By Russ Little Project Director, Student Success Plan, Sinclair Community College
Learning analytics, in which institutions use large data sets to improve learning outcomes, was in its earliest pioneering phase two years ago in spring 2011 when Sinclair Community College received Wave I NGLC funding to make its Student Success Plan (SSP) software available as an open source resource. The period since has seen a dramatic increase in interest in the use of data to identify student needs and target support for better outcomes, and as a result of our work on this project our SSP software is now much more widely available and adoptable, with an important new feature incorporated. We learned an important lesson in carrying out the project: there is benefit not only in moving to open source but also to joining forces with other, similarly open projects in a nonprofit organization that could provide services we all needed.
SSP is case management software that supports a holistic student-support model designed to enhance student retention and academic success (see this screen shot of the SSP home page).
Major features of the software include the following:
- Early alert notifications used when students exhibit behavior detrimental to academic success
- Action planning workflows that encourage students to take advantage of support services promoting success
- Consolidated service catalogs that promote standardized referrals given by advisors
- Student self-help tools designed to bring pertinent success information into one easily-accessed online screen
Since the inception of the grant, SSP has been further augmented to include a My Academic Plan (MAP) feature designed to provide students with accessible, specific, long-range, and accurate plans for the achievement of their academic goals. Round-one grant objectives have been fully met, and in late 2012 Sinclair received additional NGLC follow-on funding to continue to improve the technology, further disseminate SSP, and promote the newly-added MAP features. The software is currently available as open source and can be downloaded from https://wiki.jasig.org/display/SSP/Home. An information website has been set up at www.studentsuccessplan.org. This website provides an overview of software features, advice on factors to consider when making the open-source decision, and links to sites where you can view software demonstrations. The site also links to a paper outlining the educational theory upon which the holistic student support model is based, authored by researchers at Gateway to College, a partner organization helping us define an assessment framework to measure the impacts which the processes that SSP supports have on student outcomes
Three new colleges have adopted SSP recently: St. Petersburg College and Indian River State College in Florida, and the College of Lake County in Illinois. All selected SSP based on the early alert features and holistic case management core of the SSP platform. The newly added MAP component is driving the implementation at six institutions participating in Completion by Design, five of which are in the North Carolina cadre. In addition to grant funded implementations, we are aware of several other institutions working directly with our vendor partners to implement the early alert and MAP academic advising features of SSP.
Sinclair’s initial approach, prior to NGLC grant funding, was to adopt a for-profit SSP software dissemination model. The institution quickly determined that it was not appropriately structured to support the requirements of such a model. The lesson learned was that, in addition to providing viable software, successful dissemination must also focus on the adopting institution’s implementation and ongoing support needs. Institutions can be very leery of adopting open-source software if these needs are not addressed. Consequently, when NGLC funding was awarded, Sinclair made sure that the open-source availability was linked with viable third-party support resources that could assist institutions as they installed the software and adapted the software to their internal business processes. To attract more potential adopting colleges and potential partners to support them, SSP was intentionally retooled to use more standards-based technologies, and open Application Programming Interfaces (API’s) to ensure the tool was compatible, flexible, and could be easily supported. We are pleased to have created an outstanding mutually beneficial partnership with Unicon, a veteran company in the higher education open source space. Unicon is not an exclusive vendor for SSP and colleges can work with any company of their choice, but Unicon has experience and capacity to provide SSP services and support for those colleges that require it. With options for colleges to implement on their own, or to have access to a full service commercial provider, or a provider of their choice, the longevity of SSP as an open source solution has never looked brighter.
To promote the long-term success of SSP as an open source solution, we are paying particular attention to the documentation that supports the technology. While many open source projects have focused on delivering technical documents, often geared toward IT professionals, SSP will strive to ensure there is adequate user-focused documentation, training material, and research to let end users feel confident that they can make open source technology work to meet their needs. In addition we now have two yearly user conferences to gather our SSP adopters together and collaborate, present, share best practices, and plan for the future. For further information on our commitment to end users, please see the research paper on SSP mentioned above.
Sinclair learned an important lesson in the process of determining which open source dissemination model to adopt. Initially, we had planned on creating our own 501(c)3, non-for-profit, open-source entity with the idea that future software development could piggyback on these initial efforts. After some exploration of the steps to create such an entity, we realized that there was no reason for us to recreate work that had already been ably accomplished. Instead, we sought to join an established open-source organization, the Apereo Foundation. With this decision we avoided the time and expense of setting up a legal and technical framework, and we gained in areas such as support, credibility, long-term sustainability, mentoring, and guidance
Looking back on the project to date, I have three recommendations for other creators of innovative environments: build sustainability into the project, remember that technology is ultimately for the end users, and develop partnerships to maximize your limited resources.
Russ Little is the Project Director for the NGLC grant at Sinclair Community College, Dayton, OH. He is the individual responsible for leading the development of Sinclair’s Student Success Plan (SSP) open-source software. Russ is currently working with institutions throughout the country to implement the holistic, student support features of SSP.