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Siri, Help Advise Portland State University’s Students


Sona Andrews, Provost, Portland State University, winner of the 2015 innovation pitch competition.  Photo Courtesy of APLU

When Portland State University (PSU) Provost Sona Andrews proposed bringing Siri onto the PSU advising rolls she captured immediate attention.

Academic advising in higher education is partly a numbers game, with a 2011 National Survey of Academic Advising by NACADA, the global organization for academic advising, finding the median case load for a full-time adviser to be 296 students.  The numbers have since risen.

According to Apple, Siri fields one billion information requests a week, roughly 99,000 questions per minute.  Advising PSU students would be a breeze.

With the futures of more than 23,000 undergraduates on their minds, leaders at PSU are stepping up efforts, and innovations, to make success for all students an institutional mandate. The focus of its campus-wide transformation effort is  reTHINK PSU .  The transformation effort is designed to serve more students, with better outcomes, while containing costs via curricular innovation, community engagement and effective use of technology.  Funding from PSU’s Transformational Planning Grant (TPG) project is helping support costs.

TPG was launched by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMFG).

Understanding the needs of PSU’s adult learners (i.e. students 22-years of age or older) who represent about one-fourth of PSU undergraduates is a key goal.

Advisers at PSU each manage about 600 students Andrews told a virtual and live audience at an innovation pitch competition based on the format of the television reality show Shark Tank.  PSU have created static course degree maps to help students choose majors, plan course loads to support degree choices, and monitor progress towards degree completion.  It is not enough.

The institution realized it was fighting a losing battle as students hacked the system to redo the navigation, find time sensitive information, and revise course plans to meet their needs.  Clearly a more student friendly system was needed.

Additionally PSU leaders wanted to better understand the needs and experiences of adult learners, including their community college transfer-students, who need help in advancing from their first to second year at PSU. As well as students accumulating excessive credits that don’t fulfill degree completion requirements.

A dynamic, mobile-friendly advising system would have the bandwidth to address the volume and immediacy of student’s questions.  Maybe it could also help move PSU’s degree completion efforts forward.

“Siri meets students where they live.  On their cell phones,” Andrews said as she sought $160,000 along with five other institutional leaders pitching student success innovations. The funds would help PSU pay some of the development and implementation costs to make a  mobile advising system available to PSU students wondering, “Hey Siri, where is MY degree map?”

She got $105,000.


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