Google Maps for Degrees? How One College Plans to Chart Out Student...

Student Success

Google Maps for Degrees? How One College Plans to Chart Out Student Pathways

By Sydney Johnson     Mar 24, 2017

Google Maps for Degrees? How One College Plans to Chart Out Student Pathways

This article is part of the collection: Crossing the Finish Line: Stories on Student Success and What Colleges Are Doing to Get There.

Gone are the days when a college advisor’s main duty was to help students choose their major and register for courses. That’s because more and more schools, like Portland State University (PSU), are building tools to help students get to their degree faster.

Currently underway at the Oregon college are efforts to build interactive degree maps—which are expected to officially launch in December—that will act somewhat like a Google Maps to help students visualize and chart out their four-year plan. The intention is that users can open the mobile app and quickly see how much progress they’ve made towards earning their degrees. Swipe one direction and see all upcoming courses, then zoom in and plan for the next term. The tool could also nudge students about important landmarks along the way, like when it's time to register for graduation, and provide career information relevant to a student's major.

The goal, says Randi Harris, assistant to the vice provost for academic innovation and student success, is to incorporate a degree audit tool into the map software so students can plan and see the courses they need to graduate, as well as how that path might change if they decide to switch majors. And when they make those decisions, it could point students in the direction of the services they might need, like an academic or financial aid advisor.

“It is really a map of your degree plan and what it will look like based on your goals,” says Harris.

Big Changes

PSU’s new mapping tool is part of a larger campus-wide presidential initiative, called reTHINK PSU, that touches nearly every corner of the campus, from outcomes to curriculum to advising. Much of that work, which began nearly five years ago, has been supported by a $225,000 grant in 2014 from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and additional funding in 2016 through the organization’s Collaborating for Change initiative (both of which are Bill and Melinda Gates-backed programs).

“The grants helped us scale more quickly and advance the work we were already doing,” says Harris.

With the funds, the team took to a design-thinking approach, sat down with students (sometimes at their own homes) and began taking close notes of the pain points they were experiencing. The feedback, and what would end up being the college’s driving framework, called out four areas of student supports that could use an upgrade:

  1. Advising: More one-one-time with an advisor who can get to know students
  2. Support network: Connecting the dots between other campus services, such as financial aid or registration
  3. One-stop web site: A central portal where students can organize classes, financial information and other planning resources
  4. Degree maps: An interactive guide showing students the requirements they need from their first class to graduation

The four pillars are interrelated, Harris explains. With the degree maps, students can plan their courses and visualize different major paths before they reach the advisor’s office, freeing up time for the advisor to work with students on their big questions. “We want to improve student agency but don’t want to minimize the advisor role so they can have deeper conversation around course and career planning,” Harris says.

Josephine Claus, a junior at Portland State University (PSU), says she thinks the tool would make advising meetings more efficient. If a student could do course planning before they even get to their advisor’s office, she thinks “they would feel more prepared and there would be less pressure,” in the actual session.

Claus, who is a student Senator at PSU and transferred from Portland Community College, says she “feels lucky” to have the advisor she currently does. “[The advisor] responds to my emails immediately, and she mapped out my entire graduation for me,” Claus explains. But that’s not the case for many of the students Claus meets, and she says an app that assists in course planning could change the entire reason for making an appointment with an advisor.

“I know people who never go to see their advisors and people who have trouble with them,” says Claus. “But I think this would change the [student-advisor] dynamic, and I don’t think it would be a bad change either.”

Lessons from Iteration

Interactive degree maps are not PSU’s first attempt at drawing student pathways. The college already offers static maps as downloadable PDFs for popular majors like psychology, biology and business. But Harris says these maps have fallen short for some audiences, like transfer students, who make up 63 percent of the school’s population. As static images, the PDFs were not helpful to students who frequently change paths or majors during their school journeys, and weren’t reaching students before they entered the university. That realization was the impetus to the new maps, she explains. “They need to be interactive and show how changes impact the rest of a student’s plan.”

Making the tool more accessible for community college students is now a major focus for the map project team, which includes members of PSU’s faculty, advising staff, academic affairs office, financial aid services, representatives from diversity and multicultural student services, plus an outside vendor that has yet to be announced. “Our vision is to provide a degree mapping tool so a community college students can take a look at the tool and see where they are at and where they would like to be at PSU,” says Harris. “In order to stay on your path, you need to plan before you get there.”

Better planning, she explains, will also drive down the costs of college. “If we can reduce the time to a degree, we can reduce costs.”

In particular, the team discovered that transfer students often arrive to PSU with more credits than they need. Many will enroll in unnecessary classes and arrive at PSU "with more credits than they need to graduate," says Harris. "A lot of it has to do with planning. I think [the interactive degree mapping tool] will help with that.”

Harris also underlines how PSU is not alone in its efforts. The college is a member of the Gates Foundation’s Frontier Set, a group of 29 colleges, state systems and organizations working to improve student success and remove racial, ethnic and socioeconomic barriers in college access. The group includes Arizona State University, which has introduced programs such as the the First-Year Success Center and University Academic Support Services, as well as Georgia State University, a grantee for EDUCAUSE’s iPASS program.

“There are all these different approaches [to better student outcomes],” she says, “but we sharing what we find along the way.”

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