Here’s What College Advisors Wish the Tools Built for Them Would Really Do

Student Success

Here’s What College Advisors Wish the Tools Built for Them Would Really Do

By Sydney Johnson     Aug 9, 2017

Here’s What College Advisors Wish the Tools Built for Them Would Really Do

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

Even in the age of online lectures and digital courseware, college advising has remained relatively low-tech: sketching out degree plans with a pencil and paper during one-off meetings between students and advisors. That’s starting to change, though, as more companies and campuses create technology-augmented advising systems like predictive analytics, self-service course registration platforms and early-alert tools.

However, many of these services are still in their early stages when it comes to development or implementation on college campuses, making the transition from traditional to digital advising and coaching sometimes clunky and frustrating. EdSurge asked academic advisors using these tools what’s still lacking. Here’s what we heard:

Cross-platform integration

At the front of many advisors’ minds is how to get various tools to work alongside one another. Nearly all of the staff interviewed told EdSurge they use more than one advising platform, and cite the need for better integration. For some, that could look like a system that can share data with others, or a single platform that does everything—from course registration, to housing student data, to communicating with students when signs show they might need extra support.

At Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), advisors rely on several tools including Blackboard and Starfish, two tools that integrate with one another and enable advisors to see students’ past advising activity, grades, demographic data and more. Not all of the other platforms work as well together, explains advisor Drew Brabant. He says their campus has struggled to find a major planning tool that works within their existing management system, Oracle’s PeopleSoft.

“We are still mapping out plans on paper semester by semester,” says Brabant, an advisor at NWTC. “We really want students to go into a planning tool and register [for classes] there, so they don’t have to look at a [degree] plan and then go back into PeopleSoft. That has been the biggest obstacle. The goal is to make it visual for the student and easy for them to register.”

Katie Trulley, another advisor at NWTC, acknowledges that PeopleSoft does offer a degree audit tool, but says “some functionality isn’t there to take into account that each student has a unique situation… We want something that’s more fluid.” Their campus is now working to add to its arsenal EduNav, a degree-planning platform where students will register for courses.

Better data-sharing across campus

While many advising tool companies tout their ability to streamline student information across departments, some advisors say this feature is falling short of its promises. Academic advisor Riley Finch works at Middle Tennessee State University, where staff use advising platforms including EAB Campus and Ellucian. Finch uses the tools to flag for at-risk students or predict how students might do in a semester based on previous academic performance data.

What’s missing though, he says, is a more detailed view of incoming freshman or transfer students in their data system.

“When we have new transfer student orientation or new freshmen, we have to work within Ellucian, where transcripts are evaluated,” he explains. “But if you look at a transcript in [EAB], you might just see the course listed as an elective [without the title or number of credits]... It would be nice if a transfer evaluation could be viewed in the system.”

Bryanna Licciardi, an academic advisor at Middle Tennessee State University, says it is particularly frustrating that there isn’t more information exchange between her department and other offices on campus that don’t use the advising system, EAB Campus. In particular, she wishes there was a way to know if students actually go to the offices she refers them to for extra support.

“We are in the process of making a platform that all departments use, but that has been really slow and frustrating because the faculty and the tutoring center don’t use it,” says Licciardi. “So when we make referrals, we can’t follow the students and see that they went where we referred them. If a student has a complaint, we have no way to validate if they got what they need.”

Methods to engage students and faculty in the advising culture

A tool is only meaningful if someone is using it. At least, that’s what Kathy James, director of academic and career advising at Austin Community College, has come to witness while using degree planning tools such as Civitas’ Degree Maps and Ellucian, which her campus uses for self-service degree auditing (such as checking to see how close one is to a degree) and course registration.

“For any operational system, there will always be a human element. We rely on data and participation from faculty and the early-alert system,” says James. “With the enrollment analytics, that’s just a matter of students answering questions. But early-alert systems are driven by information on progress [from faculty].”

Danielle Insalaco-Egan, a director of student support and academic achievement, says this can be a problem: if students and faculty aren’t using the services, how can they benefit from them? At CUNY’s Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, she says the technology itself is not in need of improvement as much as it is getting more students to engage in the proactive culture around college coaching that they are trying to establish.

“It’s specific to student behavior rather than the technology; if a student can’t show up to participate, they can’t benefit from all the technology they have to offer,” says Insalaco-Egan. “If a student isn’t responding to the flags, then the advisor might not be in a position to take advantage of [the early-alert system].”

Better mobile platforms

To get more students to partake in the people and resources available to them, Insalaco-Egan says the tools her campus uses, such as Starfish, could improve upon some of its mobile capabilities.

“Our students give us feedback and say [Starfish] is clunky on the phone,” she says. “If a faculty member raises a flag, a student might respond on email. We don’t care how they respond, but if we had an app for Starfish we might have better luck capturing the milestones of student behavior.”

Barbara Smith, executive director of advising at UT San Antonio, wants to see the same for DegreeWorks, an online platform where students can track their progress towards graduation. “[DegreeWorks] has enabled advisors to be more proactive in reaching their students, and many of the things we wish we had is there. It just needs more fine-tuning… and enhancements for students mobile devices.”

More streamlined updates around curriculum and technology changes

New technology is only new for so long. For many of the advisors EdSurge heard from, it seems as soon as one tool or platform starts to sink in, a newer version or platform is on the market. A more streamlined way of updating technology without overhauling or replacing the new system is one thing Leslie Tod, director for academic advocacy at University of South Florida, hopes to see.

“Tech constantly changes, so how do we avoid change fatigue for advising?” she asks. Her suggested solution: “That’s more about technology [companies] thinking about what others do, how they complement it, and how they can make sense of each other.”

At Austin Community College, James feels the challenge has not been so much about keeping up with technology changes, but with updating Degree Maps to reflect shifts in curriculum and majors. She talks about how recently, the state of Texas capped associate degree curriculums at 60 credit hours, forcing some departments to cut or re-write their degree programs.

“A lot of departments had to decide what courses to take off their degree programs, and that meant writing those changes in Civitas,” says James. “Occasionally a program will change or choose one course over another, and sometimes there is a lag making sure changes are reprogrammed quickly.”

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