Help! It's an Online Learning Community

Help! It’s an online learning community.
A Brief on What Worked and what didn’t on a Technical Help Desk for Distance Learners at SDSU’s Department of Educational Technology.
by Caleb John Clark and Chris Haddock, Spring 1998.

Dates and Goals | Timeline | Results | SoftwareDates and Goals:

January, 1998. Educational Technology Department, San Diego State University. The faculty hires graduate students Caleb John Clark and Chris Haddock to design, build, and staff a technical help desk for 25 online graduate students, enrolled in EDTEC 540 — Introduction to Educational Technology, and EDTEC 541 — Introduction to Multimedia Production. These two courses are the prerequisites for getting into the Masters program in Educational Technology.

The first goal of the Help Desk was to help online students with technical problems; such as, opening attachments, FTPing files, using the class materials sent on disk, accessing chat rooms, or completing their Director projects. For traditional students, these questions would be answered by the Instructional Media Lab Staff, but online students directed these questions to the professors who did not have the time or resources to help them.

The second goal of the Help Desk was to design and build a prototype Help Desk that could be expanded for use by all graduate students in the Department of Educational Technology.

The third goal of the Help Desk was to create an online learning community using discussion forums, listservs, Web pages and chat rooms.


Week Activity
0-2 Designed and posted Help Desk Web site. Opened Help Desk email account. Answered students’ email questions within 24 hours.
2-3 Set up forum. Manned live Chat Room from 3:00-4:00 M-TH.
4 Created listserv for all online students. No professors allowed.
12 Closed dead forum, list serve very active
16 Closed down for summer, let listserv die of natural causes after finals


Email provided the bulk of the technical support. Online students sent 120 technical questions between February. 4th and May 18th. We believe that our informal tone was largely responsible for success of the email (and listserv). Each letter started with a person’s first name, followed by a greeting. We deliberately attempted to make a personal connection with each student.

The student listserv was very successful in building an online learning community. 22, online students sent 172 messages to the listserv between March 2nd and May 18th. Again the Help Desk staff set the tone of the listserv with messages such as, “How’s everyone doing?” Posts included stories, poems, descriptions of the students physical surroundings, cries for help, venting of stress and family issues. Caleb and I were able to measure the “pulse” of the class by monitoring the listserv relating that information to the professors. The online students “officially” took ownership of the listserv when they coordinated their own study group and chats. As with most listservs, a core of about 10% of the users were responsible for 90% of the posts, with the remaining students lurking.

The Web site was the third most useful area of the help desk, with JobAids being the most useful part of the site.

The chat area was used for a few weeks during a mid-semester crisis, but was otherwise empty. The treaded forums were not used at all despite postings by the staff. This could be due to the fact that both classes had threaded forums and chat rooms that the students were required to use.

Telephone contact was made with three students after email and chat failed to solve their problems.


Web Site: GoLive Cyber Studios 2.03, Fetch 3, Photoshop 4.
Forums and chat: WebCrossing 2.0.
Listserv, Macjordomo 1.0, Eudora Mail Server.

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