University of Kentucky professor Kim Woodrum teaches freshman chemistry classes, large survey courses with as many as 200 students.
Over the years, she's started using, as she calls them, "clickers," small remote control devices for every student. When she wants to see whether her students understand a concept, she asks them a multiple-choice question, and they respond with the clickers.
She also uses clickers to take attendance. A student who doesn't show up will get an automated email from her, noting their absence and encouraging them to attend. Students who don't do well on tests also get automatic emails.
"Getting them into the swing of being a good student off the bat is something I think about," Woodrum said. "How do you instill in them that it's important to be in class, how do you encourage them to seek out help? Most chemistry classes are pretty large lectures; it's important that if they need help, they get help."
UK officials want to expand the techniques of teachers like Woodrum, using technology in the ongoing battle to keep more students in school and get them to graduate.
After some progress, retention and graduation rates have stalled at UK, and President Eli Capilouto has made it clear that those rates have to improve, both as a moral imperative and because it can greatly help UK's financial woes. Capilouto has estimated that improving retention rates by 5 percent could result in $12 million to $15 million more in recurring revenue.
The issue also will take on more importance as Kentucky and many other states start to base state funding on performance measures such as graduation.
Capilouto has set up a new Student Success Imperative, with interim senior vice provost Dan O'Hair charged with many of these challenges.
"We know we want to make the data work for us to help students do better," said O'Hair, who is also the dean of the College of Communications.
It's a multifaceted approach in which UK is trying to meet students where they live — making the technology that's integral to students' lives part of what UK uses as well.
Top among them is a new operating system called HANA. It's a high-speed database that can integrate all kinds of student information — attendance, grades, financial aid, registration, even what clubs a student belongs to — and allows a professor or advisor to check on students in real time.
"We're trying to bring the data together and then distribute it out," said Vince Kellen, who, like O'Hair, has a new position, senior vice provost for academic planning, analytics and technologies.
When HANA is up and running early next year, Kellen said, there will be about 15 reports that departments will be able to access, such as attendance, grades and whether a student hasn't paid bills.
They're working on a mobile application where students can see an engagement score, such as how involved they are in UK activities, as studies show that more engagement leads to better retention.
In the future, the system will be able to automate certain triggers that will recommend that a student with financial or academic issues see an advisor.
"We have some faculty (like Woodrum) who are already doing this kind of thing, and we want to see how we can automate it," Kellen said.
UK already is using technology in other ways. Broadcast emails go out to all enrolled students in undergraduate education, alerting them to registration deadlines. There is a student alert system that allows faculty and staff in undergraduate education to notify academic advisors when a student is doing poorly in class.
Officials are working with the technology office to identify students who don't register for the next semester, to let advisors contact those students.
Of course, UK is working on plenty of other aspects of the retention/graduation debate, including examining how they award financial aid, making sure that students can get the classes they need to graduate on time, and making it easier for students to transfer to UK.
Kellen envisions a time when students will receive alerts on their phone to go to class, when they have tests, or other meetings. In return, UK will be able to see when students go to tutoring or show up at a club meeting.
Kellen admits it can sound like a "nanny state," where students are treated like children who can't cope with college.
"You have to make some judgment calls on how you want to engage with students," he said. "However if we can help students, let's do that. These days, students are reminded of a lot of things electronically."
O'Hair said that according to campus focus groups, freshman students seem to be overwhelmed when they first arrive, both by academics and by being on their own for the first time.
"They are very interested in us telling them what to do," he said. "They want to be advised and told what courses to take. And they really think emphasizing student success is important."