Learner support is a key factor in ensuring students complete their studies smoothly, and also directly affects the teaching quality of distance education colleges/universities, as well as student satisfaction.

The idea of learner support was introduced and developed through the distance teaching and learning of the Open University, UK. In 1978, David Sewart first gave a systematic overview of learner support in his book Continuity of Concern for Students in a System of Learning at a Distance. Since then, learner support has been constantly enriched and has evolved as a unique key concept and practical activity in the field of distance education. It is also considered one of the two largest subsystems of distance teaching in the academia and practice field.

In China, in 1996, the concept of learner support was officially written into the documents of Radio and TV Universities (RTVUs) for the first time. For a long time, domestic distance education colleges and universities had focused on the design and development of rich teaching resources. In time, however, people gradually realized that passing down only teaching resources to the learners did not achieve the expected results. More importantly, the need was seen to provide continuous concern for the students from the viewpoint of service, guidance, aid, etc., in order to promote the learning process. It can be said that learning is a process in which learners use and accept learner support to complete their study through the comprehensive learner support programme provided by the school.

Therefore, a sound, efficient, and well-positioned learner support system will directly influence the teaching quality of distance education and student satisfaction. The capability and quality of learner support are of increasingly important strategic significance to the teaching quality of open university.

Development Course

The well-designed, planned, and managed learner support system of RTVUs was developed in late 1990s. In 2002, the China Central Radio and TV University (CCRTVU) set up the Learner Support Centre, which undertakes the planning, design, management, coordination, and guidance of learner support; formulates working rules, standards, and processes for learner support; urges and inspects the implementation of learner support work; and also provides direct advisory services to some students and social members. Over 13 years of exploration and practice, a series of rules and regulations for teaching support services have been gradually established, forming the initial framework of the teaching support service system. 

The learner support available during the RTVU period focused on learners, with the graded and classified management of teaching staff, management team, and technical team as the basis; with teaching site conditions and facilities of the capital, provincial, city-level, county-level, and industry-level as a platform; with satellite network /Internet network information technology and face-to-face teaching as the teaching means; with learning resources, teaching conditions, Q&A, consultation & suggestions as the main contents. Thus, learner support system structure with guided and assisted learning as the content was available to learners in a timely and convenient manner for self-regulated learning, mental health, and throughout the entire process of learning. Under the unified coordination of the CCRTVU, a teaching support service operating mechanism with RTVUs at all levels bearing corresponding service responsibilities was formed. Through the overall coordination and operation of the system, the mechanism provides online, offline, and multi-channel teaching support services for all levels of RTVUs and their teachers and students, as well as providing great non-academic guidance. The principle channels are as follows: 

1. Online teaching. All compulsory courses of specialized subjects are available at the school teaching platform, with network courses, IP courseware, texts, and other rich teaching resources available for the learners to use. The host teachers at the CCRTVU are responsible for organizing system oriented real-time teaching guidance, with live classroom activities at noon; organizing students to participate in theme-based discussions and answer questions from the students through the course BBS. The host teachers at the CCRTVU will organize regular system oriented real-time online teaching and researching activities; help teachers and students in the system deepen their understanding of teaching methods and learning contents; and resolve teaching and learning problems in a timely manner.

2. Distance Reception Centre. Distance Reception Centre was established in 2004, and is a system platform for teachers and students of degree and non-degree education, social learners, as well as social institutions. Through online chat tools, telephone, online forums, E-mail, fax, letters, etc., the platform provides complete and personalized network support services, including registration consultancy, admission query, teaching materials subscription, course registration, learning skills guidance, online resources browsing, enrollment status changes, course selection guidance, tutoring, homework reminders, examination reservations, scores query, graduation application, degree review, employment guidance, psychological counseling, technical assistance, policy publication, and new project push. In addition, Distance Reception Centre also takes the initiative to undertake outbound tasks of related operation departments, such as student scholarships, student grants, and telephone follow-up. 

3. Local services. At teaching sites all over the country, tutors and guiding teachers (head teachers) provides tutoring, supervision, promotion of learning, and various consulting work to students through face-to-face teaching, telephone, QQ, WeChat and other modern means of communication to satisfy various needs of the learners.

4. Scholarships and student assessment. To inspire the students of the RTVUs to study hard, since 2002, the CCRTVU has launched awards commendation events for outstanding graduate each class year. Since 2009, the Open University of China (OUC, former CCRTVU) has carried out scholarship pilot work. This is of great significance in mobilizing students' learning enthusiasm and initiative, deepening reform of the learner development model, promoting the exploration of learning modes, and strengthening the cohesion and sense of belonging of the students in the OUC.

5. CETV. The OUC provides video resources of degree and non-degree education for students and the public through CETV2.

Reform Exploration

After the OUC was established from CCRTVU, Learner Support Centre continues to care for the interests of the students and to focus on the research and practice of support service system construction, with the construction and operation of the online curriculum at its heart. The Centre adheres to the overall design and coordinated operation of both academic and non-academic support to promote gradual growth into new areas.What role should the OUC learner support play in the new era, and how to implement it? This is a topic that is related to every student, and therefore one that the Learner Support Centre has carefully considered. To this end, Learner Support Centre should be earnest and down-to-earth, focusing on students and strong fundamentals, remembering that investigation and scientific research are an important part of this work. In 2014 alone, the Centre has successively carried out 7 investigation activities. "Research on the Construction of Personal Learning Space of the OUC", "Research and Practice of the Whole Process of Learner Support of the OUC" and 7 other projects have been completed. Multiple other topics including "Online Curriculum-Based Teaching Mode Reform of the OUC" and "Research on the Construction of the Course Teaching Team of the OUC" are ongoing. Solid survey and research data has laid a foundation for the exploration and reform of learner support. Currently, the key explorations are as follows:

1. To build online courses with learning process design as a focus. According to the deployment arrangement of the OUC, Learner Support Centre launched the online courses construction in March 2013. The construction of online courses is based on a student-centred learning environment. The online courses of the OUC must be equipped with abundant learning resources, improved learning activities and learning evaluation, and comprehensive teaching processes to meet different demands of teaching and learning, completing and implementing all the learning process, and providing support services of online courses to the students by guidance, assistance, supervision, and promotion in the learning process. According to the course construction plan, from 2013 to 2015, all compulsory specialized courses for the undergraduate programmes will be built as online courses. The construction of the online courses, in return, constantly fosters the exploration, implementation, and organization of the online teaching mode.

2. To explore web-based learner support service models. The implementation body of online courses-based support service is composed of three teams: the teaching staff team that provides guidance and assistance in the learning process for students; the teaching staff team (head teachers) that provide all kinds of non-academic guidance and services for students; Distance Reception Center that integrates the use of computer networks, mobile Internet, communications networks, and other media to provide a wide range of academic and non-academic services for students.

The prominent advantage of network support services lies in that they can provide learners with more convenient and flexible service channels and a more optimized service mode. Compared with the traditional service mode, the advantages of optimized network support services are demonstrated in two aspects: first, integrating three types of service body, providing more comprehensive and integrated support services; second, sharing and dynamically configuring service resources across the system, improving the overall service quality and response speed efficiently.

3. To explore the operation mechanism of the teaching staff team of the learning website of the OUC (http://www.ouchn.edu.cn/). The learning website of the OUC, online courses, and the online teaching staff team complement each other. They launched their pilot work at the same time in the fall of 2013. Currently, they have completed three rounds of the pilot programmes, and the fourth round is under way. Thanks to the active exploration and hard work of the participating teachers in the pilot, strong support from each branch, and the joint efforts and cooperation of each teaching department of the OUC and relevant departments, positive progress and valuable achievements have been made.

In addition, in the field of non-academic support, Learner Support Centre also has a series of future improvements planned and timed to match with the corresponding reforms of the OUC. For example, Distance Reception Centre has participated in the various learning guidance service pilot programmes, the website upgrading of Distance Reception Centre, and return visit of dormant students, etc. In terms of student affairs, Learner Support Centre is actively exploring the application of new media in learner support, and a WeChat account "Home of the OUC Student" has been created. Learner Support Centre uses the account to publicize the good deeds of outstanding students, share learning experience, share their learning and life experience, and create a positive campus culture atmosphere.

Future Outlook

The OUC is in a critical period of transformation and upgrading, and the learner development  model featured by "Integration of Six Networks" will be the key to successfully navigating difficult points in the next stage of OUC reforms. In the process of exploration and practice of reform in recent years, we have increasingly realized that the "student-centered" service principle should continue to be followed, permeating all aspects of learner development model reform. In the "Integration of Six Networks" model, "network support services" will actually be a key link that joins courses, students, and teachers; and one that connects the network virtual space and actual operation of teaching management, playing a pivotal role in connecting the preceding and the following, optimizing the process and restructuring business.

With the continuous advancement and deepening of "Integration of Six Networks" model, the support services system is expected to move towards service quality standardization, service process standardization, and service link integration. Hundreds of thousands of full-time and part-time teaching staff will be connected as an integrated service network through the Internet, providing higher quality service for millions of students. Students across the country, wherever they are, can enjoy academic and non-academic support services with ensured quality, standardized processes, and rapid and convenient responses.

In addition to supporting the current demand for degree education, this set of support service systems can also be extended to the field of non-degree education, providing network support services for all kinds of non-degree training programmes and courses; better integrating various high quality resources of the third party. Under this framework, the OUC is built based on a “cloud” structure, enabling not only the sharing of high quality courses through the "cloud", but also includes providing a "support service cloud" that docks curriculum developers, service providers, and learners. In this way, through the OUC platform, high quality courses can realize seamless docking with service providers for enrollment, teaching, consulting, and management, better providing a complete distance learning experience for learners all over the country. In comparison with the MOOC platform that is equipped with good course contents but insufficient support services, this model is more conducive to providing necessary learner support, thereby maintaining learning status, and completing the study tasks with good quality. We firmly believe that, with openness, standardization, and sharing degrees, the reasonably configured "support service cloud" can closely connect the online digital resources and offline service entities, and will be one of the important supports that the OUC provides for a learning society.

                                                                                      By OUC Learner Support Centre