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
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.
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.