Published on 2012/04/23
The Key Word Is Access
Higher education administrators and educators must make sure they are not creating unnecessary obstacles or barriers to students seeking information. Photo by Siyublog.

The digital age is essentially an invitation to instant information accessibility, no matter what the information need might be.  Today’s college and university students expect to have full, free, and easy access to everything, whether it is music, video or print-based information.  Search engines, in particular, have created the expectation that getting data to answer an information gap is only a few clicks away.  Password security walls are deemed offensive, and websites that don’t deliver what the seeker is asking for are to be despised.

Enter the modern university.  Everywhere you look, there are informational walls and barriers, some of them necessary, some just foolish.  I want to consider a few of these in light of the student demand for free and easy access.

Many higher educational institution websites have been designed to attract new students and impress the constituency rather than to inform current students.  A user’s sheer frustration in trying to find a particular department, a faculty member’s e-mail address, or a how-to for some obscure academic procedure, points to a website that is a barrier rather than a support.  Try it for yourself.  Think of some student form (incomplete grade, request to withdraw from a course) and then search for it in your  own institution’s website search box.  Chances are you will get multiple results, and the first few, or many, of these will not be what you are seeking.  Now try locating that form through the website’s A-Z list (if you can find the A-Z list or if there is one).  Can you figure out what department you need to access?  How many clicks does it take to get to the required form?

There surely must be better ways to construct institutional websites to deliver information to current students.  Part of the problem is that administrators rarely look at navigation issues as long as the site looks good, delivers the news that the football team is in the finals, and offers attractive information to potential students.

These days, most professors post course information resources in courseware (Moodle, Blackboard, etc.), so access to it is fairly simple, once the student has crossed the barrier of the inevitable login.  But courseware itself can be difficult to navigate and clunky to use.  It lacks the functions and feel of the open Web.

Bu a student’s ability to access what the professor has to offer cannot be limited just to courseware, though there is a tendency for some educators to argue, “I posted everything my students need online, so I’m not partial to them taking a lot of my time in personal interaction with me.”  Did you know that research from Project Information Literacy has found that one of the most common gripes of students is that they don’t understand their professors’ research assignments and often need much more input on the requirements for such assignments?  Using the “It’s up on the Web” argument for avoiding direct queries from students creates a significant barrier.  Professors, as busy as they are (and I am very familiar with that problem), still need to find viable ways for students to have access to them personally.  Technology may well provide a partial solution. Student e-mails and text messages are relatively easy to read and respond to while maintaining the personal touch, even if time is limited for face to face interaction.

A great deal of academic information – books, journals, gray literature – flies in the face of full, free and easy access.  Though libraries are at the forefront of seeking to make such information as accessible as possible, limitations of copyright and exorbitant costs can make such access anything but full, free or easy.  Typically, books cannot be copied or digitized to any large degree.  E-books lie behind passwords, and downloading them to familiar e-readers is complicated, if possible at all.  Journals are locked within databases that require passwords and set restrictions on dissemination.

Is all of this barrier-creation necessary?  Recent debates, like the scholarly boycott of Elsevier, the rejection of the Research Works Act, and so on, have put the locked-down nature of academic information into question.  The spread of the open access movement shows a significant push-back to the limitations to access demanded by many academic publishers.  We may, in fact, be on the brink of a complete re-thinking of the way in which academic information is disseminated, breaking the high-profit monopolies that currently exist in the publication of such information.

In the meantime, our students generally do have access to vast amounts of academic information, because they have been given the passwords to access it.  An additional barrier, however, is a general lack of skill among students to optimize academic search tools, which are more complex than Google but also do a much better job of finding what searchers actually need.  It is an immense blind spot in higher education that we underestimate just how difficult it is for students to find the information they require.  The solution is not to dumb down the search capabilities of academic databases but to train students to search them well.

Most of us these days are awash in information.  Higher educators must evaluate how well their own systems and personnel are doing to ensure that we are not creating unnecessary obstacles to students seeking information.  Accessibility is not optional.

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