Like many universities, Purdue University in Indiana uses a course management system (CMS) to extend classroom instruction to the web. Though the system can be, and is, used to conduct exclusively online classes, professors at Purdue more often use the scalable system to support and add value to traditional classroom activities by offering further instruction, quizzes, discussion boards, and other materials for more than 2,300 courses.

But unlike their peers at most other schools, Purdue University officials are trying to use the regular reporting functions of their CMS to improve student retention, too. By measuring the amount of time students spend in web-based classroom activities and using other simple metrics provided through the software’s basic functionality, Purdue officials believe they have identified the strongest indicators of student failure.

Officials have yet to turn their findings into a full-blown intervention program, but they’re optimistic that one could be on the way.

About 90 percent of students at Purdue use the CMS in three or more classes, a number that Bart Collins, director of Purdue’s digital content and instructional development center, called “extremely high” when compared with most other universities.

Collins said the university has analyzed some CMS student usage data from last year and has begun to examine the full range of usage data in the system. His department, in collaboration with Purdue’s admissions department, is planning to develop automated triggers that alert faculty and students to brewing problems long before they otherwise would have been noticed.

“We’re trying to see how useful these data are for helping understand student factors that are important to the university,” Collins said. “Student retention is very important to universities.”

Collins said the system has been good at measuring indicators that students are not working to complete their assignments. These data, he said, have proven especially useful as a predictor of student achievement when combined with student data already on hand that explain a student’s academic history. Such pre-enrollment indicators include any information the university has about a student’s scores on standardized tests, grades from high school and other previous institutions, and other information generally available to administrators.

The standard student data are combined with the observational data gathered through the course management system to identify a student’s academic engagement relative to his or her peers. Though it might seem obvious that students who do their homework are more likely to achieve greater academic results than those who do not, administrators are excited about having some measurable–rather than anecdotal–way to account for that difference, thanks to observational figures pulled from the CMS.

“By virtue of having real-time data that … function as an index of whether or not a student is really attending class” or doing what is required of him or her, the information can be measured to determine how likely students are to drop out, Collins said.

“Are they logging in? Are they doing the work that their teachers want? You can get a pretty good idea looking at usage patterns. We’re learning how students are engaging the system relative to others in their class,” he said.

The course management system used by Purdue is the Campus Edition provided by WebCT Inc., now owned by Blackboard Inc.

Karen Gage, senior vice president of marketing for WebCT, said reports using these kinds of data can be pulled from most CMS software. She added, however, that “WebCT has invested development resources to make it easy to get these kinds of data on a regular basis.”

Gage said her company is excited about the changing role the software is playing in the administrative life of the university.

School administrators have had “lots of data about these indicators [of student failure] pre-term and post-term, but there has really been no opportunity to have an early-warning indicator [like the one Purdue is developing],” Gage said. “To have these kinds of data play into what people know about retention is really the big step forward.”

Purdue’s Collins said administrators, as well as students, stand to benefit from such a system. Any intervention system that helps retain graduates, he said, improves the university’s standing–and that attracts more students.

“We want to make a good-faith effort to ensure the academic success of the students that come here. That is the primary motive. It doesn’t help us for you to fail. We want you to be successful,” Collin said. “If there are simple things to do to help ensure your success, to all of our benefit, then we would like to do them. It’s often difficult until it is too late to know. You want to help the students when they need the help most.”

He concluded: “Earlier [intervention] is better.”

Links:

Purdue University
www.purdue.edu

WebCT
www.webct.com