retention. It seemed to me that a blended approach would be needed – relying on a notification through the CMS might not work if the failing student is not logging in that often.

Indiana University have set up a unit to provide expert 24/7 IT support for the University executives and their deputies. The aim of the service was to give quick responses from staff that understood the business practices of the executives. The team also needed to research new technologies particularly as the unit was expected to support any device. Predictably the unit were spending a lot of time supporting the executives’ mobility (particularly connecting from home and their cars). They faced a number of challenges – notably gaining the trust of their customers, the potential burn-out of staff and the executives looking to extend both the boundaries of support and numbers of supported staff. The unit needed highly skilled and motivated staff, properly resourced. The Executives were clearly receiving a quality service. What wasn’t clear was that there was similar 24/7 support for their students – hopefully there was!

Illegal peer to peer filesharing is a problem across the sector in the US. Simmons College have adopted an innovated approach to addressing this. Where a breach is reported the offenders are required to attend workshops to educate them on where to get music legally and why what they are doing is wrong. The workshops also help them remove illegal peer to peer software and downloaded music/films. Additionally they look to get the message across by including an event focussing on the it as part of an inter-hall competition. The event includes a karaoke competition and a quiz on copyright issues. This isn’t a big issue in the UK but the approach was certainly novel.

I think probably five minutes per presentation was too short a time – there were sometimes too many questions left unanswered. But overall I thought it was a good introduction to the Educause programme.

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