What Do I Study? What Do I Do? Showing the Path

One of the things I’ve learned from flying a lot is that it’s never as easy to get from one point to another as you think. There are regional hubs, legal connections, affiliations and the many intricacies of which routes are allowed into which countries. There’s a reason that you can either retain the services of a travel agent for a fee or spend a lot of your own time trying to work out the best way to get from A to B. It would be nice if you could fit everything onto one simple diagram and see the best way to go but, even without the commercial concerns, it’s a very hard problem to solve if you’re worried about efficiency rather than connectivity.

We allow our students a lot of latitude in picking their path through their degrees. Although we offer programs that have a core of prerequisites, there are many opportunities for electives – courses that they can pick and choose from. But, on many occasions, students look at the total number of points they require, and the year level, and pick based on interest or short-term goals, rather than any form of long-term vision.

Going back to our airline model, it’s like trying to get to to New York from Sydney by picking the cheapest flight that goes east. Thinking in one-step-ahead terms prevents you from realising the benefits of flights into longer-range hubs, special deals and the round-the-world flight. Technically, optimising your solution so that your next step is the ‘best’ from those available is a greedy algorithm – each step will be optimal but it’s not guaranteed to give you the best overall solution, just a solution.

What would be great is if we could present students with a simple flight path, a map, a poster or an interactive tool that allows them to see where they want to gowhere they’re starting from, and how they could get there based on our courses. I’ve started sketching out some ideas based on this but complexity is proving to be a problem – as expected. I have some sketches of solutions and, when I have something that might be useful, I’ll share it here.

3 Comments on “What Do I Study? What Do I Do? Showing the Path”

  1. philosophidian says:

    You’re talking about acting as the students’ adviser in this case, right? At the University of Alabama, our faculty would sit in booths during registration each semester and be there to help out in the way you’re talking about. The basic question was “I want to graduate in 198x and I don’t want to take more than 15 hours per semester. How can I get there from here and still fulfill my degree requirements?” I’m glad they were there because they steered me into taking some of the courses that I still think about from time to time twenty-<mumble> years later. As I got to know the professors—and they me—they were able to help me more because they knew my strengths and weaknesses and interests.


    • nickfalkner says:

      Our problem is that these requirements have become far more complex and often span many schools. It may require multiple course advisers to get an ideal path and both adviser and student are working from large tables and hard to read program rules.

      At the scale of our University, 25000+ students, it’s also getting harder to really get to know your adviser, especially when the job is an admin duty and rotates over time.

      I suspect that not being able to see a clear path can be discouraging and lead students to not seek the clear path – working on the greedy algorithm and then discovering that it wasn’t ideal.

      The other thing is that sometimes students just don’t know where they can go – the goal of such a visual representation is that they can trace from there to here somehow.

      It’s a pipe dream but it’s still in the queue.


  2. Alex H says:

    The problem with a long-term vision, in terms of your personal goals, is that by the time you know enough to make a good choice, it’s already done. Personally, I think many people would come out happier (although probably not wealthier) if they did choose courses based on their interests at the time more than on long term planning.

    I agree (I think I’ve already commented to this effect elsewhere on this blog) that for students to sit down and chat with a course adviser is a good thing.


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