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South Orange County Community College District  Innovative Projects - Sherpa

Though we were pleased with MAP’s success, we knew we could do better because MAP, like nearly all systems in higher education, was passive.  We wanted something more proactive – that is, a system capable of assisting students’ decision-making processes in a way that would “nudge” them toward making intelligent, well-informed decisions.

The more we discussed this kind of system, the more expansive our vision became.  Initially it was envisioned as a proactive academic planning tool that would focus on course selection.  But we realized that if we built an architecture rather than a specialized product, it could provide helpful services on a wide range of decisions including guidance toward specific instructional content.  

The Sherpa project, named in tribute to the selfless mountaineering guides of Nepal who help others achieve their dreams while remaining in the background, is dedicated to increasing student success by providing students with the right information at the right time and thus enabling them to make better academic decisions.  Sherpa uses time, event or data-based “triggers” to deliver multimodal personalized communications such as:

  • Helping students find acceptable alternatives when their preferred courses are full
  • Targeting at-risk students for academic interventions
  • Tailoring information about campus events to individual interests

There are three categories of nudges: Courses, Information and Tasks:

  • The Courses module provides assistance in finding an open section during registration and will soon make proactive course recommendations using data mining to find courses that students with similar transcripts have passed successfully. 

  • The Information channel is provided to students based on whether their personal attributes match attributes the author of the information felt would be relevant.  Information can be delivered through text or through media such as video or audio files. 

  • Tasks are links to online services that are provided to students so they can easily find a relevant service (such as registration or grades) at the right time.


Nudges can be delivered based on absolute dates (xx/xx/xxxx) or relative dates (e.g., three days before the student’s registration appointment).  Nudges can also be triggered by data changes  such as the appearance of a student’s grade or a class status change.


Recommendations are delivered as friendly “nudges” that can be consumed several ways: through a newsfeed on the student web portal, email messages, text messages, text-to-speech audio, or a mobile phone app.


A design team representing a broad cross-section of the institution guides the development of this project.  The team includes a vice-president, dean, public information officer, administrative assistant, technology support, student services manager, outreach specialist, instructor--and most importantly, students!   Other feedback mechanisms include a 1-5 star rating system and a comment box for each nudge, usability studies conducted with Techsmith’s Morae software, focus groups, and an annual survey.