Personalized education taking many paths at Pitt


Personalized education is a buzzword these days at universities, and Pitt is giving it more than lip service, with several initiatives aimed at addressing the needs of each student individually.

The recently announced mentoring platform, Pitt Commons, is “one of the two or three most visible elements,” said Nathan Urban, vice provost for Graduate Studies and Strategic Initiatives.

Other elements in the Office of the Provost’s strategic plan include:

  • Pathways, a software platform that makes it easier for advisors to access student academic records, is in the rollout phase, Urban said. It’s currently being tested with freshman School of Nursing and engineering students.
  • A seed grant competition held last year brought together “the community of faculty, staff, and even some students across the University to think about how it is that we can do a better job of creating a personalized educational experience for students,” Urban said. There were 42 applicants and 17 projects were funded from different campuses and schools.
  • A mentoring and advising summit for faculty, staff and student advisors is planned for the spring. A similar summit was held this past April.

Julia Spears, who was hired last year by Pitt as a personalized education initiative consultant, said: “The activities all, I think, coalesce around the conversation we're having in the personalized education space, with data and analytics being part of it, and then mentor advising and helping to create a campus culture that supports and celebrates this work — I think all of these different initiatives help to feed some of that.”

Pitt Commons

Pitt Commons dashboardThe mentoring platform Pitt Commons, designed by PeopleGrove in San Francisco, seeks to match students, both during their school years and after they graduate, with faculty, staff and alumni mentors. It also will help create groups based on common interests and allow faculty and staff to network with colleagues, alumni and friends of the University.

PeopleGrove, in its report “The Mentoring Gap,” cited several statistics, including:

  • First-year students who have mentors are vastly more likely to return to college for a second year.
  • Students who have faculty mentors perform better academically and are more satisfied with college life, retention, and their educational and career goals.
  • Both undergraduate and graduate students report that mentoring helped them learn and develop skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

Urban said that when they started looking at how they could facilitate advising and mentoring across campus, they found five groups that were independently thinking about what to do for their particular students and were considering a software platform to facilitate these interactions.

“Three of them were in contract negotiations already, with the same company,” Spears said. “This was a perfect example to bring them all together. We have the same goals, slightly different purposes. But I think we have enough synergy that we would have a much more powerful experience and community if we all came together than to create smaller communities for an individual unit.”

Spears and Urban are working with the Alumni Association to create interests groups on the Pitt Commons platforms that will serve alumni. Also students who sign up on the platform will automatically be transitioned to alumni status.

Pitt Commons figures heavily into one of the chancellor’s goals for the student experience, Urban said — “they need to leave Pitt with a strong network of connections to peers and people here at the University.”

The program started with five pilot groups:

  • Panthers to Pros, through the Athletic Department
  • The Rise program through Student Affairs aimed at helping freshmen succeed on campus
  • HealthLinks at the new Pittsburgh Interprofessional Center for Health Careers
  • The Honors College
  • Career Services

The key now is to recruit mentors among faculty, staff, alumni and students. Anyone with connections to Pitt can sign up at Mentors can control how they interact with the program.

“I think the beauty of the system is that you get to control how much you want to be contacted,” Spears said. “If I'm leaving or I have a huge project, and I'm not going to be available till December, you can make yourself invisible, or you can shut off your Let's Connect button so you don't get bombarded with connections. You can say I only want one communication a month or a week. And then once that one student connects, then it won't reset until the next time.”

Lisa Auld, assistant athletic director for student life, says they are in the process of “matching up student athletes with Forever Panthers (former student athletes) and friends of the University via the (Pitt Commons) portal.”

The Athletics Department is using this program and PittScript for Life to re-engage its alumni base, Auld said.

Potentially Pitt Commons could connect staff to staff, faculty to faculty or alumni to alumni.

Currently, there are nearly 1,000 people signed up on the site, with 600 being students. They would like to get more mentors on board before they do broad recruitment of students.

Seed grants competition

Spears and Urban said there were so many good ideas submitted for seed grants that the provost ended up funding more than originally had been planned.

“(The seed grants are) about building a community of people thinking about these approaches and thinking about new ways in which we can facilitate the success of our students,” Urban said.

He dubbed one of the ideas “Uber for tutoring.” The Real-Time Tutor Sources Application allows students to request tutors anytime, day or night, and matches them up to the appropriate experts. It is being developed by Robert Kerestes and Samuel Dickerson from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, along with Anita Persaud from the Academic Resource Center in Arts & Sciences Undergraduate Studies.

“Uber and Airbnb … are all about spare capacity in the economy. We have spare capacity to educate in the form of lots of people at the University who are experts in a lot of different areas,” Urban said. “And so how can we make use of some of that spare capacity to educate in a way that gives students something that they're looking for?”

The pilot project of the app will be rolled out at the Swanson School of Engineering before going university-wide.

Another project already in the works is giving three students live video production opportunities at the new Pitt Studios at Petersen Events Center.

Another round of seed grants will be supported during this academic year. Applications will be taken later in the year.

Mentoring advising summit

The second Mentoring & Advising Summit is set for March 7, 2019. A call will go out soon for topic proposals.

The first summit in April 2018 had 160 attendees and focused on topics such as “Meeting Our Students Where They Are” and “Mentoring Students to Embrace the World.”

“Part of the origin of (the summit) was that in talking to advisors across campus … (they) often felt like they didn't have a great deal of connection to advisors in other parts of campus,” Urban said. “They want to be able to learn from each other, share information, share best practices.

“I think it’s important that Pitt Commons as a tool is being considered and rolled out in the context of the advising and mentoring summit, where we have been very intentionally putting a focus on how do we do this.”

The provost’s office also is searching for an advisor development manager — someone who can help keep advisors across the University up to date on what the latest data is on advising and mentoring and who can get advisors the resources they need.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.