At Athabasca University, our proposed multi-million dollar investment in a student relationship management system, dubbed the 'Student Success Centre' (SSC), is causing quite a flood of discussion and debate among faculty and tutors at the moment. Though I do see some opportunities in this if (and only if) it is very intelligently and sensitively designed, there are massive and potentially fatal dangers in creating such a thing. See a previous post of mine for some of my worries. I have many thoughts on the matter, but one thing strikes me as interesting enough to share more widely and, though it has a lot to do with the SSC, it also has broader implications.
Part of the justification for the SSC is that an alleged 80% of current interactions with students are about administrative rather than academic issues. I say 'alleged' because such things are notoriously hard to measure with any accuracy. But let's assume that it actually is accurate.
How weird is that?
I am a full professor and Chair of the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. I am one of the...
I suspect one of the reasons for the claim (wild guess?) that such a high percentage of student questions are administrative ones is the same reason any of the "studies" I've seen that conclude that the original School of Business Contact Centre is better than the other options; i.e., they don't seriously consider any other options but phone tutoring and email, perhaps because they didn't know that anything else exists and don't ask. CCISM and CCIS (now SCIS) began using a "bulletin board system" many years ago in some courses, and decided in 2001 to test using a more full-fledged system--now Moodle, previously Bazaar, and before that one whose name I no longer recall. I have done all my tutoring in the SCIS and now AU CMS since 2001, and without actually counting would guess that fewer than 5% of posted questions are administrative--about the same as COMP 266 R3 on the Landing. Never was I asked to collect and submit any stats for any of the courses I've tutored that way.
The ALEC Learning Support Working Group (I and II) didn't have the time or other resources to do a thorough job of clarifying this, and the second LSWG appeared to have abbreviated both their study and report after having decided that resistance to the SSC was futile and that we would all be assimilated.
Wayne Brehaut May 29, 2015 - 1:52am
I submit that the type of 'best case' student you describe in your post would rather quickly figure out that direct contact with the tutor is infinitly superior to the call center, and act accordingly. Whether they use direct email, or moodle forums, or the landing for courses that employ it, self-starting students would quickly figure out that eliminating the middle level (call center) is optimum.
Except moodle, email and the landing are not (yet) locked into the call center analytics, so of course the end result is a (probably) bogus statistic such as you've reported. Or rather, not a bogus stat, but simply a very, very incomplete stat.
Richard Huntrods May 29, 2015 - 9:22am
Thanks Wayne and Richard!
I'm more than a little sceptical of the 80/20 claim. But perhaps it is true for some courses, or as an overall average, even if it bears no resemblance at all to those we teach. After all, the fact that we are on the Landing and in SCIS (which has long provided tools for supporting richer online communities) does make us atypical. But, in the unlikely event that it is true, it certainly shouldn't be. At worst, it should be the inverse and, if it is not, we need to fix a broken system rather than make the breakage into a virtue.
Indeed, the call centre, as currently implemented, is a barrier and most students I'm aware of bypass it completely: that was the original idea, as our then-VPA presented it, and it makes sense. There was a reply to this post from a student that was later deleted that seemed to confirm it as a barrier. It's also ridiculous to separate out process issues from academic concerns and so much more useful to provide that support where it actually matters and will be read by many (e.g. on the Landing or Moodle).
In committees I sit on (including those making decisions about it) we have been told in no uncertain terms that resistance to the SSC is futile. But that doesn't mean that the future system has to look anything like the ones we have now and it absolutely doesn't have to be a call centre at all. It could simply sit as a service, quietly observing activity (not tracking every email or real-time call, but perhaps bcc'd on those that are relevant), providing a bit of management data, offering an admin FAQ, making it simpler to redirect queries we cannot easily answer, and collecting information for a learning analytics tool. That could help us to spot problems before they become serious, could grease the social wheels, and help us to improve our courses. If it could be hooked into a learning record store then it might be useful to record evidence of learning too. It might even make it possible to engage our admin staff on our social sites - Moodle, the Landing, ePortfolio, etc - by allowing them to see and respond to relevant messages as they came through. That would enrich the community and be great for knowledge flow. Everyone would be a winner, and the only people that would even need to be more than subliminally aware of it would be those that would actually find it useful.
Of course, should we choose a proprietary off-the-shelf system from GreyMatter (as seems probable) any of that would be fiendishly hard and incredibly expensive to do, if it could be done at all. My guess is that it would be impossible without spending many millions more. We need to say no to idiotic ideas like that as loudly as we can.
Jon Dron May 29, 2015 - 10:35am
If it could be hooked into a learning record store then it might be useful to record evidence of learning too
Well, given the fact that it is unlikely we will ever see the moodle gradebook hooked to the Newton grading system, I really doubt any other hookup will occur.
We seem to becoming a really great "tail wags the dog" university. SCC is by/of/for admins and not academics and especially not tutors, email is going away - at least functional email is likely to disappear soon IMO, and so many other systems are driven by anything except academic requirements. Academics are in danger of becoming an extinct species around this place.
Richard Huntrods May 29, 2015 - 11:17am
Thanks for the post Jon. The 20/80 split btw academic and administrative is a red hering.I have no doubt that the split switches for tutors because we call tutors for academic questions and call centres for admin help. Seems reasonable. Context is important.
The key measure is the actual frequency of academic calls (emails, phone, ?) compared to actual tutor numbers that we don't collect or reliably report. Does the SSC inhibit academic contact? I suspect it does since it certainly generates alternate paths to AE contact.
I also agree that siphoning resources away from the academic side to service a real student admin need will further weaken our ability to engage students.
I would like to see the consolidation bewteen the Info centre, helpdesk and the admin side of the SSC consolidate so that scale and efficiencies could be realized. Regardless of the split, the numbers from SSC reveal, at the very least, there is a real need by students for this type of service, a service that should be funded by admin side, not the academic side.
Robert Heller June 2, 2015 - 2:44pm
Thanks Bob - I'm not sure where the 20/80 figure came from but it has surfaced in almost every discussion when the idea has been challenged as a justification, which seems very wrong-headed to me. It's like noticing there are lots of sick people dying of an easily preventable disease and choosing to increase the efficiency of hospital treatments instead of preventing it in the first place.
Consolidation makes sense - one place to shout 'help' with the assurance of being heard seems quite reasonable to me: it could be the start of a bit of useful relationship-nurturing if we did it right. I'm much in favour of a better help tool that could help to connect people as well as to provide answers and generate useful data to support improved learning. It could be done, though it would be foolish, slow and costly to attempt to do it with GreyMatter or any other off-the-shelf CRM tool.
@Richard - I think the Gradebook problem (which should at last be resolved this year) is largely due to the over ambitious attempt to replace Newton in one fell swoop. Integration would have been a much safer and quicker approach and could have eventually led to replacement at a later date. As long as we use open standards and tools, and we don't outsource the wrong things, incremental evolution works better in IT systems most of the time. The trouble is that, from an IT departmental perspective, replacement looks cheaper. This is because the cost of maintaining integrated systems can be quite high, thanks to all those interlinked dependencies, which can really tie up an IT department with inadequate resources and tortuous waterfal processes (ie us). It's just a local saving though. The cost to the organization as a whole of making people adapt to machines rather than vice versa, at least when the organization is fairly large, typically far outweighs the IT department's savings. It's localized thinking that causes the dog-wagging problem. Systems theory should be a prerequisite course for all IT managers. At the very least, all should be required to read Sytemantics!
Jon Dron June 2, 2015 - 7:44pm
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