Supporting Online Students with an Online Student Commons and Text Chat

Authors: Alexandra M. Pickett, Maureen Owens, Mike Walker, and Lori Palmer

In Yesterday’s post, Larry Dugan joined Alexandra Pickett to introduce a distinctive student support feature of the SUNY Learning Network’s NGLC Wave I Building Blocks for College Completion project, the incorporation of the “learning concierge” role.  Today we would like to share with you two other SLN innovations, the Online Student Commons  and the integration of text chat. The Online Student Commons functions as a social network and is intended to provide blended and online SUNY Learning Network (SLN) students with opportunities for peer support and interaction. The Student Commons, staffed with the SLN HelpDesk learning concierges described in yesterday’s post, provides supportive contact and assists and directs students to the campus-based supports and services available. The site and staff promote a sense of community among online and blended students who may not come to campus; they also support the development of skills known to promote online student success.

We piloted the site and interventions at our first partner institutions, Finger Lakes Community College and Herkimer Community College, during the early months of the grant. In the last semester of the grant period, we expanded the pilot to five additional SUNY community college campuses. Among the emerging benefits of social networking and peer-to-peer interactions that we discovered, especially for the blended/online student, are these:

•    Development of social confidence in a safe environment.
•    Finding support in online community and sharing affinity.
•    Opportunity for exposure to diverse views.
•    Ways to augment real world relationships.
•    Building connections to peers and the campus that are otherwise difficult or impossible for the online/blended student.
•    Providing a place for non-course-related discussion and social interactions.

Each of our partner and pilot campuses created a campus profile to identify the student supports/services and contacts specific to that campus. They identified a learning concierge contact on their campus for us to work with on this project, and they allowed live chat to be enabled in their local learning management system (LMS), making it available to all their students and facilitating access to the Online Student Commons.

To augment the capacity of the SLN HelpDesk, we initiated and piloted a text chat application that gives students an additional access point into the ServiceDesk model. In addition to providing students with another way to interact with the SLN HelpDesk, this application provided staff with a more personal and convenient way to connect with students and resolve issues for those in need of help. Email and web request responses do not offer the immediacy of resolution and feedback that a text interchange allows. Implementing an online chat has allowed us to expand our reach and provide more personalized and individualized support, faster. We initially targeted only those students in the population addressed by the grant, but were quickly able to expand the service so as make it accessible across all of the participating campuses. We accomplished this by adding the chat to the SLN web page and also adding links to the Student Commons to the student resources section of the five additional campuses in the pilot.  We have found that making the text chat accessible in these various online locations - on our public home page, integrated into the Online Student Commons, and within the LMS itself - eliminates some of the intimidation students may feel about having to speak with a live person. Via text, anyone can reach out to us with any type of question. We get a wide range of questions and interactions via the text chat feature with our students, such as these:

Are there any tutors for the ANGEL Academy?

I need help with how to write a narrative paragraph about a story called mamma’s encounter…

I am getting a new computer and am wondering if there is free software for students?

Did you guys find your freshman year hard?

The questions we receive don't have a one-size-fits-all response. We try to tailor our responses in that moment to the needs of the student and to provide them with the information they need to support their success. Since beginning the chat in October 2012, we have received over 2,700 contacts. Analysis shows that 1,300 of these contacts came from prospective students, contacts made possible once chat was added to the SLN webpage.

Another aspect of our learning concierge role is reaching out to students via social media. While our online chat allows us to troubleshoot individual concerns, our Twitter feed allows us to be pro-active and direct students to online resources associated with education and technology.

We document contacts through our ticket tracking application. When we close ticket help requests, random survey requests are generated. The survey, which consists of seven Likert-scale questions, also allows respondents to make personal comments. Here are samples of the responses to this new service over the past year:

Tech support staffer was able to resolve my question on Live Chat immediately!

I love the availability of the chat feature. I just wish I thought to ask the question before today.

Thanks for the quick response through chat.

I have used the service both over the phone and through the chat, and both times been very satisfied with the help.
Alexandra M. Pickett (@alexpickett), principal investigator on the SUNY/SLN NGLC grant-funded project, is the Associate Director of the award-winning SUNY Learning Network (SLN).

Maureen Owens is the Online Learning/Student Support Specialist at Finger Lakes Community College. In addition to participation in the NGLC grant, she has been involved with OWL since its inception in 2011. Maureen teaches the course “Success Strategies for Online Learning” each semester, and has taught English 101 and 102 in the classroom and online.

Lori Palmer 
is a SUNY Learning Network Support Services HelpDesk Senior Analyst and manages the online course catalog. She has been with the SUNY Learning Network since 1993.  Prior to joining SLN, she was a student at The College of Saint Rose where she earned a degree in Public Communications.   

Mike Walker has been the Manager of the SUNY Learning Network HelpDesk since 2006. Prior to joining SLN, he worked for several private companies in supervisory or managerial roles. He is a graduate of Syracuse University with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.


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