The e-learner support black hole

Oct 7, 2021 | By John Scotcher

There's a danger as your e-learning site scales, that the support requirements of your learners haven't been considered. Here's why...

In the last two years, as I have essentially been eating, drinking, and breathing E-learning concepts, an often-unconsidered element has come up a few times.  This element, if left unconsidered at scale has the potential to cause a real problem for the owner of the e-learning company providing courses.

It’s actually something I have seen previously in my 22 years running Pearson Treehouse Web Development, and I thought it was something that was worth talking about.  The issue is that of support.  Specifically support of students or clients when they get confused with their experience or journey on the website platform.  Now, if you have a web developer or e-learning platform creator worth their salt, technical support to you as the site owner should be implicit.  If it isn’t feel free to call me.  But, the supporting of your clients / learners etc, at the very least the tier one day to day support is the remit of the site owner.

So, let’s talk about general technical support on a website e-learning platform.  In my experience there are generally three things might need support.  They are.

  •  Something is broken on the site itself.  This is often the least common type of needed support if the site platform is thoroughly tested before launch.  However, on occasion it can happen, for example as a result of operating systems on the server updating or hardware breaking – servers are just machines after all and as such they have parts that can wear out.  In these situations, as you would rightly expect, you should be covered.  Your platform developer will be on it with the server team to get you up and running asap.  Worst case scenario is potentially a little down time. 

    You might have noticed some worldwide downtime a couple of weeks ago if you are watching this close to broadcast when Fastly a content delivery service went down for a few hours taking out a host of websites that used it – CNN, the British Government website, parts of the BBC and hundreds more. This actually effected some Tovi users that delivered their videos using Vimeo which was one of the many services that were taken out for a while by the Fastly issue. 
    So, it can happen but it’s unusual.

  • The second potential support need is when you as the site platform owner make changes to your website, perhaps without full consideration, that may result in immediate regret.  There are many ways to mitigate this, but in the event it happens you usually know straight away and should be able to give your platform creator a quick call – assuming you are on the sort of platform Tovi is, wherein the creator is someone like me who has a personal ‘end of the phone’ relationship with all his users.  And you would hope that in the event of little tweaks that it wouldn’t be a major issue.  I have a simple mantra that if the tweak takes less time to do than the invoice would take to generate, then It’s not going to get invoiced. 

  • That brings us to the third support type, the supporting of your learners.  And herein lies the potential black hole.  The learner doesn’t encounter a technical problem that needs fixing, rather the learner misunderstands something, does something wrong, creates a situation that in all the testing one never imagined anyone would even think to try.  Humans are infinitely resourceful when messing things up.

Here’s an example from a very simple uploads system in a non LMS that I built recently.  So the website rents short term properties. Until recently they rented their own properties.  They decided to expand and let certain companies upload properties that they could be agents for.  This involved a very simple login for the third party companies and a simple form to add / edit properties.

The system works a treat.  However, they have a couple of third party companies where the individuals using the system just struggle.  Even with a very simple user interface and clear instructions in both text and video form, the individuals needed support on every property they uploaded in the first fortnight of the system being live.  For the site owners, they found themselves spending more time than they wanted carrying out the support.  Of course, they could have asked me, but user confusion isn’t website issue and thus it would have cost them.  So, they chose to spend their time rather than their money. Fortunately, the two individuals eventually got up to speed and things have been plain sailing since.  But the lesson here is that as soon as they had added the membership element to their site, they were now not only property agents, but they were also suddenly website administrators too, which they need to factor in for the future should they wish to grow this.

Ok, now amongst web devs and IT contractors we have a little saying “The issue is between the chair and the keyboard”  And whilst it’s a good shortcut that explains exactly what is causing the problem, when one is that issue, being told that doesn’t bloody help.

Let me tell you about another non LMS event where I was that issue.  So recently I had the dubious joy of shopping online for my mother-in-law who resolutely refuses to venture onto the internet out a fear of being scammed.  It’s something I do grudgingly, I am ashamed to admit, because it’s a needless drain on my time.  But one does one’s duty. 

So, my recent duty was to buy a new shower screen.  I won’t tell you who I bought from for avoiding libel purposes, but let’s call them ‘the bathroom gits’.  I went, ordered the item and setup delivery.  Two days later, the screen hadn’t arrived at the appointed time.  So now I had to find out what had happened.  Long story short, I had put a typo in the postcode.  Entirely my fault not theirs.  However, during the protracted sleuthing required to find this out, I discovered they had no client helpline, no obvious way to speak to a human, a terrible terrible automated chatbot and the audacity to eventually charge me an admin fee of more than the screen to change the postcode and get the thing delivered. 

When something goes wrong, the way a company reacts has the potential to make or break a client relationship far more than when everything goes right.  Get it wrong, you’ll get someone like me calling them the bathroom gits and vowing to never use them again.  Get it right and you have a customer who is impressed with how things were turned around and tell people about it.

So, when your e-learners miss something one your website, upload the wrong document for marking, forget their password and the email address they used to sign in with (yes, really, it happens), miss an email because of an overly draconian spam policy in their email client, they won’t be thinking. ‘ok hands up, that was me’, they will want to know what you are going to do to help them.  And that is a very important consideration for you.

My educated guesstimate from all the years I have been building member systems that have functions that the members can do once logged in is that 3-5% of those members will need extra help.  If you are running an e-learning platform that has 200 people a year taking your courses, then you’ll be expecting 6 to ten people over that year.  Less than one a month.  That’s one of those things that you could say is a good problem to have.  That much revenue, if public courses, allows you to budget for the minimal time that might be needed.  And at that level, simple provision of a phone number and/or email contact form will help you get the learner’s request for help quickly and allow you to deal with it accordingly.

But what happens when you scale that up?  Let’s take another example, an e learning platform that onboards staff to a worldwide company.  Let’s imagine that company is onboarding staff at a rate of   200 a week.  And because it’s a company e-learning site for internal use, each learner doesn’t represent additional revenue – so any support of those learners needs to come out of the existing time/money budget.  Based on the percentages above, that’s a potential of 520 users that need a little extra help a year.  Now let’s say each is just a little ten minute solve – totted up that’s still eleven working days of nothing but support over the course of a year.

Now for the large company with that many staff – it’s a tiny thing to worry about.  So where’s that black hole I mentioned.  Well, consider the previous scenario, but this time, the e-learning platform and course is delivered by a smaller subcontracting company, a company without the resources to provide the necessary support without it impacting on the rest of the work they do.  This is the unconsidered problem that has the potential to cause real issues.   So, what do you do?

Well, the most important thing is considering the issue.  As they say, hope for the best, prepare for the worst.  Each scenario will be different, but here are just a couple of things to start with:

  • Calculate your estimated ‘extra help’ users over the course of a time period and make sure there is redundancy in your forecasts to cater for them.
  • Add transparent ways for a user experiencing issues to get in contact, but make sure those ways suit you as well as them – if you don’t want to be called all the time, lead users to a form solution.
  • Plan your method of support.  Decide what forms tier one – the stuff you can deal with and what forms tier two the stuff you need to get your techies involved with.
  • Keep your users informed.  When they contact you, manage their expectations by telling them how long it will be before you get back to them, and then stick to that agreed timescale.

In most cases, having many users with need is indicative that one has even more users without and that is a good problem to have, but, getting these essential support considerations in place before you hit the big numbers will save you lots of potential headaches in the future. 

Thanks for reading - see you next time!

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