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5 Ways Online Advising Can Improve on Face-to-Face

Online technologies are moving advising out of academic offices and onto the Web, where students gain anytime, anywhere access to advisers and tools to help them succeed.

A lot rides on the shoulders of college advisers. They're the ones who make sure students have the right mix of courses to graduate. They help out with information and guidance about transfer credit and policy, financial aid, personal concerns, study abroad opportunities, academic petitions or special requests, complaints about instructors, dropping and adding courses and making referrals to other campus services. They're often expected to help students set life goals and explore career options. They evaluate student academic progress and help steer them toward reaching their academic goals.

It's a heavy load, but when you take into consideration the fact that many advisers are responsible for hundreds of students at once, the task seems almost superhuman. As a result, institutions have turned to online systems to streamline the process, helping automate administrative tasks and giving students self-service access to decision-making tools. But even as the use of technology has grown tremendously in the work of academic advising, the human element is still an important part of the mix. Here, CT looks at five ways online advising systems can complement — and even improve — face-to-face.

1) Making Requirements Transparent
As is typical of most sizable institutions, the University of Hawaii System offers a variety of pathways to a degree, including a "ton" of exceptions and special allowances for particular students, said Gary Rodwell, architect of the institution's STAR degree-audit system. First released in 2006, STAR lets students track their progress toward their degrees. Rodwell described it as a cross-institutional "cloud" interface over the system's Banner student information system.

When students were given permission to bypass a particular class, sometimes those exceptions would show up in STAR, and sometimes they were written out on a piece of paper tucked into a file. That in turn led to disputes over course requirements and waivers as students moved from one major to another or from one university or college to another.

In the name of transparency, a watchword for the STAR initiative, the vice chancellor strong-armed the system's Council of Academic Advising into agreeing that all advisory exceptions needed to be put into STAR. Now, "everybody can see what's going on and students can move to different programs and majors," Rodwell said. "It's still not 100 percent," he acknowledged, but it did "move things along a lot."

That transparency has also shed some light on conflicting academic requirements within the university system. Individual schools in Hawaii may have different requirements for the same degree: For example, one may require more social sciences units than another. However, a global agreement among the institutions says that if you meet the requirements for one campus, you meet them everywhere. Sorting that out "without STAR is very hard work, but STAR does it automatically," Rodwell said.

As a result, the campuses are being forced to reconsider their requirements. "It's actually quite good," he added. The online advising system is identifying conflicts among the academic programs and forcing faculty from across the system "to talk about core."

2) Helping Advisers Take Action
A major goal of MyPlan, developed at the University of Washington, was to offer a tool that pulls together all the information needed by students and advisers into a single place "that's actionable," said Darcy Van Patten, student program director in the university's IT organization.

Funded through the student technology fee, MyPlan allows students to search for courses, receive recommendations from advisers, map out plans by quarter and monitor their academic progress through a degree-audit function. Previously, students relied on an assortment of applications — word processors, spreadsheets, the course catalog, the time schedule and a legacy degree-audit system — to cobble together academic plans. Now, with MyPlan, once the student has a plan in place, it can be shared (or not) with an adviser, and an in-application messaging feature can be used for back-and-forth conversation.

Because advisers in the central advising staff at UW may be assigned rosters with several hundred students, they have little time to start from scratch with each student, especially those who come in "believing that we have four or five majors." (The university has about 160 majors.) Now advisers can have an introductory meeting and tell students, "Why don't you go out to MyPlan, do some exploration, start to develop a plan and then let's sit down and start to talk about that plan." The result has been a reduction in the use of face-to-face advising "for things that could be met in other ways" — while making the collaboration between student and adviser "more efficient but also more value-add," said Van Patten.

Advising Students Where They Hang Out Online

Hand-crafted advising systems are great — if you can get 'em. But some schools are supplementing their student outreach with online media they know students inhabit or wear comfortably. The advisers in the College of Arts & Sciences at Texas Tech run a Facebook fan page. University of Oregon advisers maintain a blog called "Grade First Aid: Your Guide to a Healthy GPA." The Academic Success Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas maintains a twitter account. Ohio State provides advising in person or via video. Advisers at Northern Illinois University use Skype as well as face-to-face. Radford University (VA) offers a public chat room where students can tune in and pose anonymous questions.

Some experiments, however, have seen their day and passed into obscurity, like the advising podcast produced by University of Washington advisers, which still lives online in a hundred episodes but hasn't been updated since 2009; or the Second Life advising center maintained by the Penn State World Campus, which generated a lot of attention when it launched in 2009 but now presumably exists only in the archives of the virtual world platform.

3) Guiding Recommendations
If Amazon can figure out what we might want to read next, why shouldn't schools be able to tell students what courses they ought to take next? That's the idea behind the guided recommendation functionality in Degree Compass, a course recommendation tool developed at Austin Peay State University (TN) and acquired by Desire2Learn early this year. Using predictive analytics based on grade and enrollment data, the program provides two kinds of insight: a sequence of courses that best suit a student's program of study, and a star rating to inform the student about how well he or she is expected to do in any given course. The student makes the final decisions.

"We sort of hoped that when students made more informed choices, they would do better. And they have," said Tristan Denley, the mastermind behind that online service who has since moved from the university to the Tennessee Board of Regents as vice chancellor for academic affairs.

A similar pursuit — informing choices — comes into play with UH's STAR; but in that case, an academic pathway diagram lays out a student's progress towards a degree. As Rodwell pointed out, a lot of students assume that once they hit 120 units, they'll be eligible for a degree. It's a shock to realize that what courses they take is just as important. "This is [part] of the evolution of trying to find a trigger point that students really find valuable right from the beginning," he said. "The issue we want to overcome is that a true liberal arts education is really diverse in what you can take to meet the requirements, but that leaves so much choice open for students. You can choose from 1,500 courses. You're numb because you can't possibly make that decision. STAR guides you down and down through those choices."

To learn more about the advising systems in this article, check out these online videos:

4) Finding Hidden Information
Frequently, the inability to steer through university processes holds students back from obtaining their degrees, and these people may never reach out for professional help. "There is some high percentage of students who go in and out of college having never seen an adviser," said UW's Van Patten. "It's a reality whether you have good systems or bad. But if you have good systems, [students are] getting better information than they would have otherwise, and at least they're not purely self-advising or peer-advising."

In fact, online advising systems can help uncover information that might be missed by both student and human adviser. In a process called "reverse transfer," for example, UH's STAR system informs students when they've earned a degree even if they were unaware of it. As Joy Nishida, assistant director of the STAR Technology Office, explained, students of Hawaii's public institutions can pursue a degree at any campus from any campus. Somebody attending Manoa, for example, could receive a degree from Hilo, as long as a stipulated number of credits are earned from the degree-granting university.

This could happen, for instance, when somebody transfers from a community college to a four-year school without completing an associate's degree. As classes are taken at the second school, STAR automatically sends those new credits back to the first institution to see what the result is. "When they're eligible, it says, 'Bling!'" Rodwell noted. That's important because "if you have these milestones along the way, it helps the student go forward with the next degree."

5) Improving Human Interactions
The most effective online advising systems act as a kind of exoskeleton that extends human advisers' capabilities. In one example, UW's Van Patten cited a student who was pursuing a double major: one in community, environment and planning, and another in civil engineering. His goal was to finish his studies in as timely a manner as possible. With the help of undergraduate adviser Mariko Navin, the student was able to use MyPlan to create a roadmap of all the courses he would need. In that process, adviser and student also uncovered a way to add two minors — in mathematics and urban planning — and graduate in the same time.

A student could do all of that on his or her own, said Van Patten, "but they would have to cross-reference the majors and the minors and make sure they haven't made mistakes. I love that MyPlan could help that student, but it couldn't have been done had he not also sat down with Mariko, his adviser."

In other words, the current crop of online advising tools supplement — not supplant — face-to-face time between adviser and student. With every form of outreach, the adviser is tending to job one: helping the student make the decision to remain in college, excel, or extend by providing a one-on-one relationship that forges a personal link between student and institution.

The tools themselves are making students "more 'planful'," as one UW adviser expressed it to Van Patten. Online advising programs are making students think more about their academic planning early on, so they're more intentional about the coursework that they take. "That's a great result," she said. "Their number one priority is registration and getting the classes they need; but at the same time they need to be thinking ahead — they're not just getting into classes, but the right classes. It's kind of like the difference between 'Help me do the things I'm doing better,' and 'Help me do better things and be more effective in my decision-making.'"

Top Tips for Deploying an Online Advising System

Don't worry about mobile yet. Usage analytics at the University of Washington show that students don't expect to do their academic planning on a small screen. "Academic planning is not something that people do every day," said IT Student Program Director Darcy Van Patten. While a "mobile-first perception" exists, she explained, "Certain interactions that are highly complex require processing of a lot of information at the same time." Those activities are tough to do on a mobile device.

Keep advising solutions student-centered. The University of Hawaii conducted surveys among the student population before it set out to design and build its STAR online advising system. And at UW, the development team's user experience designer spent two months interviewing students to understand their needs. She used those to create four separate "personas": one-page descriptions of end user "types" that help steer development priorities.

To improve student engagement, get advisers engaged. Even though it was the student technology fee committee that commissioned development of UW's MyPlan online advising system, the university has learned that it's not enough to promote use of the advising system to students alone. "A lot of adoption is going to be because of the influence of advisers on this process," said Van Patten. "So it's incorporated into how they talk to their students about planning, how they use their face-to-face time; it's not something that's separate."

Pursue staged development. In order to track the functionality of its online advising tool, Advising Sidekick, Brown University (RI) started with the needs of its 2009 freshman class. Said Director of IT Christopher Keith, "As the class of 2013 entered as first-years, we had enough functionality for them to upload their letters to advisers. In 2010-11, we had to develop the ability for 1,500 sophomores to declare an academic major." Now 10 distinct modules meet the needs of students at different points in their academic careers.

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