For Conference Topic 5. Access - academic staff development and
resources; student access to technology and training.

Internet access, help desks and online study

Roger Atkinson
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
Abstract: This paper examines the increasing diversity of Internet access provisions by tertiary education institutions, under pressures from the costs incurred by student users, staffing constraints, equity issues and concerns about market share for online courses.

Introduction: Changing nature of the access debate

Internet access has been, and continues to be the subject of much debate in all sectors of education. For tertiary education, the nature of the debate has changed considerably since initiation of the Internet in Australia by AARNet in 1990. The emphasis in earlier times upon "how to obtain access" has given way to issues of "who pays" and "how to use the Internet effectively".

If we attempt to categorise the changing issues surrounding Internet access, from the perspectives of students and the staff most directly concerned with "making it work", one kind of listing may include the following factors, relating to both off campus and on campus environments:

The central proposition in this article is that in seeking to get the most out of the "making it easier" factors, and to minimise suffering from the "making it harder" factors, tertiary institutions should plan explicitly for diversity. We will (I hope) recognise the diversity of student users, and of staff using Internet based teaching, and try to cater for it. In our particular context at Murdoch University, we will (again, I hope) relate our work on "Internet access, help desks and online study" to user needs analyses and to staff, student and community perceptions about the University, instead of being confined to a narrow focus upon the "strain and cost".

The views expressed here are my own, not the University's, and are based upon what seems like an eternity (actually, only eight years) of every day work upon "Internet access, help desks and online study".

Providing access: Institutional options

Almost all universities provide students with Internet access from on campus laboratories, and off campus via modem pools, although the TAFE sector has a much lower incidence of modem access provision. However, with access via private ISPs, and wide availability of access from the workplace, institutions don't have to provide modem access, or even on campus access, in the case of distance education. One way to categorise the options is as follows:

No provisionThis option may be especially relevant for workplace delivery of training. It is used exclusively by some of the new kinds of providers, for example Microsoft (1998). Use it if you feel that your market share is not affected by not being into access provision for your students.

On campus onlyThis option may be typical of institutions with little dependence upon part time and off campus student enrolments. Those who do require off campus access may be directed to private ISPs or may have workplace access. Use it if you feel that your market share is not affected by not being into modem access for your students.

On campus and off campus"Centralised"Typical for many universities. Centrally managed computer laboratories and a single, free modem pool for all student users. Use it with a vision towards evolution into a more mature diversity.

"Insourced"Typical for many universities. Centrally managed computer laboratories, School or Faculty laboratories (usually"insourced" to the School, Faculty or Department's technical staff), and a single, free modem pool for all student users.

"Outsourced"Under consideration at many universities. Centrally managed computer laboratories, School or Faculty laboratories, and all modem pool access "outsourced" to a private ISP under contract, or students left to find their own ISP (for example, Campus Review, 1988). Use this option if you feel that your market share and institutional image are not significantly affected by not being into modem access for your students.

"Mature diversity"A direction of evolution at some or (hopefully) many institutions. Centrally managed computer laboratories, School or Faculty classrooms (which may be "insourced" to a central service by internal charges), other kinds of access in Library, student accommodation, training rooms and "cybercafe" environments under a range of user charges, and a variety of modem pools with a number of categories of grade of service and user charges from zero up to some reasonable level. Users select one or more environments to suit themselves and their purposes. Access is used also as a component in inter-institutional collaboration, for example at branch campuses (Atkinson, 1997a, 1998). Progress towards this option if you have to work hard on your market share and institutional image.

I hope that the list above reinforces the point that there is a range of solutions and that optimising is more dependent upon factors such as market share, student needs and institutional image than upon technological considerations. Diversity is OK, though we should be careful to minimise cross subsidies between different classes of user. Furthermore, accordance of weight to non-technological factors links us to the next stage of this analysis, how to make the most effective use of Internet access.

Help desk: Someone has to....

We can categorise contributions towards the "effective use of Internet access" into three broad areas, help desk, user training, and instructional design or other kinds of design in the case of purposes other than teaching. The need for a help desk service, to assist users with technical and other kinds of problems, is generally accepted as essential. However, the commitment may range from minimal to major, depending upon an institution's position in the spectrum of access options.

This section proposes some key features in considering "why run help desk services" ("how to" questions are outside the scope of this article). Again, my view is that the key features relate to non-technological factors:

Access and help are linkedStudents tend to seek help from their Internet access provider, for example in the laboratory they are using, or from the provider of their modem access. Very sensibly, for reasons such as being able to obtain context sensitive or subject area related help, or in the case of modem connections, staff use their privileged access to the users host to facilitate help services. If you do not link access with a good help service, goals in "effective use" are sabotaged, and there are severe inefficiencies if access and help provision are not done by the same or closely linked staff.

Help and effective learningThe hypothesis here is that online study cannot be conducted successfully if the unit coordinator, tutors and students are distracted and hampered by problems in "how to make the technology work" (Atkinson and Brown, 1997). It is not an easy topic for research, because no one wishes to conduct the disasters which would create evidence in favour of the hypothesis. Therefore, one function for help desk is to be the prudent insurance.

Being "Internet friendly"If your institution makes a feature of its reputation for "being good with students", for a "supportive, friendly environment", for "close relations between staff and students", then it follows that your institution should be committed to a new corollary, seeking an image of being an "Internet friendly" institution. That task falls heavily upon help desk services, upon the human interface to making the technology work and work effectively.

EquityThe acceptance of equity principles extends (I hope) into supporting effective access to Internet services, where you are a provider. Again, much of the task falls upon help desk services, looking after the computer shy, the rural and remote, those who cannot readily come on campus, users with old equipment and meagre personal budgets, and novice women users (although gender differences are decreasing).

Link to related servicesThe advance in perspective from "making it work" to "making it work effectively " increases (I hope) our sensitivity towards the links between technical help desks and other services. Learning skills, information retrieval skills, online presentation skills, and the beneficial feedback loops with user training and instructional designs for online study. Some institutions are restructuring their help desks into a wider integration, usually under the Library's umbrella (Atkinson, 1997b). Links to user training and instructional design are a major feature of such moves.

I have this recurring thought about help desk services being a demarcation dispute in the inverse. Unlike demarcation disputes in other sectors of our economy, the loser gets the work....

User training: Help desk's salvation?

The fear or proposition in alarmist mode is that a small omission in user training equates to a major avalanche at the help desk. Many of us will be familiar with the AVCC's pronouncement of a universal "IT support crisis" (AVCC, 1996: sections 179-180). Thus we turn to user training programs as one avenue of salvation. Again, this section cites some features of what we need, and the specifics of content and "how" are beyond its scope.

What we need most are programs oriented towards the high level purposes of engendering confidence, self reliance, and technical diagnostic and survival skills. We also need environments which encourage mutual and peer group support, learning from and helping each other. We need to give plenty of scope for users to enagage in attractive practice opportunities, even though we know that some of these opportunities are dubious and are bad news for traffic volumes and facilities use times.

We know that under the typical fullness of the formal syllabus for most units of study, a full catering for user needs in relation to using the Internet is not possible, and in any event may not be the most effective avenue. We know that gaps typically exist in user training, for example at Murdoch we have a gap in the area of "getting connected via a modem". We know that it is difficult, in the typical context, to introduce user charges for training of students, or for help related services generally.

Nevertheless, improved user training, and whatever restructuring it takes, is one of the major keys to attaining the effectiveness part of Internet access.

Instructional design: Please consider...

The "Please consider..." plea is not from an advert on the telly, it is from a web page on cleo, which alerts (I hope) unit coordinators and others to certain constraints faced by many users, especially modem users (TLC, 1998a). Just as we know that overhead projector transparencies should be legible from the back of the classroom, we should know something about basic and higher level design considerations underlying instructional designs for online study (this is a very brief version, a list of types of considerations):

Know the users' environmentThe average user has what I call, politely, "a middle aged personal computer" on the desktop, and often may encounter frustrations due to slow speed delivery, modem pool or laboratory congestion, and similar hassles. The user's knowledge and confidence are also a part of "user environment". "Please consider..." accordingly.

Draw upon the full toolkitOnline study requires all the attributes of good teaching in any medium or context. But (perhaps) the stakes are higher, that is the risk of poor outcomes may be more severe. The instructional design for your unit needs to draw upon a full range of techniques, the "full toolkit", in particular techniques for encouraging active learning in contrast to passive, and opportunities for peer group activities which prior to the Internet were effectively closed to the distance education mode.

Good design needs teamsAs the process of mainstreaming online study proceeds, we are moving away from the model so often found in face to face teaching, that is the lecturer in charge as the sole or almost sole provider of curriculum development and instructional design for a unit or subject. Even if you can write your own html, you need to be very conscious of the scope for improved quality when your unit or subject is developed with the experiences and inputs from others. From another perspective, why should some of us slave away at the access and help desk scenes if the highest level end purpose is not a good achiever?

Develop the infrastructureThe concept of "infrastructure" in Murdoch University's context (Atkinson, 1997b; Atkinson and Brown, 1997; Atkinson et al, 1998) is expanding in response to staffing constraints (though without additional staffing). The Teaching and Learning Centre is working on in house templates, user documentation intended to provide a high degree of self reliance, and on the introduction of web server environments such as WebCT and TopClass, to obtain higher productivity from the same number of staff (TLC, 1998b). No doubt similar trends are in progress at many other institutions, and I wish you all the best, because if you are working in "infrastructure", you may be at the most critical part within the suite of services required for successful online teaching and learning.


Atkinson, R. (1998). Innovative delivery methods for Murdoch University's South West Campuses. NPRF96 Project Report February 1998.

Atkinson, R. (1997a). Information technology and small branch campuses: A case study in Mandurah, WA. Proceedings, CAUSE in Australasia '97, pp.9-16. Melbourne, 13-16 April, 1997.

Atkinson, R. (1997b). Murdoch Online: Preparing an infrastructure for virtual campus operations. In R. Kevill, R . Oliver and R. Phillips (eds), ASCILITE '97: What works and why, 42-47. Perth: Curtin University. or

Atkinson, R. and Brown, A. (1997). Online units: What infrastructure services are required? In R. Pospisil and L. Willcoxson (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p6-11. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University.

Atkinson, R., Brown, A., Pospisil, R. and Rehn, G. (1998). So you want to put your course on the web? In B. Black and N. Stanley (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum. Perth: The University of Western Australia.

AVCC (Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee) (1996). Exploiting information technology in higher education: An issues paper.

Microsoft (1998). Microsoft Training and Certification.

Campus Review (1998). Students face fees for Internet. 21 January, p.3.

Murdoch Online.

TLC (Teaching and Learning Centre) (1998a). Putting your unit on the web: html tips and hints.

TLC (Teaching and Learning Centre) (1998b). Putting your unit on the web: A guide.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1998). Internet access, help desks and online study. OLA Virtual Conference, 16-27 March.

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