News Items from UNC Greensboro

120810Headline_StarfishYou’re a freshman. A few of your classes are pretty large. Your initial grades – or perhaps your spotty attendance in class – show you need some help. But will you seek it out? A new pilot program helps prompt you to get it, in time to achieve success in the class.

The program is Starfish. And it is part of UNCG’s efforts to boost retention rates and graduation rates, as UNCG endeavors to significantly raise them by 2013. “I think it’ll make a real impact,” Dr. Steve Roberson, dean of undergraduate studies, said last week.

The pilot began on campus a year ago, and data on their effect on retention are not available yet. But Dean Roberson ran down preliminary numbers for the Faculty Senate on Dec. 2.

So far this semester, through Starfish:

  • 1,567 instructor-initiated flags were raised for 452 students.
  • The most raised flag was “Low Grade Concern,” which generated an automatic email.
  • Out of nearly 7,000 Student Success Center tutoring appointments that resulted from Starfish notifications, the most were scheduled for BIO 111: Principles of Biology, BIO 277: Human Physiology, and CHEM 111: General Chemistry.
  • More than 3,900 advising appointments campus-wide were made through Starfish.

“It’s Big Brother at its best,” said Roberson, as faculty-determined “tripwires” are used to automatically help students.

UNCG’s idea actually originated at Purdue University, where Dr. Ray Purdom, UNCG’s director of the Teaching & Learning Center, received his doctorate. Purdom saw a reference in an Purdue alumni publication to Purdue Signals, a software system Purdue had built to improve retention.

“I got on the phone with the folks mentioned in the article,” said Purdom, “and I got on the phone with our Blackboard representative,” who found a newer, very promising system, Starfish. And a year ago, UNCG moved ahead with a pilot using Starfish.

What does it do for UNCG students and faculty?

“You can ID students who need assistance. And [they can] get the assistance in timely fashion,” Purdom explained last week.

There are two components at UNCG: Early Alert and Connect.

Early Alert “raises flags,” to call attention to students who need help. It can read grade and attendance information on Blackboard to raise the flags. And the faculty member can set the criteria for flagging. Low exam score? Low overall grades? Student hasn’t logged into their Blackboard account in five days? Some combination of these?

Once the criteria is set, there is not much extra work for faculty, if any, Purdom says. The student, as well as perhaps the advisor and academic support services, will receive an email. Its general thrust – “We’re concerned about you.” Faculty can compose that mass email as they see fit. And that simple email can make a huge difference.

Faculty members can also use manual flagging, to reach particular students, if they choose.

The response from faculty members so far? Purdom says they like the idea, particularly those with large classes. It saves them time. “Three hundred students? It’s hard to monitor them all. And we have more and more large classes.”

He notes that “flag management” can be a challenge. It’s something the university is working through, as the pilot program continues.

UNCG was the first in the UNC system to use Starfish, which has been in existence about three years. ECU has also begun using it, and NC A&T State is thinking about it, Purdom says.

Starfish now serves about 50 universities, including University of Pittsburgh, University of Chicago and Seton Hall.

Its chief software engineer has recently moved to Greensboro, Purdom says. “It’s kind of reassuring that he’s here in town.”

Early Alert can make a huge difference for a freshman. “A lot of them have never had an email come from a faculty member. And they really like the ability to schedule appointments.”

Scheduling appointments with advisors and tutors is a second component of Starfish. That component is called Connect. UNCG is pilot testing this with the Starfish company; it is not fully implemented. The Lloyd International Honors College, School of Nursing and Bryan School have been involved. The College of Arts and Sciences Advising Center is now using it with all of its students, Purdom says.

Connect simply makes it very easy for students to make appointments, instantly. They don’t have to make a call or find an email address or walk to an office to sign up for a time slot.

“It does get students in to see advisors,” Purdom explains.

The Student Success Center tutoring center in McIver pilot tested it with an introductory biology course in Spring 2010, moved to 24 courses in the summer, and this semester have used it with all the courses for which it offers tutoring.

Starfish integrates with Blackboard seamlessly. “Students think they’re at Blackboard,” but part of what they’re seeing is actually Starfish.

For a student? They can see their courses on Blackboard and a note under each course, such as “Introductory appointment overdue by 5 days” or “Make appointment” – with a link to set the appointment.

“We’re truly a pioneer in this,” Purdom says. “We were maybe the tenth or twelfth university in the country to use Starfish.”

Purdom reflects on how this would have been helpful when he was a freshman or sophomore in college. “Easy access to offices and people that will help me? I’d find that beneficial. And it would’ve gotten me over that barrier to see a faculty member, too.”

He explains that office hours can be the loneliest hours of the week for faculty members. “If [students] come once, they’ll come again.” Easy scheduling and prompts gets students over that barrier.

Early Alert may be used for all freshman gateway courses in Fall 2011, but there is one technical hurdle. Banner does not yet “talk to” Starfish, so currently a lot of manual inputting and updating of advisor information is required. Once the appropriate software is created on campus, the Connect pilot will be able to fully expand, and many more students can be helped.

Those with questions may contact Dean Steve Roberson or Dr. Ray Purdom. Additional information may be found at the Starfish web site.

Visual:  Sean Simpson, a tutor of economics at the Student Success Center, assists an undergraduate on Dec. 7.

By Mike Harris
Photography by David Wilson

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