Assessment of Learner Support Services
Local study centers
Local computer labs
Online practice tests
Promoting students' self-confidence
Promoting students' motivation
Overcoming students' concerns
Information about OES activities
Promoting social interaction among students
Communication among students
Help on admission/registration
Help on technical problems
Orientation to OES
Local OES bureaus
Participants evaluated ten cognitive support services: local study centers, face-to-face academic counseling, online academic counseling, academic support through TV programs, academic support through radio programs, educational software produced by OES, local computer labs for student use, e-learning portal, online practice questions, and communication with course instructor.
Importance. Participants assigned the highest level of importance to face-to-face academic tutoring (M = 3.44, SD = 0.74) and online practice questions/tests (M = 3.43, SD = 0.73), and assigned the lowest level of importance to TV programs (M = 1.98, SD = 1.18) and radio programs (M = 1.05, SD = 1.01). The rest of the cognitive services were given a medium level of importance.
Accessibility. One half of the ten cognitive support services were perceived to have a medium level of accessibility, and the other halves were perceived to have a low level of accessibility. Services that were assigned a low level of accessibility were local computer labs for student use (M = 1.30, SD = 0.97), communication with course instructors (M = 1.54, SD = 0.95), radio programs (M = 1.62, SD = 0.95), local study centers (M = 1.80, SD = 0.95), and educational software produced by OES (M = 1.82, SD = 0.90).
Needs-gap analysis. A large needs gap was identified for two academic support services: communication with course instructors (M = 1.33, SD = 1.24) and face-to-face academic counseling services (M = 1.23, SD = 1.10). Online practice questions/tests (M = 0.95, SD = 1.07), local computer labs (M = 0.87, SD = 1.50), local study centers (M = 0.85, SD = 1.31), and OES-produced educational software (M = 0.52, SD = 1.18) were four cognitive services with a moderate needs gap. A negative needs-gap mean score was identified for three cognitive services as a result of participants’ overall accessibility rating surpassing the overall importance ratings. These services are online academic counseling (M = ?0.11, SD = 1.20), TV programs (M = ?0.19, SD = 1.18), and radio programs (M = ?0.57, SD = 1.23).
Participants rated six affective support services: promoting students' self-confidence, promoting students’ motivation, overcoming students' concerns about their education, promoting social interaction among OES students, and communication with other OES distance learners.
Importance. Participants’ ratings indicated that all affective and community support services were moderately important for them. While the most important affective support service was counseling services that promote student motivation (M = 2.90, SD = 0.97), the least important service was communication among students (M = 2.22, SD = 1.14).
Accessibility. All affective support services received a low accessibility mean score (1.99 or less). The affective services that received the lowest accessibility mean scores were counseling services that promote students’ motivation (M = 0.96, SD = 0.84) and counseling services that overcome students' concerns (M = 0.95, SD = 0.80). The most accessible affective service was information about OES activities (M = 1.61, SD = 0.85).
Needs gap analysis. A large needs gap was identified for all affective support services but communication with other OES students. The largest needs gap was identified for counseling services that promote student motivation (M = 1.93, SD = 1.15).
Participants rated six systemic support services in the questionnaire: help with the admission/ egistration process, assistance in overcoming technical problems, orientation to the course media/delivery format of OES, administrative services provided at the local OES bureaus, administrative services provided on the internet, and mobile-quest information service.
Importance. Except for mobile-quest information service, all the systemic services were perceived to be moderately important for participants. Participant ratings indicated that the most important systemic support service was orientation to course media/delivery format of OES
(M = 2.84, SD = 0.79) and the least important systemic support service was mobile-quest information service (M = 1.56, SD = 1.17).
Accessibility. Two systemic support services were perceived to have a low level of accessibility, and the rest were perceived to have a medium level of accessibility. The least accessible systemic support service was orientation to the course media/delivery format of OES (M = 1.31, SD = 0.90). The most accessible one was administrative services provided on the internet (M = 2.71, SD = 0.91).
Needs-gap analysis. A large needs gap was identified for orientation to course media/delivery format of OES (M = 1.53, SD = 1.00), and a medium needs gap was identified for assistance in overcoming technical problems (M = 0.87, SD = 1.05). A negative needs-gap mean score was identified for three cognitive services as a result of participants’ overall accessibility rating surpassing the overall importance ratings. These are administrative services provided on the internet (M = -0.09, SD = 1.13) and mobile-quest information service (M = -0.55, SD = 1.33).
The questionnaire also asked students to specify the stage(s) throughout their study (pre-enrollment, starting courses/program, moving through courses/program, and finishing courses/program) in which each support service was needed. An option of “never needed” was also given for students to indicate if they never needed the service. Students were given the option to specify as many stages as they want. Frequency distributions were calculated for each stage to identify the support services most needed in each stage (Table 2). Services needed in each stage are summarized below.
Pre-enrollment. What participants needed most at this stage were support services that will help them get started with the distance education program. While a majority of these services fall into the systemic/administrative service category, some of them are affective support services. The most desired systemic services at this stage were help with the admission/registration process and administrative services provided at the local OES bureaus. Approximately 75% of the participants indicated the need for these services. Moreover, approximately one-half of the participants indicated the need for orientation to the course media/delivery format of OES at this stage. The most desired affective support services before or during enrollment time were counseling to promote student motivation, activities to promote social interaction, and communication among OES students. Approximately one-third of the participants indicated the need for each of these affective services. Only a small number of participants indicated that they needed cognitive support before or during enrollment time.
Beginning of the Program. Participants indicated that the most support was needed at this stage of the program. Four out of six systemic services, eight out of ten cognitive support services, and all the affective services were identified as needed by at least one-third of the participants. Administrative services provided by the local OES offices and orientation to the delivery format continued to be the most desired systemic services at the beginning of the course/program. Moreover, the need for administrative services provided on the internet and help on technical problems increased at this stage.
The need for all affective support services increased at the beginning of the program. Counseling to promote student motivation continued to be the most desired affective service at this stage. Not surprisingly, the need for cognitive support services increased while engaging in the coursework. Face-to-face counseling was perceived to be most needed support service at this stage, with over one-half of the participants indicating the need for this service. Moreover, approximately one-half of the participants noted that they needed communication with instructors, the e-learning portal, and online practice tests at this stage.
Beginning of program
Moving through program
Local study centers
Local computer labs
Online practice tests
Promoting students' self-confidence
Promoting students' motivation
Overcoming students' concerns
Information about OES activities
Promote social interaction
Communication among students
Help on admission/registration
Help on technical problems
Orientation to OES
Local OES bureaus
Moving Through the Program. While the need for cognitive services increased enormously, an overall decrease in the need for systemic and affective support services was observed while moving through the program. More than 85% of participants indicated the need for face-to-face counseling and online practice tests at this stage. Additionally, the e-learning portal and communication with instructor continued to be important support services needed at this stage. In regard to systemic and affective support, services provided at the local OES offices and on the internet, counseling to promote student motivation, and counseling to overcome educational concerns were perceived to be needed by approximately one third of the participants at this stage.
End of the Program. The need for most of the support services declined by the end of the program. Two services stayed important at this stage: services provided at the local OES offices and online practice tests.
Never Needed. Five support services were perceived to never be needed by over one-half of the participants. These were mobile-quest information services, radio programs, TV programs, local computer labs, and information about OES activities. Only three support services were considered never needed by less than 10% of the participants. These were services provided at the local OES offices, face-to-face counseling, and online practice tests.
There were three open-ended questions included in the questionnaire to allow participants to elaborate on their distance learning experiences. The first and second questions asked participants to indicate the most assistive and most impeding factors in their distance learning experience, respectively. The third question asked participants to provide suggestions for improving the existing support mechanism. Participants’ responses to these questions were discussed below.
Participants were asked to comment on factors that assist them most in their distance learning experience. A total of 223 participants answered this question. A total of fourteen different assistive factors were identified from the participants’ responses. These factors were classified under three categories: cognitive/academic, affective/motivational, and situational/personal.
Assistive factors that were mentioned most frequently fell into the cognitive/academic category, which accounts for approximately 86% of the total mentions. Within this category, OES face-to-face academic tutoring was the most frequently mentioned assistive factor (105 mentions). Many participants indicated that it was impossible for them to learn everything just following the textbooks, and face-to-face academic tutoring helped them simplify and clarify the topics they could not understand from the text. Moreover, some participants indicated that face-to-face tutoring helped them stay on track. This was reflected well by one of the participants comments: “Not everyone has the self-study and time management skills to follow the courses on a regular basis. Face-to-face tutoring helps these students to stay on track.”
The second and third most frequently mentioned assistive factors were private supplementary textbooks (74 mentions) and private supplementary tutoring (51 mentions)respectively. Participants indicated that supplementary textbooks by private institutions were assistive due to their brief presentation of subjects and inclusion of more practice tests. Others reported that supplementary tutoring offered by private organizations was assistive because it took place in small classes where little distraction took place and more student-teacher interaction was possible. Moreover, it was reported that OES did not provide face-to-face tutoring for most upper-class courses and, therefore, those students who could afford it chose to supplement OES textbooks through private tutoring.
Personal factors were the second most frequently mentioned factors. Seventeen participants recognized the significance of self-commitment and individual efforts in their success. Twelve participants acknowledged the importance of frequently revisiting the course materials and memorization of important parts. Several participants reported that their time management skills and familiarity with the subject they studied were important factors in their success. In addition to academic and personal factors, participants reported some affective factors that assisted them in their distance learning experience. Self-confidence and motivation were the most frequently mentioned affective factors. Some participants also acknowledged the value of support from family and friends.
In response to the question regarding impediments to learning at a distance, 163 participants provided comments. A total of 25 different impeding factors identified from the participants’ responses. These factors were classified under four categories: cognitive/academic, affective/motivational, self/personal, and administrative.
Similar to the assistive factors, impeding factors that were mentioned most frequently fell into the cognitive/academic category, which accounts for approximately 65% of the total mentions. Interestingly enough, the majority of the academic impeding factors were related to face-to-face academic tutoring. The most frequently cited impeding factor was lack of face-to-face tutoring for all courses (40 mentions). As indicated previously, OES provides face-to-face tutoring for the ten most common and relatively difficult courses.
The second most frequently cited impeding factor was inefficient and uncomfortable face-to-face tutoring settings (39 mentions). Participants mentioned that classrooms are very crowded and noisy. Twenty-two participants commented that face-to-face tutoring hours were inadequate for some courses to cover the whole curriculum. Some indicated that due to time limitations, instructors either went over some topics very quickly or skipped others. Twelve participants reported that face-to-face tutoring hours and/or days were inconvenient for them.
In addition to face-to-face academic tutoring, participants also considered the exam system as an impeding factor. Eleven participants complained about the short time interval (about two months) between midterm and final exams. Especially, several participants indicated that the midterm exam results were published late, and therefore they did not have time to plan for the final exam. Moreover, ten participants complained about sitting for all exams in one or two days. It was reported that sitting for five or more exams in two days was very stressful and mentally challenging for them. Another related factor was having just two exams for each course in one academic year. One participant commented, “Since there are only two exams, before each exam, units to study accumulate because of procrastination and it becomes stressful and harder to study.”
Ten participants indicated that OES textbooks are too detailed and daunting for self-study. Three participants complained that they were discouraged by those instructors who were reluctant and disrespectful. Three participants indicated that OES resources for tests preparation were inadequate. Two participants talked about lack of personal academic background for certain courses.
Affective impeding factors were mentioned 48 Verdana, which accounts for approximately 19% of the total mentions. The most frequently mentioned factor was disregard from public and/or OES staff (15 mentions). Several participants indicated that the public staff neither consider OES a formal education institution nor regarded them as traditional students. According to them this reduced their motivation to continue. For instance, a student who had enrolled in OES with high hopes commented “After I realized public’s negative attitude towards OES students, I thought that I am here for no reason” Another related impeding factor, mentioned by nine participants, was lack of motivation (12 mentions). Participants also indicated that it was hard for them to keep focused and motivated all the time.
Personal impeding factors were mentioned 29 Verdana, which accounts for approximately 11.7% of the total mentions. The factors most commonly mentioned were time management issues resulting from job obligations (20 mentions), family commitments, and, most interestingly, preparation for the University Entrance Exam. Only two administrative factors were mentioned as impeding. These were insufficient information about OES procedures (8 mentions) and inexperienced and uninformed staff in local offices (2 mentions). Two students noted that they lost one year just because they were misinformed by the OES staff.
The last open-ended question asked for suggestions to improve the current state of OES learner support services. A total of 196 participants answered the question. The majority of their suggestions included strategies to overcome challenges (impeding factors) they experienced throughout their distance learning practice. Suggestions were clustered into three categories: cognitive/academic, affective/motivational, and administrative.
Similar to assistive and hindering factors, a great majority of the suggestions were related to cognitive/academic services. Seventy-eight participants suggested receiving face-to-face tutoring for all courses. Fifty-eight participants called for more tutoring hours and days. Participants from Kayseri, where tutoring took place on Saturdays, especially requested different tutoring days for different courses instead of having them all in one day. Another student noted, “We need more tutoring hours so that we will have the opportunity to ask questions about the topics we don’t understand.” Twenty-four participants indicated the need to increase the quality of the classroom settings. The most common suggestion, in this regard, was to reduce the class size. Moreover, twenty-one participants called for more practice questions and tests to be solved by the instructors during tutoring sessions.
There were some other suggestions about face-to-face academic tutoring. For instance, participants from Eskisehir and Ankara, where tutoring took place in the evenings, asked for morning tutoring hours. Moreover, several participants complained about getting less than six months of tutoring for courses designed to be yearlong (tutoring starts early in January and ends late in May). Therefore, they requested tutoring to start early in the academic year. Also requested by four participants was effective, energetic, and concerned instructors who do not follow the textbook strictly.
Eleven participants recommended redesigning textbooks to make them short and straightforward. Other academic components that needed to be improved, according to five participants, were TV programs. They asked for better TV programs at convenient Verdana. Two noted that there were Verdana that TV program hours coincided with that of face-to-face tutoring.
Participants offered two recommendations regarding OES examination system. Nine participants suggested extending the time between the midterm and final exam. Moreover, five participants suggested midterm exam results be announced earlier so that they could take action for the final exam as early as possible. Another related suggestion was to increase the number of supplementary practice test books and CDs.
Three more suggestions were made to increase academic opportunities. Nine participants asked for more academic and nonacademic resources such as ability to use the local universities’ libraries and attend their conferences, seminars, and social activities. Two participants indicated their demand for internship possibilities. Two others recommended that homework would be helpful to keep students active throughout the academic year.
Participants provided six different suggestions to improve their emotional state. Fifteen participants expressed their expectations of more respect and care from public and OES staff. In relation to this recommendation, thirteen participants suggested informing public about OES to eliminate their negative attitude against OES. For instance, one female participant noted, “Public needs to acknowledge that we are not any different than traditional students,” and she added, “To accomplish this, OES needs more publicity.” Several participants asked for more social activities (9 mentions), more guidance services (7 mentions), more emotional support (6 mentions), and the opportunity to communicate with other OES students (5 mentions).
Five suggestions were identified from participants’ responses about administrative improvements. Five participants asked for clear and accurate information about OES procedures. Specifically, one first-year participants commented that at the beginning of the year, he needed as much information as possible about registration, fees, due dates, tutoring dates and palaces, and so forth. Four participants indicated the need for a point of address (e-mail or phone) to contact all the time for any type of questions they had. Moreover, several participants asked for experienced and knowledgeable staff at the local offices (3 mentions), scholarship and dormitory opportunities (3 mentions), and lower registration fees (3 mentions).
This study has demonstrated several areas of support services that need improvements in order to support OES students effectively in their learning experience. Based on the findings, the following recommendations for implication can be made:
§ Participants’ ratings of several support services revealed that face-to-face academic counseling and online practice tests are very important cognitive tools assisting OES students in their learning experience. Therefore, OES should not only continue to offer these cognitive support services, but should also augment the quality and quantity of these services. For instance, participants in this study provided several recommendations related to face-to-face counseling. These included more face-to-face academic counseling hours and days for currently available courses, face-to-face academic counseling for all courses, and less populated face-to-face academic counseling classrooms.
§ The needs-gap analysis revealed that OES needs to improve its affective support services. A large needs gap was identified for five of six affective services included in the questionnaire. This suggests that OES should develop different support tools and strategies to augment its students’ motivational, psychological, and emotional state that might contribute to their affective as well as cognitive involvement. Moreover, OES should not ignore the community dimensions of affective support. It should especially develop strategies in collaboration with other stakeholders to overcome the public’s negative perception of OES, which was identified to influence students’ affective and cognitive involvement.
§ The needs-gap analysis also revealed that there is a need to increase the communication with the course instructions. The recommendation provided in item one (above) can increase the communication between students and course instructors in face-to-face courses (i.e., extending tutoring hours and days). For online academic counseling, OES needs to review the online medium for usability. Although the question-answer forum seems simple to use, students complained about the difficulty of adding math questions. They further complained that they can not know whether their questions are answered or not until they log in again.
§ The needs-gap analysis further revealed that OES should provide general orientation sessions at the beginning of the academic year, particularly for the newcomers.
§ There should be a communication structure between frontline support service providers and course or delivery system designers and program administrators. It is usually the frontline personnel who deal with the challenges and issues that students face. These personnel can produce valuable feedback from students based on their experiences with the courses, program, or delivery mediums. Provided that the course or delivery system designers and program administrators have limited or no interaction with students to get feedback, such feedback produced by the frontline service providers needs to be conveyed to backend staff so as to improve to the quality of the courses or administrative processes.
This study was a case study and was limited to students within the Turkish OES. Additionally, the sample for this study was not randomly selected. Instead, a convenient sampling strategy was used to increase participation. Participants in this study were OES students who were regularly attending face-to-face academic tutoring in three different provinces (Kayseri, Eskisehir, and Ankara); hence, the findings from this study might have limited general applicability for this particular population.
While findings of this study provide considerable insight into the field of student support in distance education, it is important to note areas in which modifications to the study may enhance reliability and/or increase generalization. It is highly recommended that this study be replicated with more participants and equally represented student subgroups. Students who don’t participate in face-to-face academic counseling sessions should especially be included in future studies. Future research should also investigate the perceptions and experiences of drop out and/or stop out students, graduates, student support personnel, and employers on learner support needs, as they may provide different perspectives.
Future research should investigate the relationship between various support services and student outcomes of grades and course satisfaction. These studies will not only add to our already expanding knowledge of student support, but will also assist the administrators’ support service providers in distance education institutions identifying support services that are most important for student satisfaction and success.
Also important is that as the technology continues to transform the modes of instructional delivery in distance education settings, the overall distance learner profile will continue to change. Changes both in the delivery technologies and in the distance learner profile will bring about challenges to the practice of student support in distance education. While rapidly changing delivery technologies urge us to develop new support structures that can encompass the new delivery modes, parallel changes in the distance learner profile require us to develop support services of various kinds that can address the changing profile of distance learners. This also points out the need for institutions to perform continuous evaluation of support service needs for the changing distance learner population in conjunction with the changes in the course delivery mediums.
I wish to acknowledge the help provided by Ayd?n Ziya Özgür, the Dean of Open Education Faculty at Anadolu University, in conducting this study. My appreciations go to David A. Wiley and Bekir S. Gur who have read the early versions of the article and provided suggestions to improve it.
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Murat Ozoglu, advisor to Council of Higher Education in Turkey, is a senior lecturer at Ondokuz May’s University, Samsun Turkey. He received his Ph.D. in Instructional Technology from Utah State University, specializing in learner support within distance education. During his doctoral study he worked as research assistant at The Center for Open and Sustainable Learning (COSL), Utah State University. His current research focuses on open and distance learning. He is also interested in higher education policy and education policy development.