Keeping Track of Students, and Staying in Touch

A start-up company from a former Blackboard executive is positioning itself to help colleges boost retention with communication tools ... and lots of data.
August 15, 2008

At first, the idea sounds deceptively simple. Software that lets professors manage their office hours and keep tabs on their students? Isn't a daybook enough?

For some faculty members, a pen and paper -- or a well-organized e-mail inbox -- might be enough. But a new start-up company based in northern Virginia is betting that its forthcoming services will fill a need that many colleges don't realize they have -- and boost retention and student success along the way. While education technology start-ups abound, and many fail, this company is founded by a former Blackboard executive with strong ties to the company and financial backing from some of the same investors who launched the course management company.

Helping students and professors keep in touch and connect during office hours is only part of a more ambitious suite of tools the company, Starfish Retention Solutions, is planning on rolling out over the next year or so. Besides its Office Hours product, which simplifies access to professors' and teaching assistants' schedules and is expected to roll out of beta as soon as next week, the company will gradually release other components, including Early Alert, which monitors students' performance and is intended to catch those falling behind before it's too late, as well as services for aiding colleges' mentoring, advising and counseling functions.

The concept is aimed both at students -- such as those enrolled in community college who need a precise way to coordinate meetings with their instructors as well as those at more elite schools who feel either too intimidated or too demanding to ask for their professors' time -- and at faculty members, who in many cases face increasing pressure to track their students' performance and find more systematic ways of boosting retention.

"It’s been very interesting hearing students having high expectations but not wanting to be seen as forcing faculty or having demands on faculty ... even though I think they do," said David Yaskin, Starfish's founder and CEO and a former vice president for product strategy at Blackboard.

The features address some of the primary tasks of being a student and a professor in one place, so that someone enrolled in a class can easily schedule an appointment by looking at a side-by-side calendar displaying when both the instructor and all the TA's are available to meet. A professor, meanwhile, can keep track of all students, see who's missed appointments, who's coming up (and what they want to talk about), and what their grades in the class look like so far.

The key to all that functionality is an integration with course management systems typically used at colleges already, starting with Blackboard and including WebCT and open-source solutions such as Moodle and Sakai. Most of them don't already have the same set of features, at least not at the level of integration Starfish is offering.

"I love almost being the underdog in situations, and so I found that Blackboard and the clients that helped to grow Blackboard became extremely successful, so it went from us having to convince people that they should use e-learning ... to be sort of the accepted standard with lots of competition, so it was much more about 'How do we beat the latest feature on the competition?' as opposed to championing a new cause," Yaskin said.

"I wanted to do something that was new and more entrepreneurial.... I found out [during research] that student retention was the number-one problem [among presidents and provosts] in 2006, according to Eduventures ... and there’s very little technology to coordinate student success programs.”

To do that, the system will eventually be able to tap into colleges' aggregate student data records -- federal privacy restrictions notwithstanding -- and allow instructors to analyze by race, gender and other characteristics who's coming in to visit and whether that affects their in-class performance. Those features underlie the system's commitment to gathering and parsing data as usefully as possible. “This is not now just a utility function ... it’s actually also an analysis system,” Yaskin said.

While Office Hours is mainly being tested in-house, it's been rolled out in limited trials. The company has also met with students and faculty members to collect suggestions on what features potential users would want to see.

"I like the software because especially here at University of Maryland there’s so many students in the class, a lot of the students don’t have the opportunity to interact with their faculty members.... Sometimes students are a little bit afraid to [meet] with their professors," said Teresa Leslie, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Maryland at College Park who learned about the software through an early demo given by the company. "A lot of the students do a lot of their social networks through technology anyway, so this kind of will make it a little easier to schedule appointments [and] serve as an interface between students and faculty which I think will benefit the college community in general."

The model on which Office Hours is based was first pioneered several years ago at Princeton University, which is now testing and is considering adopting the final product when it is released. Serge Goldstein, director of academic services at Princeton, developed its office-hours tool as a way to save faculty members time. Rather than display when they're busy, he said, the tool's innovation was to show only when they are available.

It was "very very popular" among students, who no longer had to send back-and-forth e-mails or look up individual professors' schedules, he said. Last year on campus, where almost a third of faculty members use the Web-based program, students scheduled over 13,000 appointments with about 350 professors.

Yaskin contacted Goldstein, who became involved with Starfish and consulted for the Office Hours project. While there is no overlap in code, the features are similar. "From an administrative support perspective, it’s a huge win. My little office hours system has become enormously popular. It doesn’t have all of the functionality that the Starfish product will have, and our intention is to ... migrate to that product," Goldstein said. Even if its usefulness isn't apparent at first, he said, "It becomes pretty obvious that it can help an institution solve an awful lot of problems."

Whether the product catches on remains to be seen. Yaskin has already reached out to old contacts from his Blackboard days, which he says has already helped him generate significant interest: 200 colleges have made inquiries in the past nine months. At least one has already agreed to purchase the system. Colleges see value not only in the time saved for faculty and the potential retention benefits for students, but in tracking the effectiveness of personnel changes (Did adding two counselors improve the grades of students who came in for help?) and visitation patterns (Do better grades for a certain group of students result from their disproportionate attendance at office hours?).

Community colleges and state universities would potentially have much to gain by boosting their retention rates, in local prestige and economic gains for the region, while private institutions would reap the benefits of tuition dollars from students who stay enrolled.

Yaskin, who was heavily influenced by the work of George D. Kuh (the founder of the National Survey of Student Engagement, whose work focuses on the preconditions for student success) is optimistic that many of the problems facing students today can be addressed at least partially through technology. "We know conceptually these things are good and we know that e-learning has made people feel more comfortable about using technology to solve problems on campus," he said, "so why don’t we focus on a broader problem ... using technology?"


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