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Business Officer Magazine
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Get Down to the Grass Roots

In this first in the "Elegant Solutions" series, Business Officer shines a spotlight on Tallahassee Community College's online individual learning plan for students.

By Margo Vanover Porter

Rather than requiring them to make an appointment and then sit in a counselor's office, why not let students develop their own individual learning plans online? The idea, now a reality, captured a 2010 Innovation Award for Tallahassee Community College, Florida.

Tallahassee Community College

"We realized that many students depend heavily on Facebook, electronic media, and any form of communication that does not involve actually speaking to people," says Teresa E. Smith, vice president for administrative services and chief financial officer. Smith has also served as the interim vice president for information services for the past year. "We decided to look at an interactive tool to engage our students in any facet of education, whether it's their clubs or academics or financial aid." 

In an interview, Smith explains how the out-of-the-box idea came to fruition.

What prompted your institution to develop an online individual learning plan? We were awarded a Title III grant several years ago. As part of the Title III progression, we conducted a student survey and tried to engage our students in their own success by involving them in activities and in the classroom. Our analysis and survey results revealed that we had to be what our students wanted us to be, not what we had been accustomed to being for so long. When students want something, they want it now. They want it on their terms—24/7—not on our terms. That's the new generation. 

Of course, I'm up in years, and that's the way I want it, too.

Did you look at other solutions? Yes. We did look at increasing office hours or providing traditional online tools via the Blackboard Learning System, but we realized that we had to provide a tool that used real-time data and that was easily accessible to our students from the Web or phone.

What's the single most innovative aspect of the project? The project taught us more about the students than we ever dreamed. As educators, we sometimes think we have all the answers. We think we know everything there is to know about students and what they want. We don't.

For example, the students who served in a pilot about a year or so ago taught us what was important to students. They came back to us and said, "What about this? Have you tried this? We really want this to be an app." They forced us to get out of our comfort zone and look at other options of the Microsoft SharePoint technology. 

What advice would you give other institutions that want to implement a similar solution? Engage students early. We actually started designing the tool ourselves before we brought in student groups. I would do just the opposite. Bring student groups in and ask them, "What do you want to see in this tool? What do you want to be able to control?" We thought we knew. We would have been better served to have immediately put the students at the table with us.

In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to innovation at an institution? Change. We must change our perception of students and how students learn. We can become so ingrained in the daily processes that it's hard for us to say, "As an 18-year-old student, what is it I want to get out of this learning experience?" We really need to move away from a teaching environment to a learning environment. There is a huge difference. We need to focus on what it takes to be a learning institution.

What does that take? Using the technology at our fingertips, engaging the faculty and students in the process, being very open-minded, and analyzing how students learn today, instead of how students might have learned 5 or 10 years ago.

How can business officers obtain buy-in for innovative ideas? Include your core from the very beginning. We hear this all the time. It's true. Your solution can't come from the top down. An innovative idea grows out of the grass roots. Find the outliers with creative juices. Talk to and engage the front-line people. You have to get down to the grass roots if you are going to make anything like this work. 

How does your online planning tool work? Anytime, anywhere, students can go into the system and say, for example, "I want to change my major." The tool then lays out the progression of what will happen, what courses will count, what courses will not count, what financing they will need, and whether they will need additional semesters. 

The tool also has built-in stopgaps for the students that might say, "Hold up. To change majors, you will need to take this placement test." Or, "Wait a minute. If you move from full time to part time, you need to consider how it influences your financial aid."

Our students love it.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, is writing the articles in the "Elegant Solutions" series. She covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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