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Effective Strategies for Student Academic Support in a Fully Online Graduate Program in Computer Science

Adel Abunawass (University of West Georgia, USA)
Edwin Rudolph (University of West Georgia, USA)
Alexandra Young (University of West Georgia, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 2:30pm
Student Services and Learner Support
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Americas Seminar
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 8

Learn about effective approaches to and specific technologies for providing synchronous and asynchronous academic and technical support to online graduate students.

Extended Abstract

The Department of Computer Science at the University of West Georgia offers a 100% online professional Master of Science in Applied Computer Science program that is designed to provide individuals holding a bachelor degree in any discipline with applied knowledge and skills in computer science and information technology that are integrated and delivered in a comprehensive and practical pedagogy that prepares them to enter the information technology job market upon graduation. Although students with a variety of educational and professional backgrounds enter the program, the program is designed primarily for students without any prior background in computer science or information technology. Students entering the program are only expected to have basic proficiency with computers and typical productivity applications. ÊThe program is intended to be completed in two years on a part-time basis where students enroll in two classes per semester. On average, the program enrolls 30 - 40 new students per cohort on a yearly basis and at present has approximately 60 total students enrolled.

The program is delivered almost exclusively through asynchronous instruction using the open-source Moodle LMS platform. Although students are expected to be very self-motivated and self-directed, the highly technical nature of the curriculum and the rapid pace requires a significant level of specialized academic and technical support to help the students to be successful. Moreover, the support must be available to meet the needs of online adult learners who are likely to already have various professional and personal commitments that compete for their academic study time. Finally the support model needs to multi-faceted as well as multi-tiered, since the faculty who create and deliver the courses in the program also teach face-to-face undergraduate courses and are limited in the amount of time they are able to devote to providing individual assistance to students.

To address these needs, the department created a robust academic and technical support model that includes multiple levels of online support including general technical support, course-specific tutoring and assistance, as well as direct interaction with faculty. At each level, asynchronous and synchronous channels are available. Finally, support is provided at a variety of times including evenings and weekends to accommodate students' work and/or personal schedules.

Asynchronous channels for seeking help and assistance include email and threaded forums/discussion boards (provided via the LMS). Synchronous channels include instant messaging and audio/video chat via Blackboard IM and/or Google Chat, and occasionally via telephone. Whenever email is insufficient, students are strongly encouraged to utilize Blackboard IM to seek assistance since it provides not only chat features, but also the ability to share the student's screen often an invaluable tool in helping both the student and the tutor/instructor to understand and work on the problem. General and course-specific email accounts are provided and are monitored both by teaching assistants as well as faculty. Via Blackboard IM, we provide general as well as course-specific "help desks," with published hours of availability, for students to seek assistance. Faculty also host "virtual" office hours using Blackboard IM and of course students can address questions directly to faculty via email as well. In this way, multiple individuals are able to respond to students' questions and at various times. It also helps students by providing central points of contact. To help alleviate the burden on faculty in addressing a large volume of questions and to provide targeted support, we have several experienced upper-level undergraduate computer science majors who work closely with the faculty to serve as tutors and teaching assistants and help with responding to email questions and staff the online help desks.

Our experience has been that students seek frequent support during their first and second semesters in the program and gradually less as they progress through the program. Multiple levels of support are most helpful for the students in their first and second semesters as a large number of questions and issues can be addressed by the teaching assistants, thereby allowing the faculty to focus on more complex issues. We have found that students appreciate the various levels of support provided to them, and that the focused and specialized nature of that tutoring and support as well as the close integration of technologies used to deliver support help to create a sense of community among the online students and the faculty.

Our goals for this presentation are to share details about our approaches, tools, and experience in delivering effective academic and technical support for our online students. ÊWe seek input and feedback from session participants on our ideas and practices, and will provide opportunities for participants to share their own experience and suggestions.

Lead Presenter

Dr. Adel Abunawass is Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of West Georgia and is the instructor for the courses discussed in this presentation. He has led the development and transition to online delivery of these courses over the last several years and is currently overseeing efforts to transition the Master of Science in Applied Computer Science program from a face-to-face program to 100% online. Dr. Abunawass earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science from North Dakota State University and has been at UWG since 1999. His professional and research interests are in the areas of computer science education, online learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics.