Starfishing for answers

By Kharii McMillan

Students at the Community College of Philadelphia use the Starfish program to communicate with student support staff on campus and discreetly communicate with faculty members about student issues that need to be fixed, as well as counseling and lab referrals. Photo courtesy of Community College of Philadelphia website

Any time a student receives misinformation, it can cause unwarranted stress that can drastically harm a student’s ability to succeed. For adjunct communication studies professor Tyler Daniels, ensuring students’ success means providing them with clear, precise information straight from the source.

“Accurate communication from teacher to student is very important to me,” Daniels said. “I had no idea that Starfish would be providing students with e-mails that bear my signature, that I did not actually write.”

The Starfish Retention Solutions program is an early alert software that allows any faculty member to signal college officials about the status of a student, whether it be to express concern or communicate praise for academic progress. The intent of the program is to be a conversation starter, according to David Pringle, the DCCC director of the Student Completion Program.

Improving retention at community colleges is the main initiative of the Starfish program, as recent research by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University shows that a quarter of students who enroll in the fall semester do not return in spring; and of those who do enroll in spring, one-fifth do not return for the subsequent fall semester.

Instructors are able to raise flags if they notice a student is struggling in class, or if it seems like one’s performance is being affected by outside influences. Instructors are also able to give kudos, or messages of appreciation, if they notice the student is performing well.

This program has already been implemented at several colleges in Pennsylvania, including the Community College of Philadelphia and Montgomery County Community College. Pringle explained that DCCC administrators looked at the application of the program at these schools as a template for the system here. The program was first implemented over the summer as a soft launch, with the idea that the faculty can take time to learn the basics of the system. “We just wanted everyone to get their feet wet,” Pringle said.

The second launch of the program during the fall semester has led to varying opinions on the success of the system. Although Pringle said many faculty members responded positively to the pilot program, there were a few pressing concerns.

“Some faculty were concerned with the messaging that came attached to the flags that were raised,” Pringle said. These automated messages could be interpreted to be written by the professor of the particular class, which led to many faculty members objecting to the program.

Pringle said that the 10 to 12-person team in charge of implementing the program is looking at changing the messaging system to satisfy concerns that faculty have about the wording.

According to Lametha Northern, vice Provost for Student and Instructional Support Services, the two main concerns of polishing the Starfish program are communication between students and faculty, as well as training staff to properly use the system.

“Communication is a twoway process,” Northern said. “We need everyone to be together on this.”

Another criticism from an online review by Stacey S. worries that the program is not geared as much towards health sciences, a criticism applicable to DCCC students in particular who take online classes focused towards that major.

A DCCC student wishing to be known only as “Paul T.” had praise for the layout of the program. “I think the design is simple and easy on the eyes,” he said. “It is definitely more eyecatching than the WebStudy system.”

Students can also choose to receive text messages on their phones, a feature that could help when receiving information about credit benchmarks, class registration, and other information that may come through e-mail but is missed by students who do not check Delagate often.

Pringle said he does not want Starfish to be an overlap of pre-existing programs already in the Delagate system; instead, he wants it to match features of already existing programs.

“It will be more useful in the long term to have Starfish replace already existing programs, consolidating it into one system,” Pringle said.

Another feature that may be implemented in Starfish for DCCC in the future is the “Raise Your Hand” program, whereby students can go directly onto the Starfish web page and be connected with a faculty member who is an expert on a specific topic they have questions on.

Pringle said that many students become frustrated with the process of trying to find someone to speak to about transfers, starting clubs, and other aspects of college life. The Raise Your Hand program would essentially eliminate the middle man and prevent students from being bounced around without finding an answer to their problem, he added.

Although Starfish has not yet been fully implemented, Pringle said he wants students and faculty alike to know that patience will pay off.

“If it takes us two to three years to build it, it will be more likely to last 10 to 15 years,” Pringle said.

Pringle hopes to hold a focus group in mid-November to show students the program and receive feedback on how to improve it. He stressed that input from students is of the highest importance, because this program will benefit them the best if they can participate in how it is implemented.

“We have an idea of what catches students’ attention, but that is not always the case,” Pringle said. “So I would like to hear what students have to say, and how we can best get this program to work for them.”

As for Daniels, he believes the program has potential, but as with any program, improvements are still needed.

“It’s a good idea,” Daniels said. “I think it just needs to be tweaked a little. If we just give the students the raw data, they themselves can make the correlation.”

Contact Kharii McMillan at

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