Ring the Alarm

Business intelligence software helps faculty keep students on track.

by / April 11, 2007
When it comes to education, the University of North Texas Health Science Center (HSC) at Fort Worth has five core values: compassion, integrity, teamwork, innovation and pride. And there is no doubt the HSC takes pride in integrating innovative technology into its curriculum.

The HSC uses business intelligence software not only to streamline its administrative processes, but also help faculty and administrators ensure students are on the right academic path. The software integrates data from disparate sources, so staff can instantly access information and make intelligent decisions.

This program, dubbed "No Medical Student Left Behind," gained national recognition in July 2006, when Campus Technology magazine named it one of the most innovative student information systems.

The HSC comprises three schools, more than 200 faculty members and 500 students. Before implementing the business intelligence platform, faculty and administrators struggled with handling massive mounds of papers from student course evaluations, and had trouble keeping an eye on students' academic performance.

"In a medical school, you may have as many as 20 instructors in the class," said Jerry Alexander, associate professor and director of academic information services at HSC. "If you say 600 students times the number of courses, and each one can have 10 to 20 instructors, you're talking about a whole lot of paper."

Alexander explained that previously, student evaluations were a paper-consuming, labor-intensive process. For example, students used Scantron sheets to answer 10 to 15 questions for each course and each instructor, in addition to writing comments on the back of the form.

Although the HSC had a basic organizational system to handle the evaluation process, it was still cumbersome to winnow through stacks of Scantrons to extract data and attempt to decipher brief, cryptic student comments.

In addition to creating backlog and heavy data entry for administrators, it was an arduous task to ensure that students were thriving academically.

But with the new student information system, administrators and faculty can focus on each student's academic welfare rather than on massive amounts of paperwork.

In 2000, the HSC migrated from DOS to Microsoft Windows NT and switched from Information Builders' mainframe product PC FOCUS to its Web-based version, WebFOCUS.

The software analyzes and stores numerical data in its FOCUS database, and registration data for students resides in an Oracle database on a UNIX platform. Data from these applications is accessed using iWay middleware, which bridges the database system to a Web server.

"We wanted something Web-based," Alexander said, adding that the HSC needed an industrial-strength database with integrated options to eliminate the need for PowerPoints or Crystal reports.

In addition, Alexander said the HSC wanted business intelligence software with strong visualization capabilities. "We wanted integrated graphics as a part of our product," he said. "For example, we can do rule-based color-coding when we do our rosters. If a grade is above 95, we'll turn it bright green; if it's below 70, we'll turn it red; if it's 70 to 75, we'll turn it yellow."

With this critical data at their fingertips, administrators and professors can now intervene if they see students in academic jeopardy. "If you can look up a roster of 150 students within one minute," Alexander said, "you can tell who is in trouble, who needs a referral [and] who needs academic assistance."

Bruce Dubin, associate dean of medical education at the HSC, said the software helps him quickly aggregate information that previously was not as easy to gather. "It gives me rapid access to information that might have required me to go to several resources," he said.

"I'm constantly trying to spot students who are at risk to get them into receiving tutors or being evaluated if they have learning problems, or whatever the case may be, early," Dubin said. He added that because of the software's color-coded visualization, it is much easier to detect students who might need academic support, such as tutoring or help with their exam-taking skills.

The HSC has already noted tremendous progress in students' success rates. In January 2006, the exam failure rate for first-year students was an average of four; however, Alexander said this number has declined by 75 percent.

Real-Time Changes
Another benefit of the software is its ability to provide faculty and administrators with real-time information. This feature can help students shape the curriculum throughout the course of the semester.

"They can give daily feedback about the course, which is read by the course director, deans and faculty," said Alexander. "So if someone says, 'I couldn't read the PowerPoints very well yesterday; you had black type on a blue background,' that can be corrected the next day while the course is in session."

Dubin added that students can also leave anonymous course feedback anytime.

"It's actually blinded to the professors as to who wrote the comments," he said, "so that students can leave constructive criticism without feeling like they may be penalized for it.

"The comment section proves very valuable because the students trust us and they feel very confident that they can provide feedback in a safe environment," Dubin continued. "They will definitely tell us their likes and dislikes about day-to-day teaching methods, and what worked and what didn't, and that's proven to be very valuable as well."

He added that it's helped to track professors' performance as well. "There is a rating system called the satisfaction index that students turn in at the end of the course. So we have a quantitative tool to measure a course's success, and we'll track and trend that from year to year."

The HSC has made an impact in the higher-education arena, using the WebFOCUS software, and has piqued the interest of many other institutions. Alexander said the HSC has had numerous visitors, the farthest being California, inquiring about the technology and its implementation. The HSC also showcased the technology at various conferences.

Alexander believes, however, that technology isn't the only thing that contributes to students' success at the HSC. "I always like to say, it's not about technology, it's about a climate that's created in a whole sense in, 'I belong here, somebody is listening to me.'"


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