Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
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The following interview is with Jennifer Stephens Helm, vice president and dean for institutional research and assessment at the American Public University System. Technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in the post-secondary education space. In this interview, Stephens Helm shares her thoughts on how technology could be better utilized across the industry, and discusses some of the barriers standing in the way of its wider adoption.
1. Looking at the higher education today — both from the teaching and learning perspective and from the management perspective — how could technology be better used?
Well, I think that new and emerging technologies are having a really, a very, profound impact on teaching and learning in higher education today … especially when you think about the importance of technology and learning about how they communicate, how they interact, how we access and utilize information. There are many sectors that are imploring technologies to better meet the goals of their organizations. More importantly, the needs of their stakeholders, from business to higher education. … So I think the impact is certainly profound.
But, how can this technology be better used in higher education?
I think we really need to take a hard look at our students … to ensure that technologies are being designed and employed based on their unique characteristics and needs. When you really stop to think about our students today, I think, though, what you would call our next generation, our digital learners, they’re really immersed in today’s world of digital technologies. So, as a whole, I think we often tend to generalize.
We tend to generalize these students and apply a one-size-fits-all solution when choosing teaching and learning technologies to fit their needs. I’m just not convinced that this is the best approach to take. As we listen to the needs of our learners, I think we need to take a step back and recognize that we may need to employ different technologies for different learners and different situations.
So whether the needs vary by school, by program, discipline, background, cultural regions, I think we need to avoid making these institution-wide, technology-based decisions that may not be appropriate for all of our students. So, conducting focus groups, surveys, needs assessments, really listening to the voice of our students, our faculty, our deans, our stakeholders to really figure out the best leverage technology, given their needs.
I think gaining an understanding of how our students learn in different institutional contexts and cultures and really thinking about how to use technology in their social and educational lives … that’s very important. For example, schools. Schools can use technology to customize and tailor the experience based on how students best learn. So, if they are a visual learner, then they will enter into a classroom full of visual materials and assets to really maximize their learning experience. Say they learn best by reading text, well, then the classroom would really be customized towards that learning style. So if they need help in gaining proficiency in a particular learning area, then curriculum and instruction can really be geared to identify those deficiency areas that need reinforcement to help really increase the likelihood of success.
So, utilizing these types of technologies — whether they are learning and content management systems, content and data repositories, statistical analysis solutions — I think they have huge implications for how we teach and how we use technologies that not only reduce costs but ultimately have an impact on student success and satisfaction. I feel like the business world has used these types of strategies and technologies for years now as they focus on their target markets and I think we should do the same.
2. What is standing in the way of the wider adoption of technology in higher education?
I do think technology in higher education is progressing forward, although I would say at a slower pace. I think that technologies are evolving so quickly that smart decisions need to be made about which technologies should be employed, or not.
Historically, higher education institutions tend to be more cautious in their decision-making processes as compared to the corporate world when adopting or adapting technology. So I think that keeping up with the evolving needs of an institution is the most challenging part of this. And it really stands in the way of wider adoption; wider adoption of technology in all higher education. I think one of the most important things to remember is that technology should provide a solution to a current and existing challenge at an institution. So, identifying that challenge and matching up a technology solution to address the … challenge can really be challenging in itself.
There is also a risk, I would say, in being on the bleeding edge of innovation. Higher education institutions — they’re often hesitant to be in this space, and who can blame them? I mean, emerging technologies, they take a lot of time, with a fair amount of testing and evaluation, trial and error. So, while that might be useful from a research and pilot testing perspective, it can also stand in the way of higher education institutions adopting the latest and greatest emerging technologies. I think it is important and very much a common sense rule to remember here is: if the return on investment is not high, then it certainly should not be considered in this case.
I also think that faculty anxiety is a key and something that I should talk about a little bit. There’s often a reluctance to utilize technology by faculty and administrators who have anxiety about the possible solutions. So, I think that it is no secret that the generation of faculty that exists today is not the same generation of digital learners that sit in our classrooms, whether they sit on the ground in a face-to-face environment or online. So, the truth is, is that they behave differently with different social characteristics and, I would say, different ways of using and making sense of information, different ways of learning; just, really, overall different expectations about life and learning in general. …
I think that institutions can really help to bridge this gap by making faculty administrators comfortable with technology. Also, a feel for student input or feedback where appropriate when making important decisions about technology. I think another factor … that slows down the progress of the adoption of technologies is the fact that higher education institutions are really … working to figure out the new role of faculty in today’s age. Faculty — their roles have really moved from a “sage of the stage,” where they’re the all-knowing beings that impart knowledge on the students to really one that’s facilitating, organizing, supporting in the classroom. So, the research clearly shows that the more efficient faculty members … can be in adapting online technology for both their teaching and instruction, really, the better the student academic results will be.
So, I think that these are all issues that need to be addressed when getting faculty to buy in to embrace these technology solutions.
3. Is it mostly public institutions that are lagging when it comes to technology adoption? Or are private and for-profit institutions in the same boat?
Well, I think that many will argue that the private sector is more entrepreneurial and innovative than the public sector. That it has been more effective in responding to market issues, staying competitive, incorporating new technologies into their operations, really boosting efficiency and productivity. So I do tend to agree with this, and that private and/or for-profit institutions may be better positioned to take more chances and to really be a leading edge given their infrastructure. So, what I mean by this is, they often don’t have the bureaucratic structures or tenured faculty in place where they have a long chain of command and processes for getting a technological solution approved.
I think in all instances, whether private or public, they’re always going to have human nature that comes in to resist change. So, we all know that most organizations resist change and, historically, the very hard-working and deeply-committed administrators and faculty at our colleges and universities, they’ve also found ways to make progress at our institutions. But they will also know that they work hard, rightfully so, to preserve the status quo. So, I personally think that as the … creators of new knowledge, faculty should really be the ones on the leading edge. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. There’s a term out there called the “Professorial Campus,” which really represents the fundamental misalignment between faculty incentives and the goals of the institutions. … Tenure is cited as an example, where the reward for good faculty behavior is less contact with students. And we all know that giving tenure often equals less teaching and contact with students.
So, I think that there are some institutional structures in place that help define whether institutions are successful in technology adoption. It is very clear to me that, as a school, say, with layers and layers of bureaucratic structures and a billion approval processes in place before the adoption of [anything] — that’s certainly going to stand in the way of progress for the institution. So when I think about technology, it’s actually a great way for our teachers to not only refresh their own pedagogy and curriculum, but also to bridge the gap … between how our students experience their college curriculum and how they learn everything else. So, there’s no longer that distinct line between these two events, which is a really great thing, considering we want our students to be lifelong learners.
When students graduate from college, they will find technology and online learning really fully integrated into the workplace. So, if they are not prepared for the workforce in that manner, then the university would not have succeeded in their goals, and the student will suffer as a result.
I really think it’s important just that institutions, whether they are public or private, … have the proper systems and infrastructure in place to help promote that student success in this manner.
4. What will it take for higher education institutions sector-wide to increase the adoption and implementation of technologies?
Well, I think that higher education institutions probably need to take a step back — or maybe I should say, a step up — to really look at the overall picture; to evaluate their current systems, their processes, their structures, their policies, their procedures in place.
So, those systems that are currently in place: are they functional? Do they promote student success and retention? Do they accommodate the needs of the students, their community, their faculty, their deans, their stakeholders? Are those really open to embrace change without losing sight of their mission, their goals and the bigger picture?
I think that if an institution can be self reflective in answering these tough questions in a positive manner, this would help them ensure they are ready for any technology change that may come their way. If their systems maximize to their full potential, they really increase the likelihood that they can successfully adopt technology solutions that would be right for this institution. And they have to be a trial-and-error process. I would say that institutions … may have to go through various technological adoptions before they get really good at the process. It’s okay to fail as part of that learning process, just as long as those lessons learned are really used to drive future decisions. I guess, at that point, you just hope that the failure wasn’t too costly and that you can move on without too much disruption. I think that if the right management team is in place, and they are making the right decisions for the right reasons, then all should be fine.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the wider adoption of technology in the higher education industry and the barriers standing in their way?
… This is just an exciting day and age for us all. Given the potential of technology, I think there is great promise for the future. And it’s an exciting endeavor to be part of. This is our opportunity to really have a great impact on our generation of today, and to be part of shaping that is a great honor. I think the use of technology will really … help us to get to where we need to go, just so long as we stay true to our goals and don’t get side-tracked along the way. …
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Author Perspective: Administrator