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Refining Online Student IT Support


Given the continued expansion of online programs at CU Boulder, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) wanted to take a data-driven approach to examine the experiences of online students from an IT support perspective. Our goal was to identify opportunities for improvement and propose a refined online student IT support model.

This effort follows previous exploration of third-party services to complement existing online student IT support at CU Boulder.


This project was undertaken in anticipation of the development of a new online master’s program through Continuing Education (CE), but because students had yet to be accepted into the program, we focused on the experiences of students in an existing, analogous program: the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership (MSOL).

With launch of the new program on the horizon, the short timeline limited discovery work to looking at CE’s model for developing online programs (rather than surveying various models across CU Boulder) and retrospectively gathering data from ServiceNow*, OIT’s workflow platform for managing customer support, and Canvas support case logs* between August 2019 and May 2021 to capture pre-COVID data along with that collected during the pandemic.

* Available data was limited in terms of timeframe and quality.

Findings & Conclusions

Continuing Education’s Learning Design Group takes a proactive approach to minimize issues that students may encounter

Key to minimizing IT issues for these students is how CE works with instructors on sound course design and delivery. Their model includes:

  • Leveraging instructors as initial points of contact for students
  • Consistent course structure throughout the program, across courses and instructors
  • Instructional designer support for instructors
  • Tutorials on common “how to’s”
Learning-related issues experienced by MSOL students are few but similar to those of on-campus students

365 students were enrolled during the timeframe of analysis. The 42 relevant cases (i.e., those that impeded learning) indicated that the top issues experienced were:

  1. Couldn’t access email
  2. Needed help with IdentiKey login and Buff Portal access
  3. Course was “missing” in Canvas
  4. Difficulty uploading video, posting assignments, viewing instructor annotations on graded assignments
Instructors experienced few IT issues related to their teaching for MSOL

Fourteen MSOL instructors taught between August 2019 and May 2021. Of the 39 relevant cases (seven of which were specific to MSOL), the top teaching-related issues or requests were:

  1. Canvas user questions, course creation requests, extended access for students
  2. Zoom general and user questions
  3. CUClickers user questions and functionality issues

Based on the low numbers of MSOL students and instructors requesting help for IT support, CE’s and OIT’s current IT support models seem to be sound.

Opportunities for Improvement

The data did not reveal glaring issues that needed to be addressed urgently. Rather than proposing a refined online student IT support model, we offer the following recommendations to minimize the need to seek IT support and help alleviate frustrations—not just among the online student population and instructors but also those on campus:

Improve/Increase communication to students, particularly about Canvas course visibility and timing
  • IdentiKey activation can take about two to three business days and delay access to email and courses
  • By default, course access starts two days prior to the first day of class but can vary per department, program, or instructor
  • Inform students via email and Canvas announcements and enlist the help of OIT Communications and the IT Service Center (ITSC)
Address students’ access to Canvas courses
  • Communicate with instructors about providing access earlier to students (and include pedagogical benefits)
  • Consider earlier access at the programmatic (rather than individual course) level
Communicate a clear pathway for instructors to take for IT issues

Help faculty to know where to go and when for IT support, both for their own issues and for those of students who come to them.

  • Instructional designer(s) who assisted in course development
  • CU’s ITSC (during local business hours)
  • Canvas support (available 24/7 for all Canvas-related questions and issues)
Offer a version of Technology Copilots for online programs and instructors

Explore a support model that partners faculty with undergraduate students who can assist them with IT support. 

Consider expanded or 24/7 IT support (through ITSC, vendors, partners, etc.)

Current IT support at CU Boulder is limited to Mountain Time business hours, which is not an issue at the moment, but if CU Boulder were to expand reach with its online programs, this would be problematic for global students.

Review the campus’ support agreement with Canvas

Engage with Canvas regarding delivery of support services as well as data collection and sharing.

Opportunities for Future Research

User experience research would help deepen the campus’ understanding of the IT support needs of a growing online student population and fill in the gaps with what the retrospective data revealed. It would also provide clarity about how they seek IT support and their levels of satisfaction (e.g., response times, access options, resolution). Online instructors could provide their perspective about the current state and their role as initial points of contact for students while former students would be able to share their insights if less-than-optimal experiences led to them not continuing in their program.

Additional areas of research could include:

  • Examining findings from past and current user experience efforts around Canvas and other LMSes to help inform training and support models for online programs
  • Researching other models within CU Boulder, CU System, and other universities
  • Continued exploration of third-party services to complement existing online student IT support at CU Boulder

Project Participants

Team and Partners
  • Mark Gammon, Learning Development and Design Manager, OIT
  • Doris Cheung, Learning Experience Designer, OIT
  • Scott Battle, Assistant Dean for Online Academic Programs and Program Director, Master of Science in Organizational Leadership
  • James Ashby, Academic Technology Data Analyst & Application Administrator, OIT
  • Bryan Melville, Program Manager, Academic Technology Applications, OIT