go to critical reviews
In March of 1995 I was hired to design and program a developmental-advising tool as part of a Title III grant awarded to Valencia Community College. My new colleagues at Valencia had not a clue to this tool’s concept. All they knew was that something had to be delivered to meet the proposed criteria for the tool which had to work on the Windows platform. Valencia had only mainframe programmers to support its archaic VSAM mainframe student information system (SIS).
Thus, I found myself in a position where I was on my own to develop a product that had virtually no specifications. No one at the institution could tell me how to do the job. This is the kind of programming situation that software developers fantasize about--complete creative freedom.
The Florida community college open-enrollment system allows any high school graduate to enroll in any of its 28 community colleges. Following completion of a two-year Associate of Arts degree, students must be admitted to any of the state’s 10 universities, but not necessarily to their desired programs. Students must take certain state-mandated, required, and elective courses depending upon their major at the university. Being thrust into the college culture after high school, many students find the choice of courses confusing. Therefore, advisors meet with students one-on-one to plan their courses of study. The advisor refers to voluminous (and many times confusing) transfer manuals that are published by each university. This manual describes which courses to take in community college for the most efficient transfer to the university. In the past, students were told which courses to take the following semester in a process known as prescriptive advising.
Developmental advising, on the other hand, seeks to move the curriculum choice responsibility from staff to student; students are responsible for their future as they would be as a working adult. However, students must be able to interpret the transfer manual in order design their curriculums. The goal of making thousands of students become their own advisors became impractical because of limited availability of transfer-manuals and the difficulty of interpreting manual contents. A student had to be almost as knowledgeable as an advisor. What to do!
Having the benefit of being new to the system and possessing adult analytical skills, I pretended to be a new student at the college. What kind of easy-to-use computer program would that student like to have to produce the same results as talking to an adviser? Furthermore, could the program work by just asking for responses without the student even being aware there was such a thing as a transfer manual? Talk about a fun challenge! Happily, with the guidance by a couple of supportive advisors, the result was a program I dubbed Cyber Adviser which was created in less than three months using the Microsoft Visual Basic programming language.
Here is a step-by-step procedure of what the program does:
Students . . .
enter name and student ID
select (from a list) which university they wish to attend after graduation
select (from a list) a university major
select (from a list) recommended electives
enter the number of credit hours to be taken each term
The program then automatically recommends the course sequence on a term-by-term basis (for up to three years) taking into account prerequisites and credit-hour load. Students can then modify the sequence but are warned when a course is placed out of sequence. Thus, students can design their complete course of study in less than three minutes if they accepts the default values.
That was the first version of Cyber Adviser. Student services staff were initially suspicious of the program, fearing it would replace them. Instead, after they realized how easy the program was to use and how it eased the work load, staff members became the program’s greatest fans and flooded me with suggestions to enhance its features. The program now connects to the school’s student information system (SIS), where staff members can review students’ transcripts that serve to advise which course of study to pursue depending upon their grades and can also handle Associate of Science programs. Cyber Adviser allows advisors to spend more time discussing personal matters with students instead of wasting a lot of time digging through transfer manuals. Furthermore, advisors can work with more students in a given time period and still provide excellent service; an obvious advantage with increasing student enrollment. Even faculty members use the program to assist in the advising process.
Cyber Adviser was Valencia’s little secret, known to just a few students and student services staff on the campus where I worked. That changed when officials from the state office of community colleges visited Valencia to get ideas for the state-wide advising system. One Valencia student was amazed they hadn’t heard about Cyber Adviser. She described its virtues with such enthusiasm that one of the Title III program managers and I were requested to make a presentation to the Board of Community Colleges in Tallahassee. The presentation was a remarkable success! A few month’s later, the program was demonstrated to the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee, again with great success. Cyber Adviser, the brainchild of a single programmer, became known as the Valencia Model. The program’s concept was similarly well received at other workshops and conferences.
Cyber Adviser is now part of Valencia’s Student Success program where it is being used in computer labs at various campuses. I continued to interpret and update the program’s transfer-manual data as needed. Having extra time on my hands and not being directed to do anything else, I decided to see if Valencia’s registration process could be improved.
Course registration at Valencia consisted of staff posting currently open sections twice a day in the room dedicated to registration at each campus. Sometimes the students were five-deep trying to read the course listings, which were small-font computer dumps. And sometimes there were fist fights with so many students vying for a readable position. After students determined the sections they wanted, they stood in a long line to have their sections entered by a mainframe terminal operator. Keep in mind that there were only about a dozen terminals throughout the college to handle over 20,000 students. Talk about overload! Many times one or more sections may have closed while waiting their turn in line. So back they went to the listings, which may not be up-to-date. That meant that without knowing it, they could select classes that had already closed. Students would not be aware of the closure until they reached the terminal operator. Registration could be a very tense process.
I made it my personal mission to improve this abominable registration process. In about a month, Cyber Registration was developed (with Visual Basic) which connected to Valencia’s mainframe SIS via Attachmate Extra! middleware. Cyber Registration emulates the terminal operator’s actions while showing a graphical timeline presentation to the user. The mainframe programmer’s had to write some COBOL procedures to update the open/closed/cancelled status for the various course sections. This data was converted to an interim Access database that provided the user with updated current course status once a minute. I placed the one-minute update interval limitation on the system because of network limitations dealing with the mainframe and the increased number of computers hitting the server. Update could have been reduced to milliseconds had Valencia used a relational database for its SIS. In spite of the archaic VSAM technology, the system worked well, although there were occasional network overload crashes.
The Cyber Registration process at Valencia is now the following:
Cyber Registration then provides a list of currently open sections for each course number. Students scroll through each list, are presented with a graphical timeline presentation of each selected section, and are immediately notified when a selection conflicts with a previously selected section. When satisfied with the schedule, they click the “Register” button and are immediately enrolled for all sections. If a section closed during the selection process, they are immediately notified and go back to make another selection. There is no standing in line. Needless to say, this almost real-time registration process is very popular. Cyber Registration is also available at advisors’ computers where they can register students right at their desks without making them stand in line. The most gratifying comment made to me was by a student who stated, “Cyber Reg rocks!” Students can now register in just a few minutes while sitting instead of standing in line for an hour or two. Incidentally, the students use the same PCs in the labs set up for Cyber Adviser.
Funding for the Title III programmer’s position came to an end in September of 1997. Because the concepts introduced by these two programs were so universally accepted, I decided to independently develop new versions that could be used by virtually any institution. The results are Advisor 101 and Registrar 101, which were designed from scratch to incorporate new features, to avoid copyright problems and, unlike the original programs, work on the Web. Information, illustrations, demonstrations and downloads for these products are available at http://www.sjltechnology.com/.
What should we learn from this two-year technological journey? A single programmer working directly with users instead of management can produce remarkable software solutions. Users are absolutely essential to the programmer’s success. It’s very important to give them ownership in the software development process because they become contributors instead of feeling the software was foisted upon them by non-peers. This development philosophy guarantees user acceptance. In many instances users do not know, or even care, how technological solutions are created. This is all well and good; they have their own jobs to worry about. All they know is what they want the solutions to do—how they’re created is immaterial. It is the programmer’s responsibility to learn and understand those needs (sometimes even getting into the users’ very souls) to convert them into a technical solution. Then, and only then (along with requisite technical skills, of course) can he or she succeed.
Lieberman, S. J. (1996) Cyber Adviser: High-Tech, High-Touch Advising. T.H.E. Journal, 24 (4), 111-114. Retrieved July 26, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/a644.cfm.
The writing style is a bit too conversational for my taste.
There are a lot of these systems around the country (US), but the author never looked into them. What if the student doesn't know what some majors are? This assumes a student has more focus than many have. This "success" story would be richly enhanced with some data showing improved user satisfaction, savings in funds, staff time, whatever.
typo: 'their complete course of study in less that three minutes if they accepts the default values." ....'a few month's later....'
The availability of the programs on the web for others is interesting. They should be pre-tested before promoting them (which publishing this would be doing de facto)
I think the conclusions belong at the beginning--it would read less like a self-promotion piece and more like something that has direct relevance for others.
Wasn't overly enthused and wouldn't recommend publishing as is.
This article needs a lot of work. There isn't much "new" here with respect to functionality, technical architecture, etc. There also isn't much learning to transfer to other institutions.
The topic, Valencia's use of Cyber Adviser and Cyber Registration, would be appropriate for a Case Study. Their apparent success with improving advisement and registration processes is worth including if some additional perspectives can be added. The article comes across as a breathless marketing piece and I would prefer reading...for lack of a better phrase..."a more mature" description of the issues involved.
I am not a programmer who's worked on a major project, but several things crossed my mind as serious issues and there are likely others: (a) what kinds of problems arise in updating software that can be installed on stand-alone personal computers by students? Wouldn't a web-based product be much simpler to implement and maintain? (b) What security issues arose and how were they dealt with for Cyber Registration? (c) Does development/deployment of a "quick and easy" product minimize/eliminate other potential benefits that could be achieved if a more robust system is put in place? Alternatively, does the "quick and easy" approach avoid tougher longer term conversations where groups of people gain a better understanding of the broader processes and their roles in those processes?
A couple of sentences stand out as red-flags for me: (a) "Student services staff were initially suspicious of the program, fearing it would replace them." While this may be true, I would doubt that it is. Having been involved in a number of initiatives both as a "perpetrator of change" and "victim of others ideas", I've yet to run across people who's fear is really based on the sense they would be replaced. I would guess in this case that they were suspicious of a grant funded person developing something that might not work very well without much, if any, input from all the people who were part of the process. (b) "A single programmer working directly with users instead of management can produce remarkable software solutions." While it is possible for one person to develop "remarkable" solutions that are good, it is more likely that the "remarkable" solutions will be very bad. Unfortunately, the single worker can not possibly know all there is to know. People often join complex organizations and quickly start finding things that "any idiot" would do differently. While there are exceptions, more often than not they find that a "simple" change causes unanticipated responses and costs that must be picked up by others.
With this article, we have the view of the programmer/developer without any other voices reflecting on the change process. For example, the presentations to the Board of Community Colleges and the Senate Appropriations Committee are noteworthy, but I'd like to see more evidence of "success". I've experienced a few presentation of this type. The initiative is demonstrated, then dies quietly and quickly soon after. Maybe everything worked out just as described and there were no unintended consequences and Valencia will still be using the solution years from now and everyone will be convinced they did the right thing...then again, maybe not.