What Netflix And eHarmony Can Teach College Guidance Counselors

Austin Peay State University is testing out a Netflix-like recommendation system for courses. Tristan Denley, the prof behind the tech, wonders: "If eHarmony works well, why not this?"

As per credit costs for college courses spike, the impact of poor advice from a college counselor can mean a disturbing amount of misplaced time and money. So Austin Peay State University mathematics professor Tristan Denley designed a course-recommendation system for students to suppliment their regular college counselor visits. This system, effectively, would take human errors (and mood swings and bad judgment) out of the equation. Among the results, according to Denley, have been an increase in GPA and fewer dropouts. Computers are not a panacea yet: They can't recommend a career options or whisper secrets about bad professors. But, for what may ultimately be one of the most important decisions of your life, course selection, computers can have a leg up on the human competition.

Avoiding Dropouts

Dropping out of college is one one of the most debilitating epidemics in higher education: 44% of students never earn a bachelor's degree. The long tail of pessimism that fuels quitting can keep even the most diligent counselors in the dark about the cause and timeline of an at-risk student. Computers, however, have super-eagle vision that can zoom in on a trail of past dropouts, slice out the differences between students, and find if a single course (or topic) is the common characteristic. Denley told the The Chronicle of Higher Education that he suspects the course recommendation system helps students avoid signing up for courses they aren't yet qualified for, thus saving them from the premature doubt that may plague a student who is simply unprepared.

Hidden Love

Students' romantic notions of calling themselves a "pre-med" can often outpace their tolerance for chemistry or their awareness of what doctors actually do. What should be done for the sizable numbers of students who jump off the pre-med track—or any other track, for that matter?

"I hope the major effect will be instead to open students' eyes to courses that they were dimly aware of," says Denley. Computers can find hidden patterns of interest and recommend topics students never even knew about.

Perhaps a doomed pre-med student who dabbled in art history has a bright career with artistic counseling, or a physicist who scored an A+ in architecture would be a great video game programmer.

Denley concludes: "If eHarmony works, well, why not this?"

[Image: Flickr user rebeca :)]

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