Cyber Adviser: High-Tech, High-Touch Advising

STANLEY J. LIEBERMAN, Analyst-Programmer Valencia Community College Orlando, Fla. This article describes an easy-to-use (honest!) Windows computer program that makes course planning almost a fun activity. This program, Cyber Adviser, has dazzled and amazed hundreds of participants at several presentations. When advising staff at Valencia Community College became aware of Cyber Adviser’s existence, there was concern it would displace them. These fears were unfounded. After having the program demonstrated, they became strong supporters. The mere ability to click a mouse button to instantly access information that usually required thumbing through hundreds of pages was a big selling feature. The program also provides consistent information, eliminating a typical problem in which different advisers give (slightly?) different information about the same topic. The total end result of the program’s features means that the quality of advising improves to a level beyond merely telling a student which courses to take. The student’s life goals can be discussed instead of wasting time looking up course requirements. Background Valencia is the first community college to receive a Title III grant for curriculum and advising. As a part of this grant, faculty and staff participate in professional development projects in which the concept of "developmental advising" is studied. Developmental advising fills two very important needs: Need for an academic advisement process that supports greater student success among those who have historically not done well at Valencia; and Need for accessible individual student educational plans. The developmental approach to student advisement is founded in developmental learning theory and is structured to help the student become progressively more autonomous, goal directed, and thus academically successful. As part of these projects, participants receive training on Valencia’s online educational planning system, Cyber Adviser. Valencia is the first community college to receive a Title III grant for curriculum and advising. Developmental advising is an important new emphasis for Valencia’s work with students on both their academic and co-curricular activities. This approach helps to foster a student culture that supports student success in academic pursuits within the overall structure of Valencia’s open-door, part-time, commuter-student campus. As a result of the activities for this part of the grant, faculty and student services staff will be able to advise students in the construction of individual student educational plans, and students will begin to learn to use such plans as effective learning tools. In its move from prescriptive to developmental advising methods, Valencia needed to switch to a new paradigm. Prescriptive advising is the usual method of "prescribing" courses for students: telling them what to take in the upcoming semester. Developmental advising helps students address the overall purposes of higher education and their goals in life. This is a broader discussion than prescriptive advising. Research shows that meaningful student contact with faculty and staff improves student success. Here we are creating an advising alliance among faculty, students and advisers. Find a Need and Fill It! As Valencia moves from prescriptive to developmental advising, the problem of limited financial and personnel resources becomes more apparent. The student-to-adviser ratio at Valencia is about 2,000:1 and there are no funds to hire more advisers. A solution was needed to provide more advisement services to our students. Solution? Have faculty provide some advising and have students take part in their own course planning, in addition to the advising services provided by the Student Services staff. Because both faculty and students have limited backgrounds for these tasks, Cyber Adviser was developed as a way to make the job as painless as possible for them. How Traditional Advising Works In the usual advising scenario a student makes an appointment with an adviser. The adviser asks what the student wants to accomplish at Valencia Community College. If the student wants to continue his or her education at a university, then the adviser refers to the transfer manual for the desired university. Transfer manuals delineate which courses should be taken at Valencia in order to be sure that these courses are compatible with the student’s baccalaureate goals. This would work in an ideal world. The world, however, is rarely ideal. Sometimes exact course matches cannot be found in Valencia’s catalog. Therefore, the closest acceptable course must be identified. Sometimes there is no equivalent course at all. You can imagine how tedious this searching can be ö especially when you need to deal with thousands of students. Sometimes they don’t want to see an adviser. Some students do their course planning in the cafeteria with recommendations provided by their peers or their gut feelings. Unfortunately, many cannot (or will not) plan their courses beyond the next semester. Students usually do not have transfer manuals from the universities they wish to attend and the limited copies at Valencia are not readily available to them. Therefore, they may not have the data they need to efficiently plan their courses at Valencia. Consequently, students may make incorrect decisions and wind up taking courses that may not be acceptable at the university of their choice. This results in wasted time and money. Furthermore, it is anticipated that Florida lawmakers will no longer subsidize credit hours beyond those needed to graduate from community colleges and public universities. Therefore, accurate course planning becomes even more critical. In its move from prescriptive to developmental advising methods, Valencia needed to switch to a new paradigm. An alternative way was needed to make transfer manual and Valencia catalog data available to students and advising staff. It would also be beneficial to develop a way to present a student’s complete Valencia course plan instead of doing the planning on a semester-by-semester basis. This way one sees the "big picture" instead of a narrow semester-by-semester view. The computer is an ideal tool to store and access data and to perform complex computations. This is where Cyber Adviser comes into the act. How Cyber Adviser Works Transfer manual data is interpreted by experienced advisers and collected in files that allow rapid access to that data. Valencia’s course descriptions are also stored in a file format that allows instant display of every course description as it appears in the catalog. This eliminates the need to constantly search printed data to develop course plans. The current Cyber Adviser data was extracted from the Valencia catalog and Florida state university transfer manuals. Algorithms were designed to rapidly access data according to a user’s needs. For example, there are 886 course descriptions in the current Valencia catalog and Cyber Adviser is able to instantly display any of them by merely clicking on its course number. At the same time, the program can extract a course’s credit hours and prerequisites (if any). This ability alone eliminates the time previously needed to search the catalog for this information. Cyber Adviser aids course planning for students having these educational goals: those wishing to continue their education at a university after graduating from Valencia (Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree); and those wanting to enter the work force after graduating from Valencia (Associate in Science (A.S.) degree). The program performs four steps: 1.Checks entrance requirements; 2.Automatically recommends courses to be taken at the community-college level; 3.Automatically designs a curriculum that can be manually modified; and 4.Automatically plans a student’s course sequence for up to three years. Entrance Requirement Checks: Cyber Adviser first checks that required testing has been completed and then determines whether CLEP credits were earned. Next it establishes the initial courses for English, reading, math and foreign language general-education requirements. Course Recommendations: Cyber Adviser then identifies courses the student should take at Valencia. Recommendations depend upon a student’s educational goals. If one chooses to seek a baccalaureate degree, then the program lists the Florida state universities and their respective majors. After the student selects a major, Cyber Adviser automatically loads the courses required by the selected university into a recommended curriculum. For example, if the student wishes to obtain an A.S. degree, then one would choose from the list of A.S. programs offered by Valencia. Cyber Adviser automatically loads the courses required for the degree into a curriculum. Curriculum Design: Cyber Adviser recommends a course of study based upon university and Valencia catalog data. However, one can manually modify the curriculum according to a student’s situation. The program’s recommendations can always be changed to reflect a student’s individual needs. Full course descriptions are instantly available as courses are selected, added or deleted using a drag-drop feature. Total credit hours are also instantly updated to indicate the current course load. Courses are segregated into eight areas: 1.College-prep 2.Communications 3.Humanities 4.Math 5.Natural & physical sciences 6.Social sciences 7.Foreign language 8.Electives Cyber Adviser automatically drops course numbers into some or all of these areas depending upon the student’s situation. The courses in each area appear in lists where the user can add or remove individual courses. The program constantly updates the total credit hours for each area, in addition to showing the total credit hours of all courses (excluding college-prep). Florida requires students to take courses where one must write a total of 24,000 words. Courses that can contribute to this total usually require 6,000 words each. Cyber Adviser tracks and displays the word count and warns when the 24,000-word requirement is not being met. Cyber Adviser validates whether prerequisites and other conditions have been met. After the curriculum has been designed, Cyber Adviser validates whether prerequisites and other conditions have been met. A warning appears to make the user aware of possible curriculum-design errors. Course Sequencing: In this final step, Cyber Adviser automatically produces a sequence of courses that shows a recommended course of study for up to three years. The program first loads the courses in the following sequence: College-prep courses (if any); General education courses; and Electives. One can select the maximum number of credit hours the student wishes to take each semester, as well as the starting semester and if summer class are desired. Cyber Adviser automatically checks that courses are loaded in proper prerequisite order and makes sure there is no more than one 6,000-word course in a semester. The program then provides a printed copy of the course sequence that can be used to discuss and plan a student’s educational career with an adviser or counselor. In this way, students get a complete picture of their educational plan instead of doing it one semester at a time. Plus, being involved in their own planning and seeing how courses relate should contribute to being a successful student. The illustration (Figure 1) shows a typical course plan for a student wishing to continue to a university to major in computer engineering. How We Use Cyber Adviser Cyber Adviser was incorporated into Student Success courses on a trial basis, during the fall 1995 semester, to obtain user feedback. User comments and observations made by the author resulted in feature enhancements and bug fixes. Cyber Adviser was used on a regular basis in the Student Success courses starting with the spring 1996 semester. The program is installed on a LAN at Valencia’s East Campus and is accessible to the advising staff ... at least those with Windows-based computers. However, other uses for the program are being investigated. These include: Marketing Tool: Cyber Adviser can be distributed to high schools within Valencia’s designated counties. In addition to demonstrating that Valencia Community College is a great place to go after high school, their advisers could use the program to prepare students for post-secondary education. They can show, for example, that it is best to take math courses for free in high school rather than as college-prep courses at college where one must pay for them. It also presents students and their families with the "big picture" of what is involved in obtaining a higher education. Registration: We are looking to integrate Cyber Adviser into the registration process. The courses recommended for a student’s particular semester can automatically register him or her for those courses or warn that the course is not available. Accessibility: The program could be freely distributed to students who own PCs or be made accessible from anywhere by anyone who has Internet access. Department Course Predictions: By using the resulting course plans for each student, it is conceivable that department chairs could predict course demands for the different campuses by relating anticipated course requests and student zip codes. In order for this to have significant value, however, almost the whole student body would need to use Cyber Adviser. Adaptability: Cyber Adviser was designed to work in a format that meets the needs of a community college. However, the algorithms and features are readily adaptable to developing similar computer programs for four-year colleges and universities. Stan Lieberman, Analyst-Programmer, develops computer applications that are "remarkably" user friendly. He has been programming with Visual Basic for four years and has a B.S. (Physics) from City College of New York. E-mail: [email protected] Technical Stuff: Cyber Adviser was developed with Microsoft Visual Basic 3.0 on Windows for Workgroups. The program can be used on stand-alone PC or put on a network. The program fits on one 3.5" HD floppy in compressed format. Installed configuration requires only 1.8MB of hard disk space. The minimum recommended computer is a 486 running at least 75MHz and having 8MB of RAM. I have run it on a 386SX at 16MHz and 4MB of RAM. It seemed stable, but very slow. Program Demo: To see Cyber Adviser in action, a demo disk is available by sending your request and $4 (S&H) to the author at P.O. Box 533111, Orlando, FL 32853. Products mentioned in this article: Visual Basic 3.0; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA, (800) 426-9400,

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.