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Student Success

Better Student Planning on the Run

A small Wisconsin community college system is working with Blackboard to redefine the student success struggle.

When students lose their way in college, a common enough response is simply to leave campus. Somehow that seems less complex than searching through the online catalog for a new program of study or finding their way to the adviser's office. Both of those options may soon become as easy as opening an app — thanks to work undertaken through a partnership between a small, scrappy community college system in Wisconsin and the world's largest software company dedicated to education technology.

This week, during Blackboard's user conference, BbWorld 16, the company is unveiling a pair of products developed with deep input from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC). The first product, Bb Planner, is a mobile app that allows students to explore degrees and careers that mesh with their goals and interests. Eventually the same app will also enable them to pivot in their degree choices when they realize they're heading in the wrong direction, help them figure out how far along they are in achieving a degree in a new major and even let them sign up for their next course with a single phone tap. The second product, Blackboard Advise, is a web-based advising tool that pulls in Planner data and adds predictive analytics to help advisers understand a student's intentions and identify at-risk individuals.

Disappointment Begets Inspiration

According to Vickie Lock, dean of student success at the college, the project that resulted in the two programs came about by happenstance.

Ever since 2010 when NWTC joined Achieving the Dream, a national initiative to improve outcomes for students in community colleges, the institution has focused heavily on student success. That means ensuring students complete a credential, whether that be a certificate, a one-year or two-year degree or successful articulation to a four-year institution. "What we've struggled with really is that completion piece — helping students get through a credential so they can find a career and a life-supporting job," Lock said. "If they stick with us long enough to get a degree, we have great placement rates — in the 96th percentile."

Currently, the college has about a 40 to 41 percent completion rate among its 6,400 full-time equivalent students. But an ambitious strategic planning goal hopes to increase that to 60 percent by the year 2018. "It's very lofty," Lock conceded. "We may not make it. But I think we're certainly making strides to get there."

The school was already armed with Oracle's PeopleSoft Campus Solutions, including its degree planning module. Lock said that has been a "great tool for staff and OK for some students," but it hasn't been particularly intuitive for most students. In order to improve the process of helping students understand what they had to complete and how long it would take them to achieve that, the college set out to find a program that matched up with a "pretty long and ambitious" feature set.

After a disappointing search, the college, a Blackboard Learn customer, happened to be discussing its frustration with company reps that were on campus. Surprisingly, they went away and came back with a proposal. Blackboard would build the kind of planning tool NWTC sought, and in return, the institution would act as a prototypical customer to provide student, staff and faculty feedback as development progressed.

"It's the first time we built a software tool," said Lock. "And I think it's safe to say it's the first time Blackboard has built one in such tight partnership with a college." On both sides, approval for the idea went up the chain, encompassing sign-off by both parties' executive teams as well as the college's board of trustees.

Soon both organizations had project managers in place, and the college set up an advisory team with representation from nearly every department on campus — advising, admissions, enrollment, degree audit, curriculum, student success, marketing and IT. The college's team at its main campus in Green Bay was joined virtually by Blackboard's team members in multiple cities around the world. During design and development, the two groups came together for design-thinking workshops to sharpen the vision of student success put forth by NWTC. And occasionally, Blackboard's designers from Austin would appear on campus to test interface and feature elements with students and staff.

Helping Students Plan Their Futures

Planner eventually became a tool that students could pull up on their smartphones that would help guide them to potential careers based on expressed interests, tell them how to get there with the credits they already have and the courses they need to take, provide timely information about salaries and geographies of high demand, and display videos of people in those fields speaking about their careers. To obtain the job data, the company teamed up with Burning Glass Technologies for career information and Roadtrip Nation, an online resource that helps people figure out how to achieve their aspirations.

But the laundry list of student help doesn't end there. Eventually, Planner will simplify the complexity behind sorting out the scheduling of classes around work and family commitments, managing transfer credits and prerequisites, and shifting gears to pursue a new direction, with simple reporting that will tell the student where he or she is in terms of reusable credit hours. Those features will surface over the next year, according to Katie Blot, senior vice president at Blackboard.

"One thing we heard as an emerging phrase in the education space is 'starting with the end in mind,'" said Blot. "Some students are making major decisions kind of haphazardly or they're getting paralyzed by decisions. We really wanted to provide something that brought all this relevant data about what careers are available, that align to the passions and interests of the individual, but also help them start to narrow the number of options in a way that reduces anxiety. We're not prescribing anything, but narrowing down based on the feedback and inputs that they're giving."

In the beginning of their use with Planner, students will tell the app about areas of interest with quick swipes. At the other end, once the long-term plan is set, Blot added, Planner will enable the student to sign up for the next set of recommended courses with a tap.

Advisers Need Planning Visibility Too

Eventually, the advisers among the college's advisory team began asking how they'd be able to see the plans created by the students. "We really said we absolutely had to have a way for the staff to see what the student has created," recalled Lock. That kicked off the design of a feature called "staff view," which eventually evolved into the product called Blackboard Advise.

As Brook Bock, Blackboard's senior director for higher education industry strategy and new product incubation, described, Advise connects to data from Planner as well as from an institution's student information system to display "critical" information the adviser can use to guide the student. It answers questions, she said, about students' interests, the courses they've taken and what their current plan looks like. Having access to that information, she noted, "makes the conversation between adviser and student "much more informed and valuable."

Advise will also pull in predictive analytics using technology from Blackboard's Predict, to identify students who are specifically at risk. Having that built into Advise, Bock added, will help advisers "prioritize who they speak with based on the needs of students and also focus the conversation on what's most critical to that student."

Soft Launch in the Fall

Now the college is gearing up for a soft launch of Planner to its students in mid-September. Once it's satisfied that the functionality works, it'll do a "very large push" next spring to both continuing students and new students who will be registering in the fall.

In the meantime, shortly after the college begins deploying the programs, Blackboard will enter "general availability" for the software as well, making Planner available as an additional app in its Blackboard Student mobile suite and making Advise available to customers who may or may not be customers of the company's learning management system.

The use of Blackboard Learn is irrelevant to the deployment of Advise, said Bock. What's essential is being able to pull data out of the student information system on campus. That will require integrating the two applications — Advise and the SIS.

But the addition of Learn data as well would make the overall student planning experience "richer," added Blot. Students could switch from their planning efforts "to go do something in an existing course and have all of those hooks into that Learn experience."

Student success won't be achieved by one solution. But this set could go far in bringing the student into the conversation. "Honestly, we've invested not only dollars but people resources into this project, and we do believe that it's going to make a difference. It's going to have a lot of pieces to help students and staff make decisions," said Lock. If a student is thinking about switching programs, he or she will be able to see what percentage of a new credential is already completed. "Right now you have to come and talk to an adviser or figure it out yourself using our website. We really think Planner will help those students who are switching around to make better choices, to see that they haven't wasted their time, they haven't wasted those credits."

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