Shaal, Brooks harness software to enhance communication with students

Timothy Shaal (left) and Kimberlyn Brooks with the awards they won for the innovative software solution they developed to make the Falcon Success and Retention Curriculum more effective.

By Bonnie Blankinship

Bowling Green State University residence halls have come a long way since the days of communicating with residents through bulletin boards and door decorations.

So far, in fact, that BGSU has recently received a Trailblazer Award from The Ohio State University Center for the Study of Student Life for a transformative program developed by Timothy Shaal, senior associate director of residence life, and Kimberlyn Brooks, associate director for undergraduate education. The program uses Big Data to ensure that students receive the timely support they need to stay in school and be successful — and all at no additional cost to the University.

Shaal and Brooks accepted the Assessment Trailblazer award at the 2019 Student Affairs Assessment and Research Conference on June 7. The award “recognizes a person, group or program that has utilized inventive, imaginative or creative assessment, research or data collection methods. This award recognizes new ways or methods of thinking about assessment and/or using data to answer important questions.”

This is the second time BGSU has been recognized for the innovative software solution. In March, Shaal and Brooks accepted the NASPA Excellence Award at the NASPA National Conference in Los Angeles in the categories of Administrative, Assessment, IT, Fundraising, Professional Development and Related Excellence Awards category. 

At the recent Ohio State conference, they presented “Capturing Intentional Conversations: A Partnership Between Residence Life and Academic Affairs,” sharing the ingenious way Brooks combined existing software applications to make the Office of Residence Life’s Falcon Success and Retention Curriculum (FSRC) much more effective and usable for everyone from resident advisers (RAs) to hall directors to academic advisers. They also presented it at the Ohio Higher Education Computing Council annual conference, hosted by BGSU, in May. Other universities expressed interest in how they can develop a customized program as well.

The problem Shaal and Brooks undertook to resolve was that, while Residence Life had a robust plan for communication with residents and even for keeping track of contacts, it did not have the means to use that information in an actionable way. The FSRC provides a framework for community building, programming and services in the BGSU residence halls. The curriculum comprises all aspects of the community, including defining duties for the various roles RAs, hall directors, hall council and the central office staff. It spells out how many conversations RAs are expected to have with each of their advisees, how many hall-wide programs should be conducted, even how many door decorations and bulletin boards should be employed. But if a student is having problems, whether emotional, academic or financial, that put them at risk of dropping out, there was no simple and direct chain of communication with all the relevant support staff.

Enter Brooks. Using her technical expertise, she worked with Shaal to come up with an integrated solution centering on Microsoft Sharepoint, a software tool that allows project teams, departments and other groups at BGSU to share and collaborate on files using the web. That was in 2012, and the sophistication and power of the program has grown steadily ever since.

“Residence Life connected to Sharepoint, and we built out the Microsoft Access database to manage, manipulate and help route the data to other sources,” Brooks said. Microsoft Access can generate reports that are shared with students’ academic advisers using the Navigate platform. Having the background on a student enables them to have deeper conversations, Shaal said.

Last fall, Brooks discovered Microsoft PowerApps, which she customized to Residence Life’s needs. RAs and hall directors can use them to upload reports from their mobile devices, sending the information to the Sharepoint site. In the spring, interactive dashboards were developed using Microsoft Power BI data-visualization software so that Shaal can view and monitor student communication activities.

Today, Shaal can view multiple dashboards on his desktop computer, giving him visual breakdowns of numerous aspects of residence life activity. In addition to helping students, it has improved staff supervision and accountability, he said.

“We can collect the data and use it to do predictive modeling now,” he said. “We can identify trends and patterns and react to current trends but also use that information to plan for the future and implement interventions.”

“All these programs are free, readily available and have been vetted and approved by ITS,” Brooks said. “And we can control who has access.”

Thanks to the customized software solution, residence life administrators can track in real time how many conversations resident advisers have with students — most importantly, the “intentional conversations” designed to elicit important information about how students are doing, what challenges and what successes they are having. Using the notes from those conversations, which the RAs can now easily enter from their mobile devices, they can begin the response process and involve other staff members.

“It’s 100 percent actionable,” Shaal said. “We’ve developed a series of responses that begin with targeted emails to the students, followed by a phone call and then a face-to-face meeting. We found that, with the RAs using the program, the number of conversations and interactions with students went up. The first few weeks of the semester are especially crucial as to whether a student comes back. We can provide students with the resources they need to meet their challenges, whether they are financial, social, emotional or a combination of things.

“This is Big Data, but we’re not using it to sell you a product, we’re using it to help you stay on track and fulfill your dreams.”

Updated: 07/02/2019 02:39PM