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Academic Planner earns innovators award

Jon Adams
Web programmer
Jon Adams 

The University of Montana joins the likes of Duke, Penn State, Purdue and Pepperdine as winners of a 2011 Campus Technology Innovators Award. UM’s Academic Planner—a homegrown Web application that helps students plot short-term course schedules and develop long-term academic strategies—was deemed one of the 10 best innovations in higher education out of 393 nominees.

The awards are presented annually by Campus Technology Magazine, a monthly publication focused on the use of technology in higher education.

Academic Planner provides advanced search tools to help students sift through hundreds of University course offerings and create primary and alternate course schedules. Jon Adams, lead programmer on the project, says the most popular feature of Academic Planner is an interactive visual calendar. Students can simply mouse over search results and see how each course would fit into their schedule.

The first version of Academic Planner was released in 2009. Since then, 12,600 people have logged in and used the tool.

While Academic Planner was developed by UM’s Information Technology office, Loey Knapp, Associate Chief Information Officer, credits more than two dozen people serving on advisory groups for guiding the development and evolution of the tool.

“Having user groups was enormously helpful in the process,” Knapp said. We had outlined what we thought should be versions one, two and three of Academic Planner. Our user groups restructured what should be developed first. They turned out to be right.”

The Office for Student Success was also key to development and adoption of Academic Planner, Knapp said. “They did the project an enormous favor by seeing the value in it and adopting it.”

Sharon O’Hare, who directs the Office for Student Success said that an early prototype of Academic Planner convinced her that the tool had great potential.

“It allows students to develop a specific pathway for four-year graduation,” she said. “And it gives them the ability to play with ‘what-if’ scenarios and what it would mean to take different paths.”

O’Hare’s staff used Academic Planner to build about 1,500 preliminary schedules for incoming freshmen last summer and will do the same with incoming students this summer.

A new version of Academic Planner, scheduled for release later this summer, will allow students to share plans and collaborate with faculty advisers in an environment similar to social networking sites.

“Academic Planner can be a focal point in advising where students and advisers can interact,” Adams said. “Right now that interaction is via email, but in the next version it will be done via shared space online.”

Dan Doyle, co-chair of UM’s sociology department, has advised on the new version of Academic Planner. He says the tool is part of an overall effort to systematize advising.

“Academic advising has been done haphazardly across campus, and a student’s exposure to advice usually depended on the student’s willingness to seek it out,” Doyle said. “With a tool like Academic Planner, we can at least start everyone at a base level so students don’t find themselves going astray.”

Adams, Knapp and O'Hare will present at the 18th Annual Education Technology Conference, which will take place July 25-28 in Boston, and will accept the Campus Technology Innovators award on behalf of UM.

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