2011 Campus Technology Innovators | Student Systems and Services
University of Montana
UM's web-based Academic Planner helps students map out course selections for their four-year academic experience, and confer with their advisers in a familiar web 2.0 interface.
Project: Academic Planner
Project leads: Sharon O'Hare, executive director, Office for Student Success; Loey Knapp, associate CIO; Jon Adams, lead programmer
SunGard Higher Education
Two years ago, on a hike beside beautiful Flathead Lake in northwest Montana, the University of Montana's Sharon O'Hare, executive director of the Office for Student Success, and Associate CIO Loey Knapp found themselves brainstorming about a new academic planner app to help students map out course selections for their four-year academic experience.
"Loey started talking about adding tools to allow advisers and advisees to communicate better," O'Hare recalls. "I was huffing and puffing from the hike, but I turned to her and said, "That is an excellent idea. It is exactly where we need to head.'"
Flash forward to 2011, and every freshman initiation at UM now includes training on how to use the web-based Academic Planner, which was built in-house with open source tools. In two years, more than 13,000 plans have been created. The developers say tight integration with the course-catalog software and the use of social media tools created a winning combination of a familiar interface and enhanced planning functionality.
Initially, Knapp and O'Hare saw automating the planning process as a way to improve student retention. Prior to the app's launch, many students would show up for meetings with academic advisers unprepared, O'Hare says. The two parties would spend their time leafing through the course catalog and jotting down notes on potential courses. They couldn't easily record their progress or store adviser comments for review when discrepancies arose.
The Academic Planner addresses these issues by allowing a student to plan in advance and confer with the adviser electronically, so that their face-to-face meeting can be much more productive. They can talk not just about the next few semesters, but the bigger picture of a four-year plan--as well as possible internships and graduate school. "That productivity gain is what is revolutionary about this tool," O'Hare says.
According to Knapp, early input from students and advisers has shaped the product's development. "Besides student user groups, we set up an adviser user group that gives us ideas and help gets buy-in from faculty," she says. "Sometimes students embrace technology faster than faculty do."
Jon Adams, the lead programmer, says that no comparable commercial offerings were available when the UM team started building the application. Integration with the course-catalog module of SunGard Banner was crucial and probably one of the biggest challenges from a programming standpoint, he says.
Thanks to this integration, when students run their mouse over a course title, a course description pops up in a window, while color-coded visual tools signal schedule conflicts and course-requirement warnings. Students can add a course to the plan, view or print the resulting schedule, and save it to a database for future use. The tool provides multiple ways to search and filter UM's course offerings and allows students to build an unlimited number of alternate course schedules.
Once a plan is created, a student can post it for an adviser's review and comments. The adviser is linked to the student's profile, which includes information about his academic record. If multiple advisers are involved, an "advising forum" allows for collaborative advising. "I do think the addition of social media features has made it much more interesting," Knapp says.
The introduction of student profiles and comment sections for advisers makes students very comfortable with the app concept, adds Adams. Its look and feel are similar to the web 2.0 applications that they use every day, he says.
While the app doesn't replace face-to-face meetings, "many students do prefer to contact advisers electronically," notes O'Hare. "It is the environment they prefer instead of hunting down advisers in person. This is, to them, more friendly."
Future plans for the app include a feature that would allow students to push a button to send their finished plan from Academic Planner directly into the registration module in Banner. Developers also aim to feed data from the app to administrators, to help with long-range planning such as projecting how many sections of different courses are needed. Because the Academic Planner is an open source tool, Adams says, UM is also looking at ways to make it more generic before submitting it to open source organizations, so other institutions can take advantage of its features.
O'Hare stresses that it is difficult to measure the app's impact on retention because so many variables are involved. "But we look at what makes sense," she says, "and students being able to better plan their four years here with their adviser is an obvious advantage."
David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.