Academic Exploration Tool at University of Kentucky

Students looking to select an academic major often get stuck on higher education websites reading PDF major sheets as their primary information source.

But how can universities build online tools that actually advise undecided students about potential best-fit program matches?

Tyler Gayheart, Director of Strategic Communication at the University of Kentucky, came on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to share how his team created an academic exploration tool that directs searching students to suitable programs.

The Academic Exploration Stage

Tyler and his team at UK did the research and discovered there’s a certain sense of ambiguity that comes with choosing a major. Undecided students often had the answer to “I want to be a _________”, but didn’t often know what program options would best help them get there.
Tyler needed UK’s students to have a map to a career and a program through a single, easy-to-use, and student-friendly portal. So he created one.

“We wanted this tool to be both instructive in kind of an advisor-advisee scenario,” Tyler said, “and also very intuitive for a student searching (at) home from their laptop or their mobile device.”

The tool combines program keywords, non-cognitive phrases, career keywords, and Amazon-style filters to direct students toward the most relative program cards for their search. The program cards show up for students in much the same way that pins do on Pinterest.

“We also spent a lot of time on content governance,” Tyler said. “Most of our degree program descriptions were written in a…technical and dry way. So we spent a long time rewriting those short descriptions so…they were consumable by our target audience.”

Integration for a Data and Metadata Perspective

For the tool to be valuable to students, it needed up-to-date career data. Tyler discovered the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) has an open API, and it updates that data on a fairly regular basis.

Using that free information,Tyler and his team mapped BLS careers to UK’s academic programs.

“Through an XML feed, we were able to identify some of the most frequented information, working with our career center,” Tyler said.  

They could feed the BLS numbers on median salary, job outlook, work environment, and similar occupations direction into the Academic Exploration Tool. In turn, program directors could select up to five careers to feature on their page.

Maneuvering the Discussion About Web Governance

One content challenge this new tool created was that all these academic templates have to match to make the tool work. How did Tyler’s team maneuver those web governance discussions? Did it help to further centralize UK’s academic communication governance?

Tyler reminded us that degree programs are dynamic. Student stories, curriculum, and co-curricular requirements are always changing.

“We always strive to communicate and work with what we call AET (Academic Exploration Tool) authors to keep their content updated,” he said.

It seems simple, but it’s not something UK had done before. Neither is it static. Needing constantly updated information required a lot of help from the departments.

Tyler’s team sets the content guardrails, but the individual departments express their content in ways that reflected their unique identities.

The communications people were delighted with the creative results. Math departments used statistical notation in the statistics at the top, for example.

“Now, this isn’t the Wild West,” Tyler said. When a content author contributes an edit, it goes into a queue. Tyler team reviews it – not for content – but for length, broken links, images that aren’t showing, typos, and more. His team members are the ones that press publish.

Using Analytics to Improve the Tool

UK only recently began asking students to think about considering an academic program change. This change precipitated a challenge to communicate with students who had chosen an undeclared major early in their college careers.

To supplement face-to-face advising, Tyler’s team used an email and direct marketing campaign. Plus, they leveraged the Academic Exploration Tool. Within one month, more than 23 percent of those students started to select a program based on their exploration and findings using the Academic Exploration Tool.

“It’s really changed the nature of how our exploratory advisors advise,” Tyler said. “When a student comes in and says ‘I wanna be a graphic designer,’ they can use this tool to break the ice.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Tyler Gayheart from the University of Kentucky. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.