An Evolution in College Student Advising

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Over the course of four years, undergraduate students are presented with a smorgasbord of enticing courses. At times, they may feel overwhelmed. Which courses are needed for their major and to satisfy degree requirements? At what point should they take a course? Traditionally, students seek out their advisor to help them navigate through the course selection process.

Does that advisor need to be human? Just as Netflix and Amazon help guide consumers to specific products which fit their needs, a technological innovation is spreading to help students pick courses.

Degree Compass is a course recommendation system that was developed and piloted at Austin Peay State University in spring 2011.The system received a $1 million award from Complete College America and the Gates Foundation to support its implementation at other campuses in Tennessee. The system has started gaining traction across other universities. It was recently licensed by a Canadian company, Desire2Learn, and has been featured over the past months in several national media outlets.

Here's how it works. Using predictive analytic techniques, the system ranks courses - with one to five stars - according to how well each course will help students advance through their academic program. The system recommends how to sequence courses in upcoming semesters and identifies specific courses necessary to satisfy general requirements and to complete a major. Perhaps the most controversial feature of Degree Compass is that it also gives students an estimate of the grade that they would receive if they took the course.

Proponents of Degree Compass are enthusiastic about its potential to increase retention, improve graduation rates and make higher education more efficient. And, indeed, there is some evidence to support these claims. The quality of "human" advising on campuses does vary, and some faculty who advise may have limited knowledge outside their own academic area. Moreover, nontraditional students, many of whom are working full-time and with family obligations, may benefit from the ease of access to a "technological" advisor. The system does not dictate what courses a student should choose, only provides recommendations.

Others are not as enchanted by this technological innovation. They maintain that an undergraduate degree should broaden a student's horizons and best serves students if they graduate with a rigorous, well-rounded education. It's not always obvious what courses outside a student's major may prove valuable in his or her future career. Encouraging students to develop their curiosity in other fields and pursue course work that can add different perspectives on their major will also prepare them to be highly effective and flexible employees in the future. Advisors can challenge students to seek academic offerings that cultivate their intellectual growth, rather than settling for the "easy A" courses. These insights on a course of study can best be provided by a human advisor.

The reality is that technological innovations in higher education are not going away - we need to find a way to harness their power to enhance student learning and support, rather than viewing them as forced choices between "human" or "machine." We don't need or want to replace human advisors, but rather we need to consider whether such tools can enhance the student advising experience. If students can access a course recommendation system before their in-person advising session, they will be more informed about their array of choices and better prepared for the meeting. Such tools can assist advisors by double checking on a student's degree requirements to prevent errors and can help advisors lay out a four-year, sequenced academic plan.

In their advising session, faculty can be freed up to spend more time getting to know the student. They can use their time together more efficiently to talk about different careers that a student might want to pursue, what courses outside the student's major may challenge and expand the student's knowledge, abilities and skills, when and where to study abroad, the benefits of an internship for a particular career choice, and how community service and other extracurricular activities can promote a student's personal and professional development. Even the newest technologies cannot provide such a personalized, caring and satisfying student advising experience -- but they may be able to contribute.