College’s cloud app revitalizes student advising

Recognizing that paper-based processes were crippling its student-advising program, a Florida college has developed a cloud-based app to enhance student-faculty communication.

cloud-app-advisingMore and more university administrators are following advice typically found in the bathrooms of rustic B&Bs: “Too much paper clogs the pipes.” It’s certainly a tip that the University of South Florida College of Public Health took to heart after the school realized that its paper-based advising processes were extending the amount of time it took some students to graduate—and impacting how effectively faculty advisors could offer guidance.

To address the issue, USF COPH partnered with Appian, a company specializing in business-process management, to migrate its student-advising system to a cloud-based app that is accessible via mobile device.

Phase one tackled the college’s Program of Study sheet—literally a sheet of paper that identifies a student’s concentration, the courses required by that concentration, and possible elective courses.

“The old paper-based system required students to know what courses they needed to take and to make their own suggestions about when to take those courses,” said Jay Evans, associate dean of finance, operations, and human resources for COPH.

While faculty advisers were supposed to assist students with this process, the vagaries of the system inevitably left some students in the dark. “Advising was inconsistent across departments and concentrations,” said Evans. “Some faculty really took the time to organize their thoughts and notes, kept files on individual students, and had their students’ programs mapped out. Others didn’t have their students’ plans laid out quite as well.”

The new approach aims to bring everything together in one place for everybody to see, allowing faculty and students to quickly ascertain not only degree requirements but also when mandatory courses are scheduled and in what semesters. The college utilized Appian’s Enterprise Application Platform to create a custom web-based app that Evans likens to Facebook in terms of UI. Optimized for mobile devices, the app ties into the school’s single sign-on process and Banner SIS.

“The app is customized to our specific needs,” explained Evans. “Appian gives us a toolbox to play with but it’s up to us as the customer to figure out our priorities. The platform is going to allow us to roll out new versions and make tweaks as we find out what works and what doesn’t—it allows for a constant feedback loop.”

Data will be stored in the Appian Cloud. Not only does this approach reduce the demands placed on the college’s IT department, but it facilitates the school’s desire to make the product available anytime anywhere. “The goal is to make the student’s life easier,” said Evans. “What we’re really trying to set up is a one-stop shop for students.”

Faculty Assistance

Evans expects that the new system will also help faculty advisers monitor students more easily. “Faculty members will have their own homepage inside Appian where they can click on a button to see all their student advisees in one place,” he said. “We’re going to pull in the whole student record from the Banner system so faculty can see everything: the students’ applications to USF, their current GPA, whether they’re on probation or progressing well toward degree, how many credit hours they’ve taken, and when we anticipate them graduating.”

Down the line, the school anticipates adding predictive analytics and dashboards to make the job even easier. In the event that some faculty advisers still don’t measure up, the school has also digitized the process allowing students to request a different adviser. When this process was paper based, it could take more than 10 days to change advisers. “We’ve automated it into a much easier, clearer, transparent process that we think will help our students out,” said Evans.

USF COPH will test the new system with its approximately 900 graduate students starting this October before rolling it out to the entire school. After that, it plans to use the Appian Enterprise Application Platform to tackle a host of other business processes, many of which suffer from the same weaknesses as the original student-advising program. “We have a long list of applications that we’re looking to develop next,” said Evans.

While improved student outcomes were the guiding motivation behind the new application, Evans believes that the school will also reap a fiscal return on its investment. “We definitely believe it’s going to be a better user experience, but I expect that we’ll also reduce man hours on certain things,” he said. “I especially expect to see savings when we move into the area of business applications. We’re hoping the new applications will free up staff and improve accuracy so that we can allocate time to do other things better.”

In this respect, COPH is acting as a willing guinea pig for the larger USF system. “USF’s a large institution and we’re mired in red tape,” explained Evans. “Our college is a little more outside the box, so the CIO is using us as a pilot for the entire university to see whether Appian could be a larger solution for other challenges.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.