At a time when American higher education is facing perhaps the gravest crisis in its history, it seems like every passing week brings a new idea or new advance in technology with the potential to change things for the better. Via Meadia has extensively discussed the rise of online education and distance learning. Now the New York Times is featuring another innovation: online guidance counselors.A small number of schools around the country—the University of Arizona and Austin Peay State University in Tennessee being most prominent among them—are now experimenting with new ways to use data mining to help track the performance of their students and guide them towards the majors and courses that suit them best. Although the two systems use slightly different methods and technology, the core principle is the same: by tracking students’ grades, course history, and use of online learning materials, a computer can determine when a student is in danger of falling behind and suggest steps to get him or her back on track. The hope is that this will decrease the number of students who drop out or spend additional years in college because of a switch in majors:
For example, to succeed in psychology, a student must perform well in statistics.“Kids who major in psych put that off, because they don’t want to take statistics,” Ms. Capaldi says. “They want to know: Does their boyfriend love them? Are they nuts? They take all those courses, then they hit statistics and they say: ‘Oh, God, I can’t do this. I can’t do experimental design.’ And so they’re in the wrong major. By putting those courses first, you can see if a student is going to succeed in that major early.” Arizona State’s retention rate rose to 84 percent from 77 percent in recent years, a change Ms. Capaldi credits largely to eAdvisor.
This is no small matter. As the Times points out, only 31 percent of public school students graduate in the normal four-year time frame, and only 56 percent graduate within six. Those extra years represent an enormously costly misstep, and those who drop out receive essentially no benefit, in terms of credentials. New data technologies like eAdvisor have the potential to help colleges keep costs down without requiring them to hire expensive new personnel.Of course, a little common sense and some parental advice might also work wonders.