NERCOMP – Student retention through tech

Northeastern University (Boston) has developed a CRM (customer resource management) application to help increase student retention, by improving communication with faculty, students and advisors. This session was a demonstration of this application and a discussion of its impact. Kostia Bergman, Director of Undergraduate Education in Biology at Northeastern, began the presentation by presenting some background on the project.

The university wanted a more effective system for communicating information. Supported by a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, the university adopted the platform behind salesforce.com. This platform is web-based, user-friendly, and integrated well with existing technology. It provided the ability to track and view student interactions, trigger automatic e-mail alerts, and automate reporting.

The system was phased in over last summer, and was fully online by the Fall semester. A user task force was charged with monitoring the progress and offer suggestions for refining the interface. The name adopted for the system was FACT, an acronym for Faculty Advisor Communication Tool. It is built on two applications: a faculty J2EE web application for submission of cases, and the salesforce.com front-end for advisors and administrators. Salesforce.com is a per-user license-fee hosted product, while the J2EE was developed in house.

Vanessa Ritz then demonstrated the Northeaster CRM system. As I watched the demo, my impression was that the interface was a bit cludgy. Lots of web form elements (buttons, checkboxes, pop-up menus), extensive use of tables, and rather plain data display. This may just reflect the limitations of the web interface, as the data itself is stored on salesforce.com. Much of that data is in turn drawn from the student information database at Northeastern.

A demo of the salesforce.com web interface followed. This was a more polished interface, although there was still quite a few web form elements, and not a lot of “Web 2.0” flavor (no noticeable use of Ajax, for example, although I suspect I only saw a small subset of the interface).

There did seem to be a rich data store available for advisors. The salesforce.com interface provided a mechanism for communication between advisors and faculty. I take it that faculty don’t serve as advisors at Northeastern, or at least there is some degree of separation of advising and teaching functions.

So far there has been positive response to the new system among faculty and advisors. The university hopes to expand the use of this technology among more faculty in the coming year.

This seems like an interesting effort to improve communication on campus, but it appears to me that it is still in a rough state. Also, it wasn’t clear to me the specific advantage of using salesforce.com over an in-house CRM solution. Finally, the extensive use of web-based form elements seems a bit dated compared to more modern user interfaces.

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