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There's More to Student Advising Tech than Implementation

college student meeting with adviser

New technology for advising students won't work if it's not also implemented with updates in the advising structures and processes and professional development for the human advisers as they change their own practices. That's part of the bottom line in a new report from the Community College Research Center, based at Teachers College at Columbia University, and social policy researcher MDRC.

"Redesigning Advising With the Help of Technology: Early Experiences of Three Institutions" describes how the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, California State University, Fresno and Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania are tackling "comprehensive, technology-based advising reforms."

The three institutions are part of a group of 26 schools participating in a program known as Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success, or iPASS. The participants in iPASS get technical assistance from a coach provided by Educause or Achieving the Dream. They also gain access to monthly webinars on advising and student support services and attend annual multiday gatherings with programming on technology-mediated advising redesign. These three schools, in particular, were "among the strongest implementers of technology-based advising in their cohort and were interested in assessing the impact of enhancements to their advising practices." For their participation, they received extra supports and funding to cover study expenses and to expand their advising staff capacity, if needed.

The trial covered in the report examined the impact on students who were in their second or subsequent semester and identified as at risk of not graduating, according to predictive models and early-alert systems. Individuals at each institution were randomly assigned to be part of the intervention group or a control group. Those in the intervention program received "more intensive, holistic advising" supported by the institution's advising technologies. Those in the control group also had access to advising technologies but received their institution's standard advising services.

Advising technology typically falls into three categories, according to the report:

  • Planning tools, such as for mapping out the path for program completion or tracking progress;
  • Counseling and coaching tools, for improving students' access to support services, such as tutoring; and
  • "Risk-targeting" tools, such as early-alert systems and predictive analytics dashboards.

In a holistic advising approach, advisers work with students in the same way faculty work with them when doing active learning; the students are "active participants in the advising process rather than passive recipients of information." The technology is used to simplify setting up advising times between advisers and students, communicate during the semester, identify the optimal resources for particular students and generate usable time-sensitive data through early-alert and predictive analytics systems.

The test was intended to reveal the impact on students' success when they received "intensified advising services." The advising "interventions," as the researchers called them, were begun in January 2017. The current report doesn't share the outcomes of the project — because it's still going on — but does focus on how the interventions were developed and the challenges the schools faced along the way.

Four themes emerged:

  • Advisers at these schools have "large caseloads" and lack the time to work with students in-depth during their advising appointments. So one of the changes seen at all three institutions was a restructuring to make advising sessions longer and to encourage students to make appointments with their advisers rather than simply "walking up," so that the advisers could be ready for the discussion.
  • Adopting new advising practices requires training; advisers need to learn how to "engage students on topics beyond course registration and short-term academic planning."
  • Schools aren't sure yet how to share data with students that indicates they're at risk. As the report noted, each of the sites used data, such as early-alert flags, midterm grades and predictive analytics scores, to measure the likelihood of a student "falling off track in their programs." But they struggled with how to use the data "in order to motivate them rather than discourage them."
  • Redesigning advising strategies requires a lot of stakeholder input, from advising, support services, the faculty, IT and institutional research — but especially from faculty and the advisers themselves.

Subsequent reports are expected to share redesign updates and look at the short-term and longer-term impacts of the enhanced advising practices on student outcomes.

The work has been supported through funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust. The complete report is available on the CCRC website.

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