Electronic Portfolio: Academic Writings
 

 

Case Study: Student Services Model for a Web-Based Financial Aid Training Program
May 2001

This case study design of a student support system was developed as a small group activity in OMDE 624, Student Services. The specific case involved establishing a student services function to support a national financial aid association, much like the author's organization. The final assignment submission was made under each group member's name.


Introduction

In order to increase the accessibility to quality training programs for financial aid administrators at US postsecondary institutions, the US Financial Aid Association (USFAA) has entered into a collaborative effort with a technology provider and a state university involved in distance education to develop an entirely Web-based training program. The primary objective of the training program is to provide learners with the knowledge and skills they need to effectively deliver financial aid from federal, state, private, and institutional sources in accordance with funding rules and regulations. The primary target learners are inexperienced financial aid administrators who do not have the opportunity to attend face-to-face training workshops, because of lack of funds, inability to travel, timing of workshops, or office workload.

Proposed Support System

Goals

The proposed support system is designed to provide support for specific learning, a positive learning environment, and effective administrative systems, (Tait, 2000). The overall goal of the proposed support system is to ensure workplace or home access to the training for the intended audience, regardless of previous experience with technology or budget limitations (Stahmer, 1995). The specific goals of the proposed system are to:

1. Provide support that is available anytime, anywhere.
2. Rely on Web delivery, supplemented by e-mail, fax, and telephone support.
3. Personalize services by replicating to the greatest extent possible the professional camaraderie of the existing network of financial aid administrators (Brindley, 1995).

Elements

The specific elements of the proposed support system include (Western Cooperative, 1999):

Information dissemination. Information for prospective students will be distributed electronically via the Web and e-mail lists, and by paper brochures and handouts distributed at meetings of financial aid-related organizations. The information will include descriptions of the curriculum offered and technology used to access the training, application procedures, and benefits of participation.

Admissions. Admission support includes all activities relating to recruitment of students for the training program, admission requirements, application procedures, and forms. These materials will be provided on the Web and on paper through the information dissemination activities described above. A Web-based application for admission can be submitted online. While admission requirements will not be stringent and 24 turn-around time for admission decisions will be standard, the USFAA will collect background information from all applicants to insure that the training is reaching the target audience of neophyte financial aid administrators.

Assessments. Applicants for participation in the Web-based financial aid training program will be given access to a number of self-assessments designed to determine their capabilities for participation. Included will be a skills assessment to determine their existing knowledge and skills in the administration of student financial aid; a learning styles assessment; and an assessment of hardware and software requirements.

Orientation. Orientation services will be provided through an online tour of the training program. The tour will include an examination of the training program’s online catalogue, links to the information disseminated to prospective students, a complete explanation of the hardware and software requirements for the program, a description of technical support features available to learners, and a sample course or lesson. New students will be given a course in how to be a successful online learner.

Registration. Once accepted in the training program, participants will complete the registration process. Registration includes setting up a password-protected student account; installing any necessary software, such as a more recent Web browser version or the Adobe Acrobat Reader; signing up for individual courses; and processing payments for fees assessed for the courses.

Advising and counseling. Because this is a professional development program primarily aimed at working professionals, advising and counseling will focus on skill requirements for particular jobs and sharing successful work strategies. Self-help materials will be provided on the Web training site, with links to materials on other related sites that might be helpful to the learner. USFAA staff will provide one-on-one advising and counseling upon request. Collaborative counseling will be provided via Web-based discussion forums, where students can discuss their common concerns and share their personal work experiences.

Tutoring and mentoring. The primary method of providing instructional support will be through the assignment of personal mentors to participants in the training program (Brindley, 1995). Mentors will be experienced financial aid professionals serving in a voluntary capacity. They will motivate learners by facilitating online discussions, helping them become familiar with the requirements of online learning, assist with any problems learners are having with the technology, and try to replicate the professional network online (Stahmer, 1995). Mentors will communicate with learners via e-mail, chat, online discussion forums, and telephone.

Content support. Support for understanding and applying the content of the training program courses will be provided via interactive, threaded discussion forums tied to particular courses and topics within those courses. Mentors will facilitate discussions by providing practical examples from their work experience that illustrate particular aspects of the training (Sweet, 1993). USFAA staff will provide support for the technical and regulatory requirements that apply to the various financial aid programs. Participants will be able to ask the staff these types of technical questions by using an existing Web-based e-mail form or a technical assistance telephone number.

Student records. Records of student registrations for particular courses, and completion of the required course work, including any online lessons, quizzes, and examinations, will be maintained in a database that is accessible to students using a confidential login and password.

Technology support. A help desk will be available at USFAA to provide e-mail and telephone technical support in the use of the technology. Problem resolutions will be tracked and incorporated into a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document maintained on the Web site.

Additional resources. USFAA will provide an online library of Web links to related documents, regulations, monographs, manuals, training opportunities, and research on its own Web site and related financial aid Web sites. Learners can purchase additional materials relating to financial aid program administration via an Web-based catalogue (or bookstore) and order form.

Future Elements

Potential future enhancements to the student support services provided to participants in the financial aid Web-based training program include:

1. More closely integrating face-to-face training workshops with distance learning experiences, so that participants are able to benefit from the strengths of each.

2. Seeking additional financial support from organizations that support postsecondary institutions and uses of technology.

3. Enhancing services to students with disabilities (Western Cooperative, 1999).

4. Expanding the audience of students served to include affiliated personnel at lending institutions, scholarship agencies, and secondary school guidance offices.

5. Customizing services for individuals through the use of a decision support system.

6. Expanding payment alternatives to include purchase orders, credit cards, and group discounts.

7. Contracting for help desk support for the more complex technology-related problems.

8. Providing links to external Web sites for additional training in non-financial aid matters, including soft skills (management, human resources, supervision) and technology skills.

9. Providing career services in the form of links to financial aid-related employment opportunities and a moderated online discussion forum about employment opportunities in the field of financial aid.

10. Developing a full-fledged “learning community” by publishing an Internet newsletter, conducting regular chats online, and recruiting graduates of the training program to be mentors to new students (Western Cooperative, 1999).

Organization, Staff, and Resources

USFAA will manage the Web-based training program with a full-time project director with at least two years of experience in distance education, including curriculum development, developing student services, and providing technology support, and a full-time technical support person with at least two years experience in a help desk environment, assisting others in using Internet technology. All USFAA staff will be housed at the association’s headquarters in Washington, DC. USFAA’s technology partner in Austin, Texas, will dedicate a project engineer and an assistant engineer to support the project.

The USFAA will also use a matrix approach, whereby existing staff in the training, technical assistance, Web development, and communications departments will dedicate a portion of their time to support this program. While the existing training staff members have experience in the student financial aid program technical requirements and in developing face-to-face workshops, they have little experience in distance education. These staff members will need training in distance education management, instructional design for the Web, and Web-based student support services. Such training can be provided by outside consultants and through participation in relevant face-to-face and Web training workshops. Each individual should enroll in a Web-based course in order to understand more fully the learner’s experience.

USFAA will rely on the network of experienced financial aid professionals at its 3,100 member institutions to serve as voluntary mentors for students in the program. The mentors will need training in online support techniques, facilitating threaded discussions, and using chat and e-mail for effective communications. Mentors will be expected to complete the training along with the students they assist, so they can act as effective advocates for the students they mentor by providing feedback to USFAA about any problems they encounter with the training or its support mechanisms.

The USFAA Web-based training program has received initial funding through a federal grant, which provides up to half the costs of administering the program, with each of the three collaborating partners making up the difference. The grant and the matching funds are sufficient for program startup and to maintain the program in its initial stages of course offerings. However, for the program to grow and serve larger numbers of students at the 6,000 US postsecondary institutions, several hundred banks, state agencies, and scholarship agencies, and thousands of secondary school guidance offices, the USFAA will need to obtain additional funding. Some financial support will be provided through student fees. Additional support should be sought from public and private agencies and foundations and through organizations with a direct relationship to the students being served, for example, associations of high school counselors, loan officers, and institutions that serve at-risk students.

Finally, while the mentoring program is an important aspect of the student support services provided, it will be dependent on a constant stream of volunteers to serve as “off-campus tutors” (Paul, 1990). The USFAA will need to consider some form of compensation for these mentors, particularly as the program grows and USFAA brings in additional revenue to support the program.

Evaluation

The overall goal of the training program is to provide training that will have a positive impact on the work performance of financial aid administrators in postsecondary education institutions. The goal of the student support services evaluation is to continuously determine to what degree the support services enhance the student’s learning, help eliminate any obstacles the student encounters using Web technology, and promote learner independence (Paul, 1990; Brindley & Paul, 1996). The USFAA will be particularly interested in evaluating the impact of the mentoring program on learners’ success in training and attitudes toward learning in this environment.

To accomplish this evaluation, the USFAA will administer quarterly student questionnaires, covering the full range of support activities, including information dissemination, orientation, registration, content support, tutoring and mentoring, technology support, and student records. Students will be asked to rate their own participation in the Web-based threaded discussion forums and their interactions with their mentors. Mentors will complete a similar quarterly evaluation, which will include questions about their experiences mentoring others. USFAA will also examine Web site and discussion forum usage statistics and help desk activity on a quarterly basis.

Summary

With limited resources, the USFAA is attempting to have a positive impact on the ability of financial aid administrators in US postsecondary institutions to obtain the training they need without having to travel to distant locations. This environment represents particular challenges for Web-based training and student support, given the history of professional camaraderie and networking that has existed in the 35-year history of US financial aid administration as a profession. Students who complete financial aid training on the Web may feel they have received a second class education, and, if only their institutions had been more willing, they could have benefited from the preferred type of workshop training that many of their colleagues have had. Overcoming this feeling of isolation will be USFAA’s particular challenge, just as it is a challenge for distance educators everywhere. At the same time, postsecondary institutions, including their financial aid offices, rely increasingly on technology to support their students, and distance education is growing rapidly as a viable alternative to or supplement of traditional classroom education. This could result in increased acceptance of distance education as a method for training administrators as well as students in postsecondary education.

References

Brindley, J.E. (1995). Learners and learner services: the key to the future in distance education. In J.M. Roberts, and E.M. Keough (Eds.), Why the information highway: Lessons from open and distance learning (pp. 102-125). Toronto: Trifolium Books Inc.

Brindley, J.E., and Paul, R.H. (1996). Lessons from distance education for the university of the future. In R. Mills, and A. Tait (Eds.), Supporting the learner in open and distance learning (pp. 43-55). London, UK: Pitman Publishing.

Paul, R. (1990). Managing at a distance: Regional networks and off-campus tutors. In R.H. Paul, Open learning and open management: Leadership and integrity in distance education (Chapter 7, pp. 99 – 118). London, UK.: Kogan Page.

Paul, R. (1990). Managing for success: Learner interaction and independence (Chapter 6, pp. 76 – 98). In R.H. Paul, Open learning and open management: Leadership and integrity in distance education (Chapter 6, pp. 76-98). London, UK.: Kogan Page.

Stahmer, A.E. (1995). Learners in the workplace. In J.M. Roberts and E.M. Keough (Eds.), Why the information highway: Lessons from open and distance learning (pp. 41-59). Toronto: Trifolium Books Inc.

Sweet, R. (1993). Part I: Student support services: Direction for change. In Sweet R. (Ed.), Perspectives on distance education series: Student support services: Towards more responsive systems, Report on a Symposium on Student Support Services in Distance Education, Delhi (pp.1-40). Vancouver, CANADA: Commonwealth of Learning.

Tait, A. (2000). Planning student support for open and distance learning. Open Learning (15), 3, (287-299).

Western Cooperative for Education Telecommunications (1999). Guide to developing online student services. Retrieved May 12, 2001 on the World Wide Web: http://www.wiche.edu/Telecom/resources/publications/guide/guide.htm.