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.