Strategic Directions | Feature

Education and Government: Informing Goals for Student Success Technology

A Q&A with student success software developers en route to a federal briefing

Everyone is familiar with the completion issue — we all know we need more students on track toward graduation, and better tools deployed to support student success. There are many efforts by organizations within education and government aimed at student success, often leveraging technology to help achieve their goals. But how will these efforts be coordinated, so participants in the completion agenda can work toward common goals, with the support and guidance of national and state governments, foundations, or other organized groups?

While there's no simple answer, certainly part of the process is speaking out — institutions sharing ideas with peer groups and briefing appropriate government agencies. And that's exactly what a panel from the South Orange County Community College District will be doing February 27 at a federal briefing on "Paving the Pathway to College Completion: How South Orange County Community College District is using technology tools to improve student success and college completion." Two of the panelists are Vice Chancellor of Technology and Learning Services Robert S. Bramucci and IT Director Jim Gaston, lead developers of SOCCCD's own suite of student success software. To gain insight about this informative meeting, CT asked the two about their objectives for the upcoming briefing that will potentially draw staffers from all of the various federal education committees.

Mary Grush: First, by way of background, Campus Technology has been covering SOCCCD's student success software development in recent years, including your work on MAP, Sherpa (for which you received CT Innovator recognition in 2012), the Student Success Dashboard, and Predictive Analytics. Very briefly, where are you now with these components of your overall student success strategy?

Bob Bramucci: With our agile development method, we release things in small batches, so these projects are all at different stages. Our SIS, which is the foundation (not necessary to run the student success software, but certainly part of our strategy) was in place first. Then, we completed the My Academic Plan (MAP) system back in 2007. By now, students have created more than 200,000 plans with that software! Sherpa, our recommendation engine, is still technically in pilot, though the software is completed. The Student Success Dashboard has been completed also, but we are about to add a "student success ribbon" to it — we're very excited about that. The only piece we haven't finished the software for, yet, is Predictive Analytics. But for that, we have created three mathematical models in collaboration with Dr. Padhraic Smyth at the nearby Center for Machine Learning and Intelligent Systems at the University of California-Irvine, Sandeep Jayaprakash at Marist College in New York, and Ted Younglove in the California Community Colleges system. We are set to run a limited pilot to tweak those algorithms. So with the exception of Predictive Analytics, which is actually just entering Beta, we now can introduce people to all-working software, and all-real demos.

Grush: So are you ready to concentrate more on outreach now? Is tomorrow's briefing in DC an opportunity for that?

Bramucci: We're fairly unusual as a community college, to be making our own software — much less student success software. Because we are somewhat of an unusual creature in higher education, how could we expect people to know about us if we didn't go tell them? Of course we want to show people what we have created, because we think it has value in higher education much more widely.

Jim Gaston: A lot of our participation in the briefing, though, is helping to set the vision. We believe that technology has a significant role to play in the whole student success agenda. I think we are showing that here on a local level, and we are really interested in sparking some discussion nationally and finding some kindred spirits out there who might be doing something similar.

Grush: What can SOCCCD achieve by participating in tomorrow's federal briefing?

Bramucci: First of all, I am delighted to see now what I might call "the alignment of the planets" — I have never before seen this degree of alignment across so many different entities that serve or participate in education, from the White House, to associations of state governors, to private foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, all the way to state efforts like our own California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force.

On one hand, I am very heartened to see a coordination of effort for student success and completion. On the less positive side, having set our sights on higher graduation rates, we have barely budged the needle. Using California as an example (and a good representation of what's going on nationally), we are three-to-four years into this effort. Here we are in 2014 and proportionately, following a linear scale, if we want to double graduations by 2020, or even by 2025, we are not really on track to do that.

We know some things really need to change. For example, in the community colleges, granted we've succeeded in our long-time mandate for access. But now we are trying to serve the twin goals of access and success. This requires change. I think we should have some conversations now, about what needs to change, rather than waiting, say, until 2018 to do that.

Grush: What are some of the things you would add to this conversation, from the perspective of your experience with student success software development at SOCCCD?

Bramucci: One of SOCCCD's broader goals is not just to show people the software that we have created, but also to have a discussion about how we created it. We believe the history of how we created it has a few secrets that we should share with others.

I'll give you some key examples. First, our software is very student-centered. We actually hire students to sit on our design teams, and to do outreach as well as usability studies. We're taking a student to the briefing in DC with us. Second, we use agile methods in creating our software. It's much more inclusive, and much more flexible than software development methods of the past. We believe it perfectly suits the challenges that we face in higher education on behalf of student success. And a third major area is what we call our allocation-of-function approach. In the workplace it's always human beings working in consort with machines. It's a human-plus-machine system. At SOCCCD, we use a human-centered design approach, thus elevating the humans' jobs by allocating rote work to the computers and truly leveraging the expertise of people.

Grush: How are the elements of the SOCCCD model replicable, or how can they be leveraged by colleges and universities across the country?

Bramucci: Our student-centered, agile, allocation-of-function approach, which I just described, is remarkably replicable: particularly the strategy of forming broad, inclusive teams of faculty, staff, full-time and part-time instructors, and students. Another thing is the model of public-private partnerships that we have: We work with several consultancies and can ramp up and down quickly, as needed.

Gaston: Another thing to consider is personalization — now a strong tendency in software development and technology strategy, and a factor developers will want to replicate. You can look back on how the evolution of the software that we've built moved more and more toward personalization.

First, what originally set MAP, our planning tool and the first of our student success software, apart was its student-centeredness. And being developers in a college environment, we have not only students on our design team, but also, in effect, focus groups right at our door. All this helps support the idea of continuous improvement and the move toward more personalization.

The next big project, Sherpa, moved forward with the student-centered approach. Our recommendation engine became much more proactive, reaching out to the student with e-mails and text messaging. Personalized messages pop up on specific pages within the portal.

And the first phase of the software that came next, the Student Success Dashboard, was a complete makeover of the home page of our portal, with a customized newsfeed, to-do list, and calendar — all of which consumed the personalized nudges coming from Sherpa. The second phase will go after some of the key performance metrics, which we will incorporate in a ribbon that the students can customize for themselves in order to keep track of their own progress.

Finally, as Bob mentioned, we already have the mathematical models for our predictive analytics, and we'll be focusing our design on how we can make the analytics useful for the student.

Grush: What are just a few examples of other organized efforts you can think of that are aimed at extending that conversation about what needs to change? And what is the role of government?

Bramucci: Within Educause, Diana Oblinger recently convened a summit on what's being called IPAS — Integrated Planning and Advising Services. It's a nascent but growing area that's attracting a lot of attention. When an area like this is just emerging, it's useful to have key players meet so as to get out ahead of it and lead the effort.

Another would be AASCU, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Under George Mehaffy, they have what is called the Red Balloon Project initiative, which has brought together both thought leaders and practitioners in several areas including analytics — in analytics, for example we’ve been able to meet with John Campbell, George Siemens, Tristan Denley, and others.

Those are just two examples… of course I could mention more.

One role for government would be to help convene these types of discussions, especially because this is a time of reduced travel funding for most institutions. Another role would be to facilitate standards efforts across education technology, which would be especially useful where there may be mixed incentives — where it's problematic, say, for an LMS provider to introduce standards. And a third area is where government could follow the examples of Gates and Lumina, to give many smaller seed grants, just to see what might work and what might not. This could help us to discover which things scale, so we can deploy those. One role I would not want to see for government, however, is to dictate. But I don't think we’re seeing that. Their strength is to facilitate.

Grush: Do you see a potential for more funding as a direct or indirect result of your presentations in tomorrow's federal briefing? What else are you looking forward to, as a result of your participation?

Bramucci: Tomorrow's briefing is really the culmination of lots of conversations we’ve been having at various state and federal levels. We see a lot of interest from government in tools and strategies for student success. There's a lot of funding in the works that hasn't hit the street yet, so the time is right to get out there and let people know what we are doing.

But what's really striking to me is that I have never seen so many conversations — so much being added to that larger conversation we mentioned earlier about looking at change — than in the past year or so. Again, if those who are working on behalf of student success can be brought together, we can have these nascent conversations and decide — together — which avenues are going to bear fruit.

[Editor's note: On Thursday, February 27, Bob Bramucci and Jim Gaston will participate in SOCCCD's federal briefing in Washington DC, focusing on "Paving the Pathway to College Completion: How South Orange County Community College District is using technology tools to improve student success and college completion."]

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