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Creating a custom big data solution for tracking students across 600+ schools in the US.

Case Study

College Advising Corps – GRACE Student Tracker

Briteweb January 24, 2017

Custom Application | Intranet | Data Automation

It’s never our intention to make our clients cry — unless, of course, they’re happy tears.  When we received an email from a College Advising Corps (CAC) adviser that reported that GRACE, the new custom web app we had built for her organization, had made her cry, it was music to our ears. She said our solution was making her job infinitely easier — which ultimately meant that she could help more students realize their education goals.

Student Tracking Software for College Advising Corps

Challenge

College Advising Corps is a national nonprofit that works to increase the number of first-generation college-going, low-income, and/or underrepresented high school students who apply, enter, and complete higher education. CAC’s network of college advisers works with students in high schools across the country, helping them identify and realize their educational goals.

Tracking student data is critical to CAC’s success — but its system for doing so was rife with problems. The process was slowing down advisers who were already overwhelmed by their workloads. Data tracking was slow and inaccurate, and reporting — also critical to the organization — was slow or sometimes impossible because data was neither uniform nor centrally stored. There are strict federal regulations mandating how minors’ data must be stored. CAC’s diffused network of advisers meant ensuring compliance to data security regulations was a major challenge.

In short, their system wasn’t helping them do their most important job. Every hour an adviser spent updating a complicated spreadsheet was one hour they didn’t spend connecting with a student. The advisers were working with students and they were tracking data, but there was a problematic disconnect between these two functions.

CAC recognized the problem and came to Briteweb to build a solution that would help them better serve students and maximize their impact. There was existing student data tracking software on the market, but after doing their due diligence and analyzing the short- and long-term costs and benefits of each option, CAC chose to build a custom web application that could be tailored specifically for their needs. The biggest challenge was the timeline. They required that the entire process — discovery, prototyping, design and development, testing and training — to be done in four months, in time for the new school year. To say this timeline was tight would be something of an understatement.  

Approach

To ensure that we delivered what CAC needed, on time and on budget, we adopted a mix of waterfall and agile approaches — and we got straight to work with the project’s most important stakeholder group. Fortunately, having worked with us previously, CAC trusted us to steward the process and gave us a direct channel to their staff and advisers. This was immensely important, as it allowed us to work closely with the people whom the new system most needed to serve. Our team built relationships with a number of advisers; they were in contact with us throughout the process, helping us to create the tool they needed.

Our discovery process included a series of phone calls with small groups of advisers all over the country, during which we asked them to walk us through their typical workflows and working environments. What did their daily workflows look like? What were their challenges and pain points? What did they need to do their jobs better? Again, CAC’s trust in our team created an environment for success. The management team heard their advisers’ feedback and understood that making their working lives better was GRACE’s most important objective.

We followed our calls with an analysis of the environments the advisers would be working in — particularly the nature of the internet access where they were and the devices they would be using — to ensure that they would be able to access our tool consistently and effectively.

Then, we started prototyping and testing. Prototypes started on paper and quickly moved to the web, where we built a simple working application. It didn’t look pretty, but it provided enough functionality to test it out with real end users. We then got on the phone with test users — advisers who would ultimately use the program — and asked them to perform certain tasks with our prototype. Based on the results — what seemed intuitive to users, and what confused or stumped them — we made iterations and built a second version. We tested some more. Then we finalized the UX of their student data tracker, which would eventually be named GRACE (Getting Results and Creating Equity).

When we shared the first iteration of the app’s interface with the advisers and our contacts at CAC’s head office, it was clear to us that they hadn’t realized what was possible until they saw it. Suddenly the possibilities were obvious — and exciting. Collaboration with students and data tracking could work together seamlessly. Their abundance of data could not only cease to be cumbersome; it could help them do their jobs better and function more effectively as an organization. Beyond the Advisor experience, the ability for real-time visual reporting and data extraction was game changing.

Once GRACE was designed and signed off, it was launch time. As always, training was built into our process; we partnered with CAC to communicate the tool’s benefits and how it worked. Along with the team from head-office, we hosted a series of video training sessions with large groups of advisers in various states across the country. The sessions were recorded and distributed them to those who had been unable to attend the live sessions.  

As important as these materials were, our team had deliberately designed a tool that would require minimal training. Our goal for GRACE — as it is for any and all online tools — was for users to be able to log in and intuitively know what to do. If we could show the advisers once, and they could use the system, that would be success. With GRACE, that’s generally what happened. For those that needed more support, we worked closely with CAC staff to field questions and provide user support.

  • student records on custom student tracking web application

  • student profile on custom student tracking web application

  • Adding student interaction on custom student tracking web application

  • internal communications on custom student tracking web application

Results

GRACE was delivered on schedule and was warmly — and at times tearfully — received by the CAC team, at head office and across the country. Head office was astounded at GRACE’s ability to make advisers’ lives easier.

“I am a 2nd year college adviser with the Pennsylvania College Advising Corps. I wanted to take a moment to thank you all for the time and effort that you have put into creating the GRACE system for the College Advising Corps. Having spend my 1st year using a bulky, and oftentimes confusing Excel spreadsheet, GRACE has been an amazingly useful tool for myself and the other college advisers. It has streamlined my data tracking and made my job infinitely easier. The reports also provide me with a simple, easy way to share the accomplishments of my students with school administrators and counselors. Best of all, I can stay connected with advisers across the country, which allows us to share tips and practices to make our advising have an even greater impact.

I truly appreciate everything that you all have done to make GRACE a reality for the College Advising Corps, and I am eagerly looking forward to continuing to work with Briteweb and utilizing GRACE to help my students go on to succeed in college and beyond.”

Equally as game-changing for the CAC team was GRACE’s ability to run real-time visual reports.

GRACE solved CAC’s data security issues. Our team did their due diligence, taking the time to understand the stringent federal requirements related to student data (FERPA), and becoming the consulting experts on how data should be managed both in and outside the platform. 

Perhaps the greatest signal of GRACE’s success so far has been the reinvestment in and continued growth of the platform. Our team continues to partner with CAC to manage and iterate on the platform as new advisers arrive, as the organization’s needs evolve, and as those using GRACE imagine new possibilities for how they can best serve the students with whom they work. We’re now in our third phase of iterations and add-ons, including a pilot program in Boston to bring other organizations working in the school system onto the platform in a first-of-its-kind data sharing collaboration.

Today, GRACE has over 700 College Advisers, tracking over 1 million data points for 200,000+ students across America.

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