Managing Students Virtually

Coordinating a geographically dispersed student body that learns primarily online is just one of the key challenges that modern institutions of higher education are facing. With more education taking place online–and in some cases, all of that education happening on the Web–colleges are being forced to rethink their classroom and student management strategies.

At Capella University, a recently upgraded Web portal serves as the center point for the virtual school’s student and course management activities. The new system replaces a portal platform that was delivered through the school’s PeopleSoft Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software.

That platform handled basic, transactional processes like tuition payments, course registration and interactions with the ERP, but it "wasn’t designed to be a Web experience," said Jason Scherschligt, Capella’s online user experience manager.

Providing a ‘World Class Online Experience’
That missing link was becoming a problem for the all-online university. "Our entire university experience has to be delivered successfully over the Web," Scherschligt explained. "Before the upgrade, we weren’t providing the world class online experience for anything beyond course interaction."

Before investing in any new technology, Scherschligt said his team came up with four basic areas that the new student portal would have to address. Those areas included formal academic learning; administrative tools; rich support resources like tutoring help and technical support; and access to faculty members and other college students.

Scherschligt said all of those elements were considered during the research phase, which was enabled by a technical consulting firm that performed an unbiased evaluation of several portal options. Important points like flexibility, architecture, interface, text and multimedia elements, and user base vitality were also factored in.

In mid-2010, after a yearlong pilot program, Capella rolled out the new iteration of its iGuide portal. During the pilot phase, Scherschligt said, the university solicited feedback on the new system from its faculty and students and then used that input to tweak and adjust the portal to meet those needs.

"We discovered that some of the things that keep our [students] coming back quarter after quarter–and saying good things about Capella to their friends–could be tackled by making portal platform improvements," Scherschligt explained. "So we took the time to figure out how much value every portal feature would deliver to our users."

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