One of the most important roles of a Learning Technologist is in mediating between users of technology and the technology itself, so providing technical support is a critical factor in the acceptance of technology by teachers and the satisfaction of students. It has a direct effect on perceived ease of use and usefulness (Sánchez et al, 2010).
Academic staff require a variety of levels of support, given that their approach to using a new VLE (or previously unused features of an existing one) will vary from trial-and-error experimentation to a desire for formal training. Support within a VLE usually consists of searchable alphabetic lists of help items or by categorising common activities, often consisting of text supplemented by video clips (either of these formats appears equally effective, so a combination of the two would seem the best approach). As technology acceptance seems to be positively related to the ease of completing a task (Rienties et al, 2014), improving access to support material should be a priority. There is little doubt that a good student experience is directly linked to the configuration and use of VLE tools, but there is a similar need to ensure that they are confident in the use of those tools too.
As maintainers of the VLE ‘container’, we need to be aware of the need for help and make it clearly available in a form that users can elicit appropriate material easily. Students react positively to relevant support information and their learning is enhanced, though they might not access it as regularly as we might think and may not wish to explore subsequent links to further resources. Operative instruction (“click this, then this”) would appear to be more effective than functional instruction (“you can use this tool to discuss topics with your peers”) for simple tasks, but the opposite is true of complex tasks. Help is more likely to be accessed when some prior knowledge of a task exists, so users new to a VLE must be a high priority to be directed towards it. Making material:
- Context sensitive
- Simple to understand
- Of good quality (both text and multimedia)
appear to be significant to the value of help material (Aleven et al, 2003).
We have been aware of the shortcomings of access to our NILE help material for some time (even if the help resource itself is excellent). The lack of a search facility within Blackboard Learn had previously limited us to a set of thematic links for students and staff (these referenced a number of different resources, from single page PDF files to full-blown support sites) and an alphabetic listing of single issue topics. The former were perceived to be useful, but the latter proved difficult to both use and maintain. The relatively high number of dead links that remained unnoticed and unreported in the student help tab would seem to suggest that few of them were actively used. Indeed the access and use of individual help items was impossible to judge, though we had introduced basic analytics tracking to the staff and student help pages in September 2014.
For the 2015/16 academic year we have, therefore, completely changed access to help material by using a MyPad (EduBlog) site to act as an electronic index. As systems administrators we are able to use categories as a tool to cluster and filter individual blog posts into thematic groups and providing tagging filters that can modify those clusters and construct tailored help searches. Users can also directly access tagged items through the ‘most used tags’ word cloud.
While we have control over the thematic links, the standard search function that exists within Edublogs is very basic and produces results which are solely ranked upon recency. This does mean that we are required to identify important posts and manually adjust their date on a regular basis to ensure they are ranked most highly. The lack of any sophisticated parsing of a search query is a further problem – a natural language query is likely to result in no hits but one or two common words with return a high number of hits, again plagued by the poor ranking.
However, this may not be too much of a problem providing that the number of blog posts remains relatively small and it many respects this is desirable. We have seen examples of Edublogs based help systems which contain high volumes of disparate content (going well beyond the core VLE functions) that results in very poor search results. When our new help system was created, it used approximately 90 entries to re-create the thematic and item links in the old help pages and it will be our aim to keep the total number of active posts under 150. In this manner we should reduced the number of excessive search results while keeping the maintenance of entries manageable.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of the new help system is that we now have access to anonymous analytics to inform us about which items are being used and the flow of access to each item. We can also see the text used in search requests that fail, so for the first time we can add new posts or editing existing ones to achieve a ‘hit’ in the future. The range of these search requests can be surprising – within a week of the system being used we needed to add entries to capture searches for ‘timetables’ and ‘examination results’, a need we would have been totally oblivious to last year.
Despite the wide range of help requests, our aim is to keep its content tightly focused on NILE core and arranged technologies, signposting requests for which we are not the best contact point to the highest level of appropriate contact (such as the Student Help desk, IT Services or Skills Hub). Wherever possible, we avoid linking to specific pages on an external site content as links we have no control over have an unpleasant habit of changing. Our main exception has been Blackboard Learn’s online help, which benefits from a robust (and predictable) URL convention but has very confusing generic advice at its top level. To aid our maintenance, you will see that links are colour coded – Black for external Blackboard Help, Blue for other external resources and a ‘heart’ for material created or managed by LearnTech.
Post content is kept deliberately short and task oriented, uses additional ‘how to’ videos whenever possible and restates the issue using variety of different terms to improve search results. We have a significant amount of extra work to do though and intend to improve thematic (such as marking assignments and providing feedback) and task (‘How can I make a video?’) orientated access to related material progressively. LearnTech’s Iain Griffin has already produced a more specialist help site for PebblePad that provides an excellent model for these some of these application or task related mini-sites.
As of now, we see a very similar number of ‘hits’ on our help page to that of a year ago – we look forward to providing a more detailed report on facts and figures and progress in developing the site later in the year.
Aleven, Vincent, Stahl, Elmar, Schworm, Silke, Fischer, Frank, & Wallace, Raven. (2003). Help Seeking and Help Design in Interactive Learning Environments. Review of Educational Research, 73(3), 277-320.
Rienties, B., Giesbers, B., Lygo-Baker, S., Ma, H., & Rees, R. (2014). Why some teachers easily learn to use a new virtual learning environment: A technology acceptance perspective. Interactive Learning Environments, 1-14.
Sánchez, R. Arteaga, & Hueros, A. Duarte. (2010). Motivational factors that influence the acceptance of Moodle using TAM. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1632-1640.
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