Advise or Confound? That is the Question

For the past three years, some of my colleagues have worked with several campuses to help them develop coherent Web-based support for students. One of these campuses, a research university, is working on Web-based academic advising. Their goal is to use no more professionals than they currently have to serve more students more effectively. To illustrate the shortcomings of the current state of online advisories, here is a typical dialog between an online student and an academic advisor:

Student: Hi. I’ve taken a part-time job and can’t keep up with all my classes. I am considering dropping an online course. I need to know the deadlines to drop the course so that it won’t affect my grade point average. I also want to take the course next term since I think I need it for my major. Can my financial aid be applied to the course next term? Can you help me?

Advisor: I am glad you called when you did. The last day to drop a class without grade penalties is today.

Student: Oh great. Can I just drop the class on the phone or online without having to come into the campus?

Advisor: Hold on. There are some things you need to check to be sure you can take the course next term and whether dropping the course might have an effect your financial aid this term. You need to contact your academic department to see if the course will be offered next term. Some courses are not offered every term or even every year. You also need to contact the financial aid office to see if your funding will be affected.

Student: Oh, man. Can you tell me who I need to talk to in the department to find that out? I don’t have a campus phone directory here. Can you also help me get the number for the financial aid office?

Advisor: I can give you the numbers but I am not sure the financial aid office can work with you over the phone. For privacy reasons, you have to show them an ID before they can tell you anything about your status. Besides, after you have the information you need, you will still have to come to the campus to sign the drop forms. You have about 3 hours left before this office closes.

Student: Well, I am at work. I can’t just walk out, drive through rush hour traffic to the campus just to stand in lines. When are you folks going to make all this reasonable for those of us who don’t live in a dorm?

This is pretty tough on our student. She can take the course online but trying to navigate the rest of the campus system is overwhelming. The campus with which my colleagues are now working determined there were 17 different databases used across their campus that would be needed to give students direct answers. They plan to make those available in some form to all their academic advisors.

Needless to say, the task to which these campus leaders are committed is not a simple one. Few of these 17 databases can now talk to one another. The advisors will have to learn how to navigate these databases. They will also have to learn new ways of working with students as well as the people who manage those databases so they can be sure they are giving their students the most current information available. But in the end, I believe the value to both the online and on-campus students should be worth all the effort.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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