If you're an IT professional working in the higher education sector, supporting online classes has no doubt been on your mind. If your university didn't announce months ago that it was going online-only for fall 2020, it may have made that decision more recently. Or, if it's among the schools that remain committed to offering in-person classes, there's a decent chance that teaching will revert to online-only after the fall semester is underway, in the event of a virus outbreak on campus.
With this reality in mind, here's a look at five best practices for IT teams to follow when providing online class support to professors and students. Many of these tips won't make your job easier – on the contrary, they require more effort on the part of IT teams, at least upfront – but they will deliver a better end-user experience, and reduce support requests and user confusion over the long term.
1. Don't Rely on a Learning Management System Alone
Most universities had a learning management system, or LMS, in place long before the pandemic struck. Blackboard, which claims a market share of around 75%, is the most widely used LMS platform. Other popular options include Moodle and Canvas.
These LMS platforms are great ways to enhance a traditional, in-person class with digital tools. But they were designed to do just that – enhance a traditional class – rather than serve as end-to-end platforms for fully online classes. Although many LMS systems have features that purport to enable instructors to virtualize a complete classroom, chances are that your faculty don't know how to use them, or that they just don't work that well.
This means two things. First, you should treat your LMS as a jumping-off point for faculty to teach online rather than a be-all, end-all platform for supporting online classes. Expect faculty to need and want additional tools for tasks like live-streaming classes.
Second, in order to help users get the most out of LMS features that they may not have used previously but that are beneficial for supporting fully online classes, point them to tutorials or documentation that are specific to your setup. Although it’s not hard to find documentation for platforms like Blackboard on different parts of the internet, instructions that are hosted on other university’s websites may or may not accurately apply to your university’s version and configuration of the LMS. As controversial open source expert Eric S. Raymond is keen to point out, inaccurate documentation is in many ways worse than no documentation at all.
To stave off user confusion, then, invest in your own documentation – tailored to your environment and users – and make that documentation easy for faculty to find and navigate.
2. Give Your Users Options For Online Teaching Tools
Along similar lines, it's unlikely that a single tool, or even a single set of tools, will work equally well for every online class that you need to support. A professor trying to teach a biology lab remotely will require different tools than a theater instructor or a sociologist teaching online. Some faculty may prefer one tool over another because it integrates better with whichever operating system or other platform they are accustomed to using.
Obviously, you can't guarantee official support for every online teaching tool under the sun, because that would require too many resources. But you can build some flexibility into your online class support policies. For example, perhaps you can choose one video conferencing platform (like Webex) to support fully, while at the same time committing to support another (like Zoom) to the extent possible. Make your support policies clear to users by using a tiered system that allows you to define different support categories, such as “fully supported,” “secondary support on best-effort basis,” and “limited or no support,” depending on the levels of commitment you want to make to different products. This nuanced approach is a lot better than refusing to work in any way with tools other than the ones you officially support.
This is important not only because the flexibility will make your users happier, but also because it's going to be especially hard to force them to use a certain tool when they're remote. On-campus, you can require certain applications or block certain services if you want. But when everyone is logging into class from home, you have little real ability to force your professors or students to use whichever software stack you think they should use.
You may as well be flexible in your approach to online class support, because your users are likely to deviate anyway from any official tool requirements you impose.
3. Be Transparent About User Privacy in Virtual Classrooms
Online learning raises some complex (to put it mildly) issues regarding user privacy and intellectual freedom. If online classes are recorded, should anyone other than the class participants be able to view or download the videos? Is it okay to track when and from where students or professors log into online teaching tools? Who owns online course content – the university, the software vendor on whose platform it was created or the person who produced it?
I won't tell you how to answer weighty questions like these. But I will tell you that whatever you choose to do regarding the privacy of users in online teaching environments, you should at least be transparent in communicating the policies to your users.
Your university likely already has IT policies in place that provide some guidance on these points. However, those guidelines were not written with online teaching in mind, and are difficult for end-users to interpret. For example, you might define one set of privacy policies for digital resources hosted on-premises and another for cloud-based resources. But do you think your users know whether your LMS system or videoconferencing solution runs locally or through a third-party SaaS platform? Probably not.
That’s why it’s worth being explicit and upfront about how user data is managed, especially on platforms that support online learning. Consider updating IT policies so that they are easier for users to interpret, or communicating about privacy policies through other channels, like an email announcement. (After all, few of your users probably read your formal policy documents, anyway.)
Offering transparency on this front is not only the right thing to do – it will also forestall complaints that you may later face if faculty or students discover you were collecting information about them without disclosure.
4. Be Mobile-Friendly
Students have long pined to use cellphones in class. Now, the switch to online learning not only means that students can log in to their virtual classes on a phone if they want, but that some of them will do so out of necessity.
Although the vast majority of undergraduates – 95% – own a laptop, that number is smaller for community-college students, and presumably for lower-income undergraduates in general. Moreover, students who are taking classes remotely may not always have a reliable wireless LAN that they can use to get their laptops online. Some students will also doubtless face hardware issues that they can't resolve this semester because the on-campus support desk is closed, rendering their laptops unusable.
For students like these, the ability to participate in online classes via smartphones is critical. Academic IT teams should therefore strive to provide a user experience that is mobile-friendly. Avoid recommending teaching tools that don't work well with small screens, or that use network bandwidth inefficiently (which could drive up smartphone users' data bills).
In a perfect world, every student who learns online this fall would do so from a PC with a traditional Internet connection. But the reality is that not all will, and IT departments need to be prepared to provide online class support to all of their users.
5. Collect Feedback, and Prepare to Adapt
Finally, don't treat your online class support strategy as being set in stone. The massive shift to online courses that universities have undergone over the past half-year offered little time for anyone to prepare. The ongoing uncertainty over when and how students will return to physical classrooms makes it even harder to plan effectively. There is no shame in admitting that, like your users, your IT department is still figuring things out as it goes.
For that reason, make it a point to collect feedback from professors and students this fall about how their online learning experience is going, with a focus on which IT processes or tools could make it better. A simple survey is an obvious way to gain this feedback. Take the insight from your users seriously, determine what should change and establish a timeline for implementing the changes.
Even if improvement means overhauling a solution you've invested in heavily, the ability to adapt quickly will be critical to navigating all of the uncertainties that come with delivering IT resources to academic users who are operating mostly or fully online.
Very few students, professors or academic IT staff are excited about having to run classes partly or fully online this fall. But that’s the reality we face, and IT professionals should make the best of it by offering tools and support policies that afford their end-users the flexibility they need to succeed in a less-than-ideal moment.