An important consideration when implementing an online or blended learning solution is how the users will be supported. Students, parents and local school personnel all require support in order for the experience to be successful. From the basics of navigation, to device support, to computer skills instruction, to instructional support evidence shows that digital learning implementation success is tied to students feeling comfortable with the learning experience. Students are also individuals with preferences for how that support is received: live, print, video or self-serve. Of the many factors to consider when starting or expanding a program, support for the end-users warrants planning time and development of procedures.
Overview of the Illinois Virtual School Support Model
At Illinois Virtual School (IVS) we strive to help students, parents and schools feel supported at every stage of the experience. By looking at our practices from the client-oriented lens, we have exceeded the education industry benchmarks  in 96% client satisfaction, 26.8 hrs. average first reply time, and have grown our enrollment numbers in excess of our stated yearly goals of 20%. IVS support satisfaction averaged 99%, with an average reply time of 13.7 hrs. for tickets for the 2nd and 3rd quarter of the fiscal year 2014-2015. During fiscal year 2013-2014 we met our 20% increase, while fall 2014 reflected a 57% increase in enrollment.
The key elements to beginning an IVS experience are on-boarding and ongoing support. During on-boarding we orient end users to the system; develop a partnership; provide demonstrations and walk-throughs and cover common practices and procedures. In ongoing support, we work with end users to review systems; answer questions; troubleshoot; and evaluate the experience for continuous improvement.
In both phases each stakeholder group is provided with written, online self-serve tools, and synchronous opportunities such as webinars, phone service and site visits by IVS staff. A team of just eight people actively maintains this level of service.
How to achieve quality support of digital learning.
Whether provided locally or from the virtual school, the end goal is the same – quality support of online learning. When making decisions about your blended or online solution, schools should consider whether they are able to provide these are five factors which have helped IVS to achieve and maintain high level of support with minimal staff:
1) A Cross-trained Support Team. Keeping the team in the loop at each stage of a project, and supporting their understanding of the processes, procedures and technical specific cuts down on response time and redirection of clients. Each member of the IVS administration spends time each week on the phone with clients. While we all have specialties, the staff is cross-trained to ensure that everyone can support the process of on-boarding new students, parents and schools and provide Tier 1 support.
Team member autonomy is critical to providing support. We do not monitor call times or require team members to adhere scripts allowing them the freedom to provide support. However we do provide answers to common questions via our help center, web site and via simple to use tools so that a consistent message is readily at their fingertips.
In addition, we regularly review skills and procedures with our teaching staff so that they can provide timely assistance, as the student’s first line of support.
2) Investment in Systems. Taking the time to assess needs and then evaluate a number of options, coupled with focusing dollars on systems that support those needs will save money and time in the long run. Our Director of Operations, Barb Closen, is fond of saying, “let’s work smarter, not harder.” As the Digital Learning Support Lead, I often emphasize the need to make sure that the systems we work with are meeting our goals in the most efficient manner possible, which in some cases means enlisting the help of software and custom software engineering solutions. In 2013, we invested in platform-wide improvements, which enable deep integrations, all areas of need. Through curriculum, site and server improvements we have drastically cut the number of incoming support requests, while also streamlining information requests, new and prospective client on-boarding, and marketing initiatives.
3) A Culture of Developing Further Expertise. Digital learning is at the forefront of a never-ending learning curve. Platforms, protocols and technologies in use today may not have existed when staff was hired and may be obsolete in the near future. It is safe to say that no one on our IVS admin team is doing the job they thought they’d be doing when they joined the team. Part of the culture of this administration is that we identify people with key skills and interests and then encourage them to develop that expertise. Whether it’s based on a current need, or exploring a future possibility IVS is invested in the team growing. Through conferences, self-study, classes and informal learning we strive to be able to be the support team our clients need us to be. In that manner, when a client asks us, “could we try…?” we are able to respond in a timely and knowledgeable manner.
4) Flexibility. Practices should be continually improved and expanded to meet end-user needs. Listening to the end-user and sharing their use cases can provide opportunities to provide additional services. As a supplementary program for the Illinois State Board of Education, IVS has as one of its primary goals meeting schools where they are and supporting their needs. Schools never cease to amaze us with their creative use cases. For example, our prescriptive courses, which we envisioned for credit recovery, are commonly used as self-paced gifted programing for students who are exceeding the local curriculum offerings. Creative blended learning solutions are also common, where schools use IVS and then supplement with their own local goals.
5) Partner to Cut Costs and Allow Focus on Client-services. By treating in house staff time as a commodity to be budgeted programs can identify areas where partnership is a huge benefit. One collaboration which IVS has derived benefit from has been the VSLA. With work groups acting as sounding boards in marketing, curriculum and technical areas – IVS has benefited from shared resources, such as our Soft-chalk cloud, and expertise. Through curriculum swaps we have been able to focus our development efforts and share resources allowing our course catalog to grow. The net gains in staff time allow us to focus on the students, parents and schools working with IVS.
 Messineo. Melinda and Ione Y. DeOllos. Are We Assuming Too Much?: Exploring Students’ Perceptions Of Their Computer Competence. College Teaching, Vol. 53, Iss. 2, 2005.
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 The Zendesk Benchmark: Q4 2014.
 Statistics provided by Zendesk.
Christine Gregory, Digital Learning Support Lead for Illinois Virtual School.
Christine Gregory has been a part of Illinois Virtual School since 2005 serving as a science instructor, and Science Department Mentor. Beginning in 2009 Gregory joined the administrative team helping to support the areas of ongoing support services, teacher training, platform integrations, and course building. Gregory was the 2014-15 Chair of the Virtual School Leadership Alliance Technical Directors Working Group. She is active in social media personal learning networks and maintains a blog on disruptive practices in education.