Should Co-Curricular Activities Contribute to Academic Early Warning Systems?

I was reflecting recently on some of the things that puzzle me about Student Affairs.  One of those things is related to the strategic use of web technology on my campus…I’ll get to that part in a minute.

In February 2013, Dr. Vincent Tinto visited CSUN and gave a presentation with the title “Student Success Does Not Arise By Chance.”  He had a number of very interesting things to say about student success, one of them related to academic early warning systems.  Bottom line:  the earlier you can identify a student who is having trouble, the better.  The sooner we can positively intervene, the more likely that student is to persist.  No surprise there.  He went on to talk a bit about how our friends on the academic side of the house have tools with measurable inputs to help them flag students who might fit the “at risk” category.  One measurable input includes class involvement via in-class discussion, LMS participation, or some other measurable way.  Of course, faculty are also able to tell at-risk students by changes in appearance, disruptive behavior, spotty attendance, etc.

My question to Dr. Tinto was this:  “What are the best examples you have seen of incorporating co-curricular signals into early warning systems?”  To my astonishment, his response was that he was not aware of any such systems.  This is something that I’ve been advocating for many years, but with little success.  I think that one challenge is that many of us view our own departments without respect to how they interact with all the other areas on campus (notwithstanding the high-profile collaborations that exist on every campus).  Another challenge that I think we face is that our systems tend to be built to support the needs of our own discrete processes, without considering how the information within our system may be useful to other areas on campus.  I’m sure you’re already thinking:  Student Affairs has hundreds of quantifiable indicators we could use to identify students who may be at-risk.  And of course, you’d be right.

We all know that mere participation in activities with like-minded students – whether it’s a student/academic club, a living learning community in campus housing, student government, you name it – is positively correlated with retention and student success.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, as part of a student’s co-curricular transcript, we could see what activities they’re involved with?  More importantly, could we not also use these very same indicators – or more correctly a lack of them – to proactively prevent students from falling into the at-risk category before they get anywhere near the danger zone?

One of the things I’m passionate about is using web technologies to build web applications and services that connect students to people and other services.  My department’s mission statement is simple:  build user-friendly, student-centric online services.  We’ve built plenty of stand-alone systems, but standalone systems are a bit like a computer that isn’t connected to the Internet…pretty useful for word processing, spreadsheets, and singe-player gaming, but ultimately kind of lonely and a little boring.  Start connecting to other systems, though, and things get interesting pretty fast.  For example:  if we know what a student’s major is, why not recommend a related club they can join, or expose that information to our career centers so they can automagically show them internships and job opportunities within their major?  How about tying those same internships and opportunities to our friends in Advancement and their database of successful alumni?  Could we recommend upcoming campus events that might interest students?  If we know what a student’s GPA is (and it’s high enough), why can’t we proactively recommend participation in student government when a senate seat from their college is open?  With the focus on assessment and measurement of learning outcomes, we have a rich trove of data on which to draw (most of which is sadly locked away in disparate repositories).  I’m sure you recognize the functionality I’m talking about:  it’s a simple recommendation engine.  If you use Netflix, you already “get” what this is about.  This idea gets really powerful if we can connect it to our academic warning systems…

Being around people who share the same interests and passions as we do is extremely powerful.  It fires us up, gets us excited about what we do, and helps make our lives more fulfilling.  Why wouldn’t we want to “bootstrap” these kinds of experiences for our students?  The good news is that it isn’t that hard, it just requires us to think a little beyond our immediate system and process needs, and consider how we can leverage our information in other, often unexpected areas.

What do you think?  Has somebody already done this somewhere and I’m just not aware of it?  Hit me up on “the twitter” @paulschantz or leave a comment below.  I look forward to hearing from you!

 

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