GPS gives students, advisers roadmap for academic success

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College of Arts & Sciences Program Director Deborah Littleton, left, says the new GPS system gives advisors a clear picture on where students stand in their pursuit of a degree.

The road to graduation is always paved with good intentions – both for students and their advisers.

Now navigating down these sometimes-complicated lanes is a whole lot easier for UAB students and their advisers thanks to the recent implementation and launch of the Graduation Planning System. The system, known as GPS and implemented by the Office of the Provost, gives students the ability to review their degree progress online at their convenience. They can map out strategies to ensure they reach graduation in their desired timeframe, and advisers can focus on at-risk students and employing other advising techniques that go much deeper than helping to choose courses.

The GPS will enable students and their advisers to view the satisfied and unsatisfied degree requirements, and what coursework would be remaining if a student were to decide to change to a different major. And, of course, they can do this day or night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The GPS is going to transform the way students plan their degree programs,” says UAB Provost Linda Lucas. “Our students wanted online interactive check sheets so they could get a top-floor view of their progress toward their degree, or see what it would mean for them if they decided to change majors. The GPS gives them that opportunity, and it is going to help students move through their academic programs at UAB in a very timely way.”

These online interactive check sheets — or degree audit systems — have become a national best practice.

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“We needed to have an online student support system that was available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so that students could check their progress toward degree and, just as importantly, so they could run ‘what if’ scenarios to decide whether they should switch majors,” says Suzanne Austin, Ph.D., vice provost for Student & Faculty Success. “Another benefit of the GPS is that it gets us out of the world of paper-based advising where things can fall between the cracks. Now, everybody has access to the same degree maps. If there are questions, they are going to be questions that can be addressed for everybody in those programs, and whatever corrections or changes need to be made, everybody will know about it at the same time.”

No waiting, no guessing

UAB’s Office of the Registrar owns the functionality of the GPS on a day-to-day basis. Registrar Tina Collins says the beauty of the system is that a student and adviser don’t have to wait for an advisement appointment to find out what a student needs to complete his or her degree. It also eliminates the guessing game of what courses to take.

“If any course exceptions or substitutions are being made, the adviser can enter that directly into the system and the student will see that the requirement has been satisfied,” Collins says. “They’re not waiting for paper. The system tells the students and advisers everything.

“We needed to have an online student support system that was available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so that students could check their progress toward degree and, just as importantly, so they could run ‘what if’ scenarios to decide whether they should switch majors.”

“We’re hoping it will help students plan out what classes they need to take each semester in advance so they don’t miss any steps,” she says. “They will clearly see what courses they need to take and the order they need to take them so they don’t compromise their time toward their degree.”

UAB is heavily focused on improving current retention and graduation rates, and university leadership charged the Department of Customer Service and Quality Improvement with developing and implementing various ways to achieve this goal.

The office, directed by Lee Smith, has implemented a number of projects in the past year to support this endeavor, including the online Undergraduate Catalog, Book It space reservation system for reserving classroom or meeting rooms for students, Standard Course Schedule and Client Relationship Manager for advisers. As each system has been implemented, it has been transitioned to the eventual functional owner.

Smith’s office reviewed a number of third-party software systems before identifying the GPS as the best fit for UAB in the spring of 2011. Smith’s group worked with UAB Web Communications on developing the site’s user experience, taking the software package from its generic look to something UAB users are growing more accustomed to, a polished design with familiar UAB colors and page elements. The team began to implement the software, which can be accessed through BlazerNet, in summer 2011 and managed to upload and bring online the degree audits for all undergraduate degrees at UAB in less than a year — a lightning pace when you consider the volume of information that had to be gathered from each school, including each major’s requirements, and the concurrent needs of comparing those requirements to the catalog and conducting a system test.

Reduce confusion

The GPS went live in the spring on a limited basis and was fully implemented for all undergraduate students in August 2012. In the past month, students have logged more than 9,400 views in the GPS, with those numbers expected to increase exponentially in the coming months.

“What we’re hearing is that advisers are now beginning to structure their advising around GPS,” Smith says. “Just having it out there in a structured format shows students very clearly what they need to do, and it should reduce confusion. If they are registering for a course that they think is going to complete their degree and go look at GPS and it’s not showing up as completing their degree, then they really know they need to ask a question of their adviser. In the past they may have gone through an entire semester and assumed they were going to be done, only to find out they weren’t.”

Registrar Collins underscores that the GPS is not designed to replace advising, but, rather, to enhance it.

“Students actually are communicating with their advisers even more frequently because if they see something in the system that doesn’t look quite right or that they thought they had already taken care of, they seek them out,” Collins says. “The GPS is designed to encourage students to speak to their advisers earlier so they stay on track for graduation.”

Feedback on the system thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.

School of Engineering students were among the first to have the opportunity to use the GPS this past spring, and Collins says phone calls and e-mails soon poured in from students in other schools asking when they were going to be able to use it.

Smith says the positive comments didn’t come as a big surprise in this instance.

“This is one thing students have said they really wanted to have,” Smith says.

More benefits

The GPS offers many features for students and advisers, including three grade point average (GPA) calculators to help students take responsibility for their GPA and keep track of their progress within a major that has specific GPA requirements. For example, if a student has a goal of a 3.5 GPA and is currently at a 3.3, the GPS can calculate what they need to do to earn their desired GPA.

The “What If” feature of the system enables students to view their remaining coursework if they change majors. Directions for how to use these and other GPS functions can be found at www.uab.edu/gps.

The GPS also soon will enable departments to do course demand modeling — a feature that will make it easier for departments to schedule the right number of courses each semester.

“Right now, if you’re a department chair, you’re often having to guess, ‘Do I need two sections or three sections next year?’ You don’t have a great sense of ‘how many students majoring in my area have not completed this course,’” says Smith. “In the next year, we will begin to provide some of those data to departments so they can craft their course schedules a little more scientifically.”

Other expansion opportunities for the GPS also are possible in the future, including a feature called The Planner, which will enable students and advisers to customize a plan for every student that will take them through their entire academic career. This feature will especially aid transfer students and freshmen who enter school with Advanced Placement credits.

Deans also are eager for graduate programs to be put into the GPS, but no timetable has been set for implementation as of yet.

“Implementing the GPS opens up a world of possibilities for us as an institution,” Austin says. “With Lee and Tina’s leadership we’ve implemented this system faster than anyone in the country. It’s truly amazing what they’ve done, and it’s a really wonderful tool for our students and faculty. We expect to improve upon it even more in the future.”

Tools & Technology