Streamlining Forms Management Process in a Distance Learning Unit




M’hammed Abdous, PhD
Center for Learning Technologies, Old Dominion University,
Norfolk, Virginia

mabdous@odu.edu

Wu He, PhD
Center for Learning Technologies, Old Dominion University,
Norfolk, Virginia,

whe@odu.edu


 

Abstract

Managing the required forms for a variety of distance courses is challenging and sometimes overwhelming. Inefficient management can lead to a variety of problems in course delivery, such as delays in obtaining textbooks, problems in obtaining copyright permission, and even course delays. In an effort to facilitate, streamline and improve forms management, a system was designed to streamline the management of required forms for face-to-face, hybrid, online and televised courses. The system provides faculty, and distance learning administrators with an easy method to manage all forms effectively and efficiently.
 

Introduction

Preparation and management of distance learning courses often require greater front-end preparation time and resources than traditional courses (Hartman, Dziuban & Moskal, 2000; Smallwood & Zargar, 2000; Smith & Caris, 2001). This additional workload is partially due to the variety of paper-based forms required for the management of distance learning programs. Following the paper-based culture of on-campus units, distance learning units require faculty to complete a myriad of forms such as forms for developing syllabi, ordering textbooks, obtaining copyright clearance, requesting software, requesting course packs, and proctoring exams. Because of the complexity of workflow processes associated with manually processing and routing paper-based forms, the management of such forms has become tedious and time-consuming. This complexity increases when distance learning units use multiple delivery modes (e.g., broadcasting, web-based, CD-ROMs, video streaming) as every mode often has its own specific forms and procedures that must be used. In addition, with more faculty teaching from remote sites, the submission of paper forms has become cumbersome, and increased the difficulty of tracking and managing course delivery information.

To effectively manage a large number of forms and to streamline distance course delivery, many distance learning (DL) units have converted conventional paper forms to electronic forms. However, this electronic conversion has not always improved the situation:

It is surprising how few organizations have implemented online forms on their intranets. Most have instead created PDF versions of their existing forms, and have placed them on the site. Staff have to print these off, fill them in by hand, and submit them via internal mail. This is only a very small benefit beyond the original paper forms.  (Robertson, 2004, p. 1)  

In recent years, distance learning staff have also utilized specialized software, such as Adobe Acrobat. Using such software, Portable Document Format (PDF) forms can be completed and e-mailed to appropriate parties. However, unless complete forms management solutions are implemented (Adobe 2003), such specialized software often requires several manual operations such as printing and scanning or faxing before the task is completed.

Despite the problems noted above, little online and distance learning literature has focused on workload issues associated with course delivery logistics. To compensate for this gap in the literature, this article will discuss the development of an online form management system designed to (1) reduce faculty workload and increase their satisfaction by simplifying forms management processes, and (2) minimize the DL units’ administrative burden and costs associated with paper-based forms.

Project Background

The site at which the online form management system was developed is a moderate sized, urban, public, doctorate-awarding, research university that is a national leader in technology-mediated distance learning and has been involved in technology delivered distance learning since the mid-1980s.  Historically, course delivery has been conducted using interactive television via satellite broadcast from campus to sites around the country. In recent years, delivery modes have been expanded to include two-way video, Internet, CD-ROM, and video streaming.

To ensure the success of various course delivery modes, faculty are required to complete a variety of course-related forms such as syllabi, textbook ordering, copyright clearance, software requests, course pack requests, and exam proctor forms. As shown in Figure 1, faculty complete the forms manually and submit them to the office of Distance Learning for processing and routing to different departments. In addition to burdening faculty with numerous forms, this paper-based manual approach created tracking, processing, and retrieving problems to the DL staff. Paper-based forms were traditionally contained in binders and stored in filing cabinets and boxes. Over time, the storage of these forms has become cumbersome and problematic. Inefficient management of forms often leads to a variety of problems, such as textbook delays, course meeting delays, problems with obtaining copyright permissions, and so forth.

In an effort to facilitate, streamline, and improve the forms management, a system was designed to streamline the management of required forms for face-to-face, hybrid, online, and televised courses. A pioneering web-based system was developed and has been used by faculty since the summer semester of 2006. Business process reengineering was used as a methodological framework for examining and improving the university’s internal procedures (Aversano, Canfora, De Lucia, & Gallucci, 2002). The new web-based environment provides faculty with an intuitive web interface to manage all forms effectively and efficiently. This system also provides DL staff with the capability to efficiently track forms submission online.


Figure 1. Paper-Based Forms Processing Approach

Online Forms Service

The new approach adopted a rapid application development approach (Robinson, 1995) to the design and development of the online form services system. Our design approach embraced several core design principles: layout design, web development, system integration and application programming. As part of the faculty support portal, the system [http://www.clt.odu.edu/onlineform/] has been through two iterations of “molding” and “tweaking,” based on feedback collected from usability tests and faculty reviews. So far, over 90 faculty teaching distance learning courses have used this system for their course forms submission and management. The following is a brief overview of the key features currently available in the system:

Completing forms online. Faculty can fill in and submit various course forms online at anytime and anywhere (except for copyright clearance form which requires hard copy signature). Faculty can also check due dates for various course forms (See Figure 2).


Figure 2. Online Form System Interface

Adapting forms from previous semesters for current use. Faculty can reuse/update previous semesters’ forms to create new ones. User profile information is used to pre-populate generic forms fields. This reduces the data entry time for faculty (See Figure 3).


Figure 3. Online Form System Retrieval Interface

Provide DL staff with immediate knowledge of form usage. All course-related forms are saved in a centralized database, easily maintained and tracked by DL staff. The interface provides an easy interface to view and generate reports, import and export data, and to send automatic reminders to faculty. (See Figure 3).


Figure 4. Online Form System Workflow

In summary, as shown in the Figure 4, the online forms system plays an essential role in facilitating coordination and communication among the stakeholders involved in the course delivery logistics.


Figure 5. Online forms management system

Technical Architecture

The system is a database-driven tool that helps streamline forms management process. To deploy the system on the web, a Microsoft MSSQL server is used as the backend database environment, because of its capacity to support the required functionalities. PHP is used as a scripting language to create dynamic web content by querying the database. CSS was used to ensure the overall consistency of the system’s look and feel. A user account authentication system maintained by the Center for Learning Technologies is used to prevent unauthorized access to the online form services, thereby protecting the security of the application. An instructional designer, two instructional technologists and an interface designer were involved in programming and developing the actual system.

Evaluation

To capture first-hand feedback about faculty experience using the online forms service, faculty were asked to provide feedback and suggestions using an online form. After going through several modifications of the interface, including suggestions from faculty and CLT staff, the system has received good ratings and positive comments from faculty who are pleased with the new online form services. A review of initial feedback indicates that the system is a time-saving and convenient tool for the forms management process and improves the performance of the DL operations. The system also enables all staff involved in the process to work together asynchronously and remotely. Through the development and subsequently offering of this online form service a number of lessons have been learned, including the following:

  1. Online forms are not simply the electronic replication of their print paper format. Although considerable attempts have been made to make the online forms appear the same as paper forms, efforts also have been made to ensure the usability of all forms. The online forms have been implemented with design consideration to reduce data entry time (data pre-filling), validation, and improve data accuracy.  In addition, form fields have been labeled with instructions to tell the user what type of information is required for the field, the format the information should follow, and any other necessary information. An online tutorial for using this service also have been provided.
  2. It is critical to keep online forms up-to-date. To help online forms service run smoothly, our DL staff maintains and updates the forms on a regular basis. From semester to semester changes are made to keep the forms updated.
  3. Providing faculty support is crucial. Faculty have different needs for technical assistance and different levels of proficiency with technology. To be responsive to faculty needs and to ensure they use the system correctly, technical help is provided to faculty in a timely manner.
  4. Making an easy transition to electronic forms. To avoid a disruption of the normal course delivery operations, both paper and electronic forms have been made available to faculty. We adopted a phased approach to facilitate faculty buy-in and use of the new system. Encouraging and helping the faculty to use the online system eventually will lead to the discontinuation of paper-based forms.
  5. Tracking forms submission is essential. Some faculty tend to be tardy in their completion of required forms. This system provides DL staff with the capability to efficiently track and remind faculty of upcoming due dates.

Conclusion and Future Work                     

There is no question that moving from a paper-based to a web-based system is a growing trend in business and industry, such as banking and airlines companies. With university faculty and staff experiencing problems related to the effective management of course-related forms, it has become clear that a more efficient system needs to be implemented. New web-based technology has the potential to create new systems that will streamline the forms management process, save time, lower costs, and reduce problems associated with the manual processing of forms (Nimmons, 2003).  The centralized web-based database system described in this paper provides a more efficient method of reducing the problem of managing and tracking numerous course-related forms. This system can continue to expand in scope to include other management tasks and can be integrated with other university systems (e.g., university course registration system) in the near future. Adoption of a similar system by other colleges and universities can benefit other distance learning programs and encourage their efforts in going paperless.

Acknowledgments

We would like to acknowledge the comments and feedback from Professor Edward Neukrug at Old Dominion University. We also want to thank the staff in the Center for Learning Technologies, particularly Dexter Marcelino for his help in designing the interface. Finally, we also wish to thank the faculty at Old Dominion University for their assistance in the design and development of the online forms system.


References

Adobe (2003). Electronic forms solutions using XML and PDF. Retrieved January 12,
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Aversano, L., Canfora, G., De Lucia, A. & P. Gallucci, (2002). Business process reengineering and workflow automation: a technology transfer experience. The Journal of Systems and Software, 63, 29–44

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Nimmons, B.(2003). Leon county implements system to streamline its forms management process. The Journal, March, 2003. Retrieved Dec. 3, 2006, from http://thejournal.com/articles/16317

Robinson, J. R. (1995). Radical systems development: An introduction to rapid application development. Chapel Hill, NC: Professional Press.

Robertson, J. (2004). Step-by-step: implementing online forms. KM Column, February, 2005. Retrieved Jan. 3, 2007, from
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Smallwood, J. E., & Zargari, A. (2000). The development and delivery of a distance learning (DL) course in industrial technology. Journal of industrial technology, 16(3). Retrieved January 12, 2007, from http://www.nait.org/jit/Articles/small060600.pdf

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume X, Number II, Summer 2007
University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
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