Thursday, May 31, 2012


High Tech, High Touch

We’re moving in two different directions, and only beginning to realize it.

On the one side, we’re moving to more online instruction and more automated or nearly automated processes.  The idea is to both increase convenience for students -- especially those with jobs and/or families -- and to improve the economics of the college by increasing enrollments and cutting costs.  By going high tech, we hope to get around some of the cost issues that bedevil us when we do what we’ve always done.

On the other side, we’re trying to improve the success rates of students generally -- and of students from underrepresented groups specifically -- by a panoply of “high touch” strategies.  Intrusive advisement, mandatory orientation, learning communities, freshman interest groups, and mini-prep classes -- all of which we’re using -- have been shown to help, but do so through increased labor intensity per student.  They’re expensive.

Each side makes sense on its own terms.  It’s clear that we need to reach a sustainable budgetary equilibrium, and that we can’t count on the state stepping up to do it.  And it’s also clear that the social justice side of our mission requires helping students succeed who might otherwise fail, and doing it without lowering standards.  

It’s just hard to do both sides at the same time.

Community colleges have bifurcated missions already, trying to handle both academic transfer and workforce development.  Now they’re also trying to be both more automated and more personalized.  With less money.

To make the conflict concrete, take mandatory orientation.  Both national research and our local numbers suggest that students who attend freshman orientation have higher pass rates than students who don’t.  As long as orientation is voluntary, it’s hard to disentangle the extent to which that reflects the benefits of orientation, as opposed to a form of self-selection; it may just be that the more conscientious students show up for orientation, so what we’re really seeing is a proxy measure for conscientiousness.

On the theory that it’s worth a shot, we’re moving to making orientation mandatory for new students.  The idea is that the students who most need the nudge will probably be the ones who most need the benefit.  From a social justice perspective, it’s a no-brainer.

But it conflicts with the idea of lowering barriers to enrollment and serving students at a distance.  If the cultural expectations of online students involve instant access, then making them jump through more hoops will violate those expectations.  Even if the hoops are intended to be good for them.

I don’t think it’s quite at the level of flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, but sometimes it does get a bit jarring.  The tension between high tech and high touch is increasing, and we’re only beginning to grasp the source of the confusion.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college find a way to be both high tech and high touch that doesn’t require a bazillion dollar grant to pull off?

Intrusive advisement!

I'd like to see an entire article on this subject, provided you've made it actually work, or are willing to talk about what did not work.

How intrusive? Enough to get to 90% advised? Rude enough to sacrifice retention and enrollment to get to 100% by making it absolutely mandatory before registration for, say, all freshmen? With humans or software?

BTW, we do have mandatory orientation. I think we even have it for "distance" students.
On our campus "intrusive advisement" is not the regular advising -- not the "pick your classes and talk about goals" advising.

For us, intrusive advisement is where some algorithm combs through some combination of midterm grades, attendance reports, and other such things and then an advisor tracks down students whose metrics are below a certain threshold and hassles the student, mid-semester, to try to turn things around.
In a teaching intensive institution, whether two-year or 4-year, it seems more faculty could be pulled in to help run orientations and other student-side endeavors having to do with academics.

Overload pay, per diem pay, and/or priority for scheduling preference can be an incentive for faculty who participate in these activities.

If tenure is to be sustainable at teaching intensive institutions, then advising and orientations etc. should be part of the responsibilities of tenured faculty. If they're already doing this at your institution, and you still need more manpower, perhaps overload for regular faculty or hiring adjuncts on a per diem basis may work? Hey - there's a new idea- adjunct administrative aides to handle the crunch time a few days before the semester starts.
No, faculty shouldn't "pick up" orientations and other non-teaching jobs to cover a lack of manpower. Staff are professionals in our own right, with our own expertise. Faculty would bristle, and rightfully so, if a staff said they could "pick up" that extra section of english/art/underwater basket weaving. Having worked at institutions where faculty were advisors (SLAC) and where they weren't (Pub U). I'm still not convinced that if you are teaching a full or even partial load that adding advising means quality output on both things. Being a full time advisor is hard work and a full time job.

I do think faculty should be at orientation. Do a special luncheon for your majors, lead a campus tour, do a demo lab. Leaving the advising, registration and orientation to the professionals. And we'll leave the teaching to you.
I work at a SLAC and I am currently taking night classes at our local community college. My SLAC is very, very high touch--a mandatory 4-day orientation for all incoming students, lots of academic advising, an "early support network" for students who seem to be flailing. By contrast, my community college is gloriously low-touch--my individual professors have been terrific and the website makes it easy to find what I need, but the mandatory orientation for new students was only an hour and a half. As a working parent who already has one degree, I'm really, really not interested in more than that. My fellow night students seem to be in the same boat: we're mostly employed, non-traditional students who already have a reasonable amount of education and/or work experience.

Is there some way that it would be possible for these services to be given to students who have never before attended college and could really use them, while at the same time, letting folks already have at least some post-high school credentials off the hook?
To Anonymous 6:33 AM,

I would gladly leave the advising to the professionals if they could keep the proper prerequisites for some of our upper division science classes straight. I'm always amazed at what students have been told by the professional advisers on the first day of classes. It's happened more than once that faculty have had to help students scramble to be properly placed, once the semester begins.

I will gladly advise more students (we have to advise 18) if it means the first two weeks of my semester are not filled with students who were mis-advised during regular registration and now don't need special favors and permission to get them in the now-closed sections of the prerequisite classes they require.

I'm sure it's not the same at all colleges.
I'll second what Anonymous 7:11 AM said about professional advisers. We've had the same issues at our university. How can general advising take place without communication with faculty? I am stumped on that one.
I've never, ever seen advising by staff at any of the 3 research universities I've been associated with. It's always been faculty. I am scheduled to start advising undergrads myself starting this summer; here, we give a course release for doing that. At other places I've seen, a subset of the faculty gets some (small) number of students to advise as part of their service work.

Yes, sometimes faculty do get it wrong.

OK, so we do have staff handling some advising duties at Waterloo, but the faculty advisors are going to handle non-routine academic issues.
Intrusive advising... hmmm. A few years ago this question came up here at Proprietary Art School. In pursuit of greater student retention, our faculty were asked to contact poorly-performing or nonattending students by telephone at home, poking them in their fannies with a pitchfork, presumably encouraging them to shape up and start doing the work.

I remember posting to Dean Dad at that time, worrying that by doing this, I could be exposed to all sorts of legal liabilities.

For one, I feared that if I called up 19-year old hottie at home, asking why she wasn't attending my class, it might be interpreted as an attempt to hit on her, leading to an jealous boyfriend or angry father showing up, demanding my head on a platter.

Another problem was if a parent, relative, or SO happened to answer the phone--I had to be careful what I said, because federal privacy and confidentiality regulations prevent me from revealing to them anything about the student's academic record. I couldn't even leave a recorded message, since I never knew who could eventually hear it.

I never actually called any students at home, and I fortunately didn't get into any trouble for not doing this.

Eventually, the administration stopped insisting that we call non-performing students at home. I think that the school eventually concluded that having the faculty do this sort of intrusive advising was a really bad idea, and that advising, intrusive or otherwise, is best left to the advising professionals. They know the law and what they can and cannot say or do.
Blind investment will never yield you returns. No doubt at times you may enjoy chance wins, but it is more of losses rather than gains that you will experience. So, read as much as possible and then step into the share stock market.
I just wanted to echo what SWNC said about realizing that not all CC students need the intrusive advising.

I have an undergraduate degree, a graduated degree, and assorted credits from other 3 schools. As part of my ongoing professional development as a k-12 teacher, I'm particularly likely to keep taking college classes. (Mostly, I try to take a refresher of some kind on calculus or class that uses calculus every 5-ish years since I don't currently teach it but it's in license for me and it doesn't seem to "stick" if I don't use it every now and then.)

If I start having to show at orientation sessions in which I'm talked to about successful study habits and how to use the library, I'm going to be pretty pissed off. I'm also not a fan of online systems that require you to log in for everything because I have to remember accounts at a bunch of different schools over a long period of time (as an aside, I really, really wish the public higher ed system in my state would go to a common login system), but that's still better than having to show up and jump through hoops to take one class for interest/professional development when I've already demonstrated that I can do this whole "school" thing pretty well.
In theory, we should have a system in which advising was quite arms-length. The students would have very few mandatory meetings with advisers, and they would come to CC having learned how to use a library and with good work habits. In the real world, some do need much more "high touch" approaches. But, the concept of intrusive advising sends a different message to me: that the student has not made the leap to adulthood, is not sure that s/he wants to be enrolled in college, or has landed in a curriculum that s/he is not attracted to. It's the intial advising, where the student confronts what s/he really wants to pursue as opposed to what the parents, or the HS adviser, or the TV ad said s/he should want to pursue, that sets the stage for the student's progress to independence (because s/he has chosen what s/he really wants and is suited for). If the student has to be pestered into attending class, doing assignments, etc, something is fundamentally wrong.
Same Anonymous as above: I guess I just value a model or a system where the students are firing on all cylinders on their own, rather than being babied and cajoled. Agreed, many students, especially those whose parents didn't get past high school, or maybe even grade school, need encouragement. But that' not the same as being micromanaged, which some "intrusive advising" ends up being.
Odd how a bit of raw spam manages to contain a relevant remark: "Blind investment will never yield you returns." The reason for my opening question to DD is that my college tried various things blindly BUT collected data, and used the data to settle on what we are doing now.

For example, I'd like to ask Anonymous@4:43 what it means to have "mandatory meetings with advisers". Will they be blocked from registering if they don't meet with the adviser, and if so, at what cost to retention?
I think we should make college as classist as possible by not consistently informing students of the enormous change from K-12 prisons to actual schools at the college level.
I have been an advisor at a very large 4 yr public institution for 11 years. And I am an excellent advisor, if I do say so myself :) I have known professional advisors who were also very good, and some who did not have the capacity for change that the position requires. I think that there is a different mandate at different size institutions, and different level institutions, so it isn't fair to compare one to another. I have also know very dedicated faculty advisors, and overworked one's who had enough on their plate. At a large institution, I think it is integral to have well trained professional advisors (my institution requires a minimum Bachelor's degree for an advising position, though I and many of my peers also have masters level degrees or PhDs) who can keep up with the academic policy and track the retention and academic success of students. I work in an academic department, but there are other more general advisors who work with students at a specific level, like freshman,sophomore and transfer advising, and college advisors to help students who haven't decided on a major yet.

My department has 900 active majors. With only 14 full time faculty, it would be impossible to expect them to keep up with academic policy and technological changes, conduct research, and teach at least 3 courses per term. In my department the faculty are tasked with the 'life advising' aspects. They meet with a set of students to talk about career/graduate school aspirations, undergraduate research opportunities, and outside factors affecting their academic potential. I keep track of the logistics like pre-requisites, course planning, retention, curriculum changes, technological outreach, and the day to day 'when can I graduate?' advising appointments. For obvious reasons, I am located within the department, included in departmental and curriculum meetings, and am in close contact with the faculty on a day to day basis.

With 900 majors, we cannot require advising, but we have an early alert program for students to get mandatory advising when their GPA falls 20% from one term to the next. This is after a mandatory orientation and mandatory advising for freshman and transfer students during their first year. I have mixed feelings about this mandatory advising. About half of the students arrive unwilling to talk with me about their progress. The other half are unaware that advising exists to help them through their educational pursuits, and are pleased with the new information. I don't believe that my efforts, and anyone's for that matter, will reach the students unwilling to accept help. Just recently I had a student show up in my office and said only a few words to me. When I asked why he was there, he said 'I dunno.' His mother called me several times to talk about his progress, but he has no apparent interest in college. I can't say what the balance would look like, but there must be a way to balance the needs of engaged students who simply have no understanding of the higher ed system and those who do not wish to engage, or would be better served pursuing a different goal.
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