Higher Education, Technology

Engagement and Adulthood: A contradiction?

This weekend I spent some time preparing a paper that I’ll be presenting at the Media Ecology Association Conference in Toronto next month.  The paper explores the ethical implications of using artificial intelligence (AI) in higher education.  As Provost, I am routinely bombarded with sales pitches for the latest gadgets to encourage student engagement.  Each one has a plethora of data points that suggest that it will increase student success. Each one raises concerns about the notion of adulthood.

Consider, for example, the ways in which we might employ smartphones to take attendance.  One vendor presented a simple and elegant way to set up a sensor in a classroom doorway so that. as students come in. their presence is automatically recorded in a spreadsheet for the faculty member.  As a bonus, photographs of the students can show up an a computer monitor at the teacher’s station, helping them learn their students’ names.  For students who don’t have phones, there is still the opportunity for manual entry.  Great.  Attendance tracking solved!

But the thing is, once it is turned on, students can be tracked for all sorts of things.  If a student doesn’t go to the cafeteria for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they don’t leave the dorm for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they are missing multiple classes, an alert might come up.  OK, we should be concerned about the student, but I have concerns about privacy and self-determination. While I truly wish to engage students who are starting to disappear, I’m not sure I want to do it by tracking their every move.  It’s a little creepy and I think it’s an invasion of privacy.  More importantly, it creates a relationship with students that does not encourage them to be responsible for their actions.

There are similar products being sold to advising centers to try to prompt engagement with students.  There are alerts sent to advising staff by faculty, coaches, and anyone else who might be in contact with the students, letting them know about excessive absences or other looming issues.  Part of this is fantastic.  The student experience is dispersed in higher education and this function allows us to see patterns that might be invisible without it.  An advisor can then reach out to the student and that student might respond.  Great! But then what?

You see the painful truth is that most do not respond. Are we to stand outside classrooms or doorways to find them?  Do we text and email and call multiple times to try to prompt that response?  At what point are we to say, this student is not ready to engage in this conversation, and just stop?  When do we get the message that the student is making a decision not to respond?

Then there’s the “nudge” technology, meant to prompt students to action on all sorts of things: registration, financial aid, meeting an advisor, applying for graduation.  It’s a good idea.  In the whirl of semesters, deadlines are easy to miss.  As a basic communication strategy, it seems like a helpful tool in our efforts to keep our students informed and on track.  But, when they consistently ignore these messages, what are we to do? And, more importantly, is our nudging turning into one more thing for students to tune out? All I can think of is the teacher’s voice in the old Peanuts cartoons.

As fond as I am of being a professional nag, these technologies seem to be undermining the notion of adulthood in higher education.  While I have always conceptualized our traditional aged undergraduates as beginner adults, they are adults none-the-less.  We know that they will stumble, as all adults do, but is catching them every time they fall a good idea?  Well, it’s complicated.

In fact, some of our students really do need extra support and nudges and outreach.  They come to us with no experience of the culture of higher education or they come to us with just adequate, but not stellar, high school grades. We know that these students are more likely to stumble.  These students need our thoughtful and persistent attention. But, does that attention need to be at the cost of supporting adulthood? I don’t think so.

Here’s where I am on this today.  First, we don’t need the technology to tell us who the  at-risk students are.  We have a slew of reports that have already done that.  For those students, we need a carefully constructed program of support that moves from high touch to self-determination as quickly as possible. Let’s use the large body of research that tells us the best strategies for cultivating that self-determination. Let’s leave the technology out of this one, in favor of some good old fashioned human interaction.  This program of support should help the students take control of their education, instead of relying on prompts and nudges for all the answers.

For those students who don’t need that extra support at the start, let’s be clear in our expectations and not obscure the paths to great educational experiences.  Let’s orient them to campus, help them create their plans, and then leave them alone. They can figure it out.

Some of our students will ignore our efforts no matter what we do. Some of them will end up leaving. It happens.  In fact it happened to me.  I needed time to figure out why I should be in college.  It wasn’t a lack of technology that caused this. I certainly didn’t want additional oversight from concerned professionals. I wanted to solve my own problems and make my own plans. I was a beginner adult, making my own mistakes and finding my way.

Change, Evaluation, Higher Education

The Pace of Change

It is the end of another academic year, and as we move through award ceremonies, research presentations, and finally commencement, I take the time to look at my to-do list from last fall.  It is a bit deflating to see all of the things I didn’t complete.  I expect some of this to happen, after all, not all of my plans were good ones. A few things actually got done, some were re-imagined, a few were abandoned, and some just didn’t get the attention they needed to come to fruition.  It isn’t all bad, but I confess to being a bit disappointed in myself.

Then I remember, higher education is designed to slow the pace of change.  While we are great places for advancing knowledge (yes, new discoveries and inventions do come from higher education), we are best at slow deliberation.  We analyze cultural patterns large and small and try to see them in context, rather than jumping to conclusions.  We look at small changes in forecasting models for weather or economics, tweaking them slightly each year to get closer to a better predictor, and then analyze the results of those changes.  We reflect upon the past to try to divine how we got to this moment.  Change is not something we’re avoiding, it is something we’re vetting.

So here I am, an academic with an administrative role. I understand the care with which my colleagues approach change and I share their suspicions about the innovation of the week.  The brakes they are putting on in the form of more questions, more input, more research are justified.  However, I also spend my time looking at the whole organization and the whole student experience, and I see patterns of successes and failures that are calling for us to move a little faster. I feel the push/pull of the deliberative mindset and the urgency of responding to areas for improvement.

Take, for example, the way this generation of learners is coming to us.  It is well-documented that their experience of reading is very different from that of the generations before them.  (See “The Fall and Rise of Reading” by Steven Johnson in the Chronicle of Higher Education). It isn’t that students can’t read, it’s just that they really haven’t had to grapple with critical reading. The books read and tests taken prior to coming to college are all about short forms, summaries, and highlights.  And of course, there’s the endless interaction on the Internet to reduce the time spent with texts. Reflective reading of long form texts is just not what they are used to doing.  We know this to be true, yet we haven’t reviewed the literature on how to teach critical reading, and then incorporate into our classes.

Maybe we think this isn’t our job. High school was supposed to do it, so just pile on the readings and the students will get it eventually.  But they don’t.  We have to adjust our teaching strategies, and quickly, because we’re losing too many to this gap in skills. Even worse, we are diminishing the conversations we’re having in our classes because we’re not really expecting students to do the reading anymore.  This is a terrible spiral, but the good news is we can stop it from happening. But we have to act, and sooner rather than later.

And then there is the issue that really made me sigh this morning.  After repeated reports on who struggles to succeed at my university, I concluded that the at-risk group is any student who had less than an 85 average in high school.  I learned this two years ago and started a conversation about advising strategies to address the at-risk group. At that time, I used the words “intrusive advising” which is a term found in much of the advising literature. Several of my colleagues objected to the term, so we moved to the idea of enhanced advising.  I brought together a group to develop a protocol and nothing happened.

Then I appointed some faculty members to investigate ways that we might develop an advising protocol for those students.  Like all good faculty members, they went out and talked to their peers. While they found out a few good things about how to support faculty as advisors (and I will work to support those findings), in reality, enhanced advising was set aside in favor of better advising for all.  This is a good idea, but it will take too long to identify and scale those improvements.  Meanwhile, those at-risk students are left with no direct support.

I just got an updated report on at-risk students and it is still students who earned less than an 85 average in high school.  The difference in retention rates for this group is at least 10% lower than those at 85 or above, and the differences in graduation rates are even more stark.  And there’s plenty of literature about how to support these students, so, I’m feeling an urgency.

So, I’m left pondering ways to balance the deliberation with the urgency.  I do respect the reflective and thoughtful nature of my colleagues, but when I keep the larger patterns of student success (or lack thereof) in view, the pace of change is just too slow.  I’m going to have to find a better balance, a better way to move the deliberation along just a little faster.  Because, what I don’t want to do is have this on the unfinished list again next year.