Student Advising | Feature

Building a Better Academic Planning Tool

The University of Arizona ditched its course catalog in favor of an interactive system for navigating course options and optimizing the route to a degree.

University of Arizona Smart Planner
The Smart Planner's overview page gives students a visual representation of their completed/needed/in-progress units. It also lists a cumulative GPA along with adviser contact information.

When her twin sons were preparing for their freshman year at the University of Arizona in 2009, Melissa Vito got to experience for herself how challenging it was to use the institution's online course catalog as a planning tool.

She found that, like most universities, its degree programs were described from the point of view of the institution rather than the student. "It was difficult to figure out what you were looking at and how things fit," said Vito, who is UA's senior vice provost and senior vice president, student affairs and enrollment management. "We relied on the user's ability to figure out what to do with our catalog. We did what a lot of schools did — take the paper catalog and throw it up on a Web site."

Around the same time, executives from student affairs and enrollment management, information technology services and academic affairs began meeting to discuss how to build a better academic planning tool. They looked at e-advising tools created by the University of Florida and Arizona State. Although those projects were inspirational, the UA executives were convinced that there was nothing commercially available that met their needs.

"We wanted a product that would be for students to use, but also for parents who want to check on their progress," Vito said. "We wanted something just as valuable for academic advisers as it is for students, and that would help us predict course availability over time," she continued. "We wanted something that was more comprehensive than an advising tool. If a student is coming up on a prerequisite that they have been avoiding for three years, we wanted to be able to intervene more quickly. We wanted a modern, interesting, user-friendly tool that is also married to the degree search."

Those early brainstorming sessions led to the creation of Smart Planner, an interactive online system that uses advanced algorithms and drag-and-drop menus to help UA's students navigate course planning, creating a more efficient and engaging academic advising experience. Developed at UA between May 2011 and June 2013, the system allows students to adjust and personalize their recommended course schedule based on their individual needs, such as enrolling in summer courses or changing the order of courses based on dual enrollment, AP credits completed pre-college or double major requirements. It has been live for undergrad majors at UA since mid-2012.

Optimizing the Degree Path
Often a student gets to a certain point in a major and needs a particular course, only to find it isn't available until the following fall. He may be ready to graduate, but has to return to campus for that one course, explained Hank Childers, UA's executive director for university analytics and institutional research. "We are working to get [students] a heads-up earlier to keep that from happening, and optimize the path to degree completion," he said. "As all universities are, we are under pressure to improve as much as possible our four-year graduation rate. We view this tool as important in achieving that aim. Every time the student interacts with the system at the start of the year, it remaps the optimum path to graduation for them."

Besides helping students explore different programs and create their individual degree plans, the tool also gives advisers an electronic record of the plan that's always accessible, creating a more efficient way to communicate requirements to students. It also helps administrators plan their resource allocation. "It can help us understand what the demand is for specific courses so we can project what we need in terms of classrooms and instructors," Childers said. "We do that projection already but largely on the basis of history — by looking at what we did last year, then trying to discern what is going to be different about this year in terms of shifts in enrollment patterns. Our premise is that this new tool will give us more granular and current information." Because the tool only went live in 2013, the value of that aspect has yet to be proven. "We are not far enough along yet," he said.

How It Works
Creating the Smart Planner engine was a programming challenge, Childers said. "We approached it from the get-go as a bolt-on extension to our PeopleSoft Student Administration implementation. We made that decision in 2011 — PeopleSoft has been bolt-on-friendly for quite a while."

Smart Planner goes beyond what UA could encode in the PeopleSoft system as delivered, and beyond any other commercially available student administration system, as far as Childers and his colleagues know. "They all support the notion of co-requisites and prerequisites, but there is still a big difference between encoding that and encoding the four-year curriculum for a given major, which has a recommended sequence for taking classes," Childers said, "so that means some soft rules as well as some hard rules."

As Childers explained it, UA encodes all the curricular plans in the form of rules. The Smart Planner engine uses those rules and looks at facts UA knows about a student, plus it captures additional information from the student. For instance, the student might be planning to go to Europe for the fall 2016 semester, but will be on campus that summer. After gathering those constraints and preferences from the student, the engine runs to create an optimized plan.

"The biggest challenge was to develop an engine that would encode the various rules and preferences and to deliver it with a user interface that people would like," Childers said.

Vito and Childers are eager to see if Smart Planner can have an impact on time to completion and the number of transfer students within the state of Arizona. (The advisers at Pima County Community College are among the biggest users of the tool, Childers noted.) The first catalog was for the entering class of 2011-12, so it will probably be another few years before they can do the data analysis. It is also a challenge to isolate the impact of the Smart Planner from other efforts under way. "We know qualitatively that the advisers love it," Vito said. They can get what they need more quickly and therefore spend more time talking to students. And they tell us that it is helping students get through more quickly. We will be asking students about their usage and get qualitative and self-reported data, and match that up with what we are seeing and the feedback we get from counselors. The story isn't written yet. I would say, 'stay tuned.'"

Sharing Beyond the University
A demonstration of Smart Planner at a PeopleSoft higher education user group meeting drew strong interest, and it got UA executives thinking that they could license the technology to other schools, even though that was not their original intention. Childers has worked with Tech Launch Arizona, the UA initiative responsible for commercializing university-created technologies, to establish a licensing agreement for other higher education institutions to purchase rights to use Smart Planner. So far, Boise State University (ID) and three schools in the California State University system have licensed it. (A third-party vendor offers software licenses and support to those institutions.)

"As more schools use it over the next five to eight years, we should be able to share data across institutions," Vito said. "That could make it even more valuable."

Vito noted that another benefit of this project is that it developed active, dynamic relationships between student affairs and enrollment management, information technology and academic affairs personnel. "I think what this project really cemented for us and much of the campus is that we can't really talk about the academic experience or support experience without also talking about how technology is going to be used to deliver it. That was one of the coolest pieces of the project and that has continued today, as we build out online education. We are cohesive in our approach."

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