An Academic GPS: Students Use Data To Route Path to Success

Many students on the road to degree attainment are like travelers with no clear map, navigating at random, not always well informed about whether their daily and longer-term choices will result in the most successful path toward educational goals. Would certain study behaviors lead to better performance in a course? Should a student focus on mathematics or biology if she wants to work toward a medical degree? Students’ access to data is a critical educational component that could answer these questions and can provide a much needed academic GPS system for today’s students. 

Across institutions, helpful data on student progress and performance are typically stored in centralized databases (and in teachers’ heads), where they are often hard to access, interpret and share. With new technologies for collecting and making relevant data accessible to the individual, however, sharing and making data directly accessible to students allows for coursework and educational pathways to be personalized in a similar way as it is for Facebook and Netflix users. 

What does direct data access look like? At the Open High School of Utah, students are connected with data about their use of online curriculum resources, including how much time they spend on particular resources compared with their peers. Khan Academy employs a data sharing strategy that allows students to view their recent activities, including studies they’ve started and those they have completed, difficulties they’ve encountered, and demonstrable progress. Purdue University’s Course Signals provides early warning alerts and feedback to students as they move through courses. The result? Learning is directly catered to students’ abilities, behaviors and needs – and students can make academic decisions that have more clearly informed outcomes. 

In a recent article, former senior executive at Kaplan Charles Thornburgh argues that yesterday’s college students were “operating in an information vacuum,” largely because there was no way to easily base their educational decisions on anything but chance. Although his argument overlooks the role counseling and other supports play to help students navigate their educational careers, he confirms that immediate access to data does inform students in their decision-making.  Western Governors University Texas Chancellor Mark Milliron takes this argument a step further by calling for “radical immediate feedback,” or real-time data about course progress. Milliron argues that with this approach, students will become tenacious learners as they access the information they need to self-regulate. 

Getting data directly and immediately to students could foster an educational environment where each step within a course and a pathway is streamlined to exactly what a student needs. And on the road toward improved learning outcomes for all students, an “academic GPS” puts educational goals more easily within reach.