Smart Software Lets Universities Offer 'Self Service' Degree Information

by By Florence Olsen

As “self service” becomes the model for all kinds of student services, more universities are gearing up to use the World-Wide Web to let students audit “Let’s face it, we made it hard for students to register or get financial aid, and we didn’t feel badly about that. But the times have changed.” their progress toward meeting degree requirements.p. Faculty advising is changing, too, as the same technologies make it possible for faculty members — without any special training — to read and generate degree-audit reports, says Charles Theodore Hurley III, the assistant registrar at Notre Dame University, one of the institutions taking advantage of the new technology.p. At Notre Dame, new on-line reports replace dense, static pages of Cobol computer code, text, and symbols that “frightened professors away pretty quickly,” Mr. Hurley says.p. The new software makes faculty members “instant experts” on degree requirements, he says, which means that more professors can be involved in advising undergraduate students. An interactive audit can be completed so quickly that professors have time left over in their 20-minute appointment slots to talk to the students about other concerns.p. Sometime next year, if all goes according to plan, students will be able to call up their degree-requirement information themselves, administrators say.p. But getting there has not been easy, Mr. Hurley said in an interview. Giving a new face to degree-audit reports took Notre Dame the better part of two years.p. “We thought our first attempt was good enough,” he says. “But the academic deans thought otherwise.”p. The hard part for everyone involved, Mr. Hurley says, was finding ways to display lots of detailed information on a single Web screen and still keep the screen simple enough to be readable. To demonstrate, he navigated to an indecipherable screen of computer-coded course requirements, and said, "This is a lot of what we stuffed behind the scenes.p. Notre Dame’s new degree-audit system is the type of student-centered application that colleges and universities seem eager to develop as they abandon what many people now think of as an outdated “inconvenience” model of higher education.p. “Let’s face it, we made it hard for students to register or get financial aid, and we didn’t feel badly about that,” says Regina Kleinman, a senior projects leader in the president’s office at Seton Hall University. “But the times have changed for a host of reasons, and we no longer embrace that attitude,” she says.p. For years, many universities required students to request audit reports in person from the registrar’s office, permitting them to pick up the documents the following day after showing a form of photo identification. Some institutions still require students to wait as long as 10 business days to receive the reports — which show their progress toward meeting degree requirements — and then charge the students $3, Mr. Hurley says.p. The information that universities distributed to deans and advisers two or three times a year was almost always out of date because a student had dropped a class, or a grade had been changed, he says.p. With on-line degree-audit programs, faculty advisers can recalculate grade-point averages or degree requirements “within split seconds,” Mr. Hurley says. The program in use at Notre Dame displays a big check mark in the box next to each requirement that is completed, and a blank box next to each requirement not yet fulfilled.p. Mr. Hurley says the smart software knows, for example, to allow a single course to satisfy two separate requirements, but not to count the course twice in calculating a G.P.A. It provides uniform advice to the deans and faculty advisers, he says. “No one’s telling students different stories.”p. It will be another year before Notre Dame officials actually give students the keys to the university’s new degree-audit system. If the software isn’t thoroughly debugged, Mr. Hurley says, it could end up displaying inaccurate information.p. “Students are going to immediately see this as a contract,” he says, which is why the academic deans and faculty advisers will test-drive the new software for a full year before the students themselves start using it.p. But even then, he says, the software will carry a disclaimer that the academic dean, and not the audit software, is the final arbiter of who’s going to graduate and who isn’t.p. On their own, he says, students will be able to use the new software to find out what their degree requirements would be if they suddenly switched majors or changed to a different college within the university. “In very rare cases,” he says, “a set of degree requirements could even be built for one student.”p. Most degree-audit programs work by comparing a student’s official computer-coded academic records with computer-coded course requirements listed in the university’s undergraduate or graduate catalogues.p. Because every college and university catalogue is different, writing the “parser” — or syntax analyzer — for degree-audit software that would work for any institution was “the really tough part,” says Michael Fox, a vice-president of Software Research Northwest. The Seattle-area company developed the DegreeWorks audit program that Notre Dame is using.p. The screens that display student information, he says, are linked to particular classes of users — students, staff members, faculty advisers, or deans — and are secured by user I.D. and pin-number combinations.p. After faculty advisers started using the degree-audit software, Mr. Hurley says, Notre Dame had to upgrade its computer memory and central processor to improve the speed with which the degree-audit computer, an HP 3000 server, responded to requests.p. Mr. Hurley says that the finished software doesn’t look complex, but that appearances are deceiving. “We had to go through a lot to get it to do this.”

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