The following interview is with Tristan Denley, vice chancellor for academic affairs with the Tennessee Board of Regents. In his last position, as provost at Austin Peay University, Denley and his team created the Degree Compass, a program that predicts how well a student will do in a given class and helps guides students toward their degree. In this interview, Denley discusses the program and shares his thoughts on the values and drawbacks to creating programs like this in-house rather than working with a service provider.
1. What is the Degree Compass Program, and why was it something you felt needed to be created?
The Degree Compass is a course recommendation system; it’s an interface for students and for advisors to use technology to find the courses that best fit that student’s curricular needs. To find the courses that best fit the kinds of courses that will help them move through their degree and also to use predicative analytics techniques to find the courses in which that student will earn the best grades, will [help them] flourish academically.
2. Why did your team decide that it was better to create the Degree Compass in-house rather than work with a service provider?
The decision to work in-house really grew out organically. Austin Peay was very much focused — and still is — on the agenda of empowering student’s success and completion, so there were a number of conversations happening there at the institution; … finding ways we can change policy, procedure, curricular changes, pedagogy changes. Technology changes of course came up. So it was natural that talks began to explore some technology interfaces.
As we looked around, we simply didn’t see anything that was like this at all. Pretty soon we began to explore whether … something like this was feasible. Before we knew it, we had already begun to develop this system, which has really flourished.
3. As you were creating the program, were there any areas where it may have been advantageous to work with a vendor?
It would have been advantageous when we tried to “spread the love.” When we initially created Degree Compass at Austin Peay it began in an embryonic stage on my laptop and gradually spread to an institutional level so we could roll it out to all of the students at Austin Peay. Then we wanted to see, … “Is there a way in which this could be much more broadly useful?”
Then we needed to explore how we would take this system and move it to other schools; to banner systems that were implemented in other institutions and in other information technology frameworks. Of course, it’s the case that an institution is not really set up to do that kind of work. We were very lucky to get support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to hire in some extra expertise so that we could actually … explore whether it really was effective [at other pilot institutions] and the results have really been very encouraging.
But clearly if it had been the case that initially we had worked with some technology vendor, then the infrastructure of being able to work more broadly would have probably already been in place, as would ongoing support and things like that.
4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of creating programs like this in-house and the importance of ensuring you have internal expertise when going about such projects?
There are some other advantages to going about it in-house.
One of the things that was really pivotal about the way in which Degree Compass grew at Austin Peay was the ongoing conversations that we could then have. There were student voices that were involved in creating this interface, there were faculty voices that were involved in creating this interface, as well as pulling in folks who were involved in the IT support on campus.
This really was a very multifaceted kind of conversation because, to be able to use and implement a technology like this, it really needs to have a very broad focus of buy-in. There needs to be a comfort for the use of that technology at the student level, the faculty level, and the administrative level; it all needs to fit together. And also, it needs to be created in a way that those end-users really are able to use it in a very seamless kind of way. We were able to create an interface which was as much as possible very self-explanatory and didn’t require an enormous amount of training to be able to use it to the fullest.
Creating it in-house, creating it in that university environment, really allowed that ongoing conversation and I think it was a much stronger idea because of that.
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- Working with vendors can help institutions expand and outsource major innovations to help benefit a wider range of stakeholders across higher education.
- Developing highly-innovative technologies in-house can ensure that all stakeholders are adequately represented in its functionality.
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