Straddle the Line: The Opportunities and Dangers of Technology in AdvisingCharlie Nutt | Executive Director, NACADA
We often hear about the value of technology in transforming the way higher education works, but what are the true opportunities and what are the limits? After all, especially in the advising space, the opportunity to significantly improve the student experience and to have a massive impact on student outcomes is very real. However, the danger of becoming over-reliant on technology is a realistic one as well. In this interview, Charlie Nutt sheds some light on this issue, identifying the ideal process an institution should take to find the right solution for their needs.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): For advisors specifically, what impact could a greater implementation of technological tools have on their capacity to serve students?
Charlie Nutt (CN): One of the things that we forget in higher education is that we don’t have to do everything for students—we should be teaching students to be more self-sufficient but we can’t do that without quality technology. The use of technology on campuses is going to be essential over the next decade for institutions that truly want to make a difference in their graduation and completion rates.
Technological tools allow students and their advisors to build a pathway for their academic success. With the right technology, students can do a lot of the early-stage work on their own so that when they sit down with an advisor they’re able to forge a real relationship. They can engage in meaningful conversations about a student’s five-year goals, or whether a particular major is actually best for them, or whether a minor will be beneficial for them. To have those types of deeper conversations, the student-advisor discussion needs to go beyond, “Here are the courses you need to graduate, so let’s check those off.”
Technology also allows a lot more communication between advisors and students. At the touch of a button, advisors today are able to immediately connect with all of their advisees to manage individual issues they are facing.
Without technology, advisors cannot do all that.
Evo: How could leveraging technology help different types of advisors collaborate to create a more immersive and engaging experience for students?
CN: One of the things that we have to recognize—and we haven’t done a very good job with this over the years—is that students change majors. This sounds simple but it’s not. We don’t acknowledge this simple truth when they go to a new college within the same university. It’s as though they’re starting right from square one because that college has no records of them. They have no information because so much of student progress is recorded on paper.
Leveraging technology can create more transparency throughout student services. For example, if I go to the career center and work with the career development specialist and they help me identify areas I need to focus on, that discussion is recorded and can be seen by my advisor. This way, student service professionals can build a dialogue of conversation about the student across all areas of campus, which helps every individual area give the student the best support possible without having to start over again every single time.
Students always complain about being sent from office to office to office, and having to explain and re-explain their story over again every time. Having technology that enables us to share notes, to share information and to track conversations is going to be so valuable for the student experience.
To be frank, it also helps advisors manage students who “advisor shop”—who keep going from advisor to advisor until they get the answer they want. If there’s a clear record of conversations, advisors can be apprised of past meetings and can react accordingly. In the past, the advisor would have no idea that the student had already spoken with one of their colleagues.
Technology enables us to bring together all the support services, creating a linked support structure from the moment they apply until they graduate. It allows all the support services to work together with that student instead of each working in separate little silos. Ultimately, technology can help us break down all of these silos we have on campus.
Evo: What are the limits of technology in academic advising?
CN: The biggest limit to technology’s value is that student’s cannot have a relationship with a computer, no matter how much information the computer has available.
It’s wonderful that we can create a system that will automatically send an alert to a student when they run into difficulty. That’s wonderful information. But you need someone to talk to the student about how to improve—that can’t be programmed. The student-advisor relationship is important and you’re never going to have that with a machine.
I tell this to university leaders all the time: you don’t buy technology and then figure out how to make advising fit the technology. You need to be buying the technology to support the active advising experience. Leaders first need to define what they want their students’ experiences to be. They need to define their mission, vision and ideal outcomes. A lot of institutions are looking for the silver bullet that’s going to solve all of their problems and they’re buying million-dollar technology systems without having advisors involved in those conversations. The conversations are happening at the very top level of the university, but there’s not much insight into the goal or the purpose of a given technology. The end result is that institutions wind up trying to make advising fit a certain piece of equipment.
Advising is supposed to be about the student and the relationship with that student. As such, any technology investment should be made to support the relationship with students. That’s where institutional leaders have to take a step back and recognize that, with so many options on the market, it’s important to choose the technology that fits their campus and students best. Don’t just buy the latest flashy item a salesman brings to the campus without really thinking about who your students are and what the mission of your institution is.
Evo: To your mind where should you draw the line between allowing advisors to do their jobs better and taking critical tasks out of their hands?
CN: There’s a lot of talk right now about data analytics and using data to analyze and even predict student performance. I am a strong believer in the value of data analytics—the more we know about students, the better we can serve them. The problem, though, is that a lot of the tools being built could fit any college or university. Every institution serves different students, though, so the data we need to truly understand students at one school will be totally different to what’s needed at another. As we’re looking at data analytics tools, we need to ensure that we have our campus faculty, our campus advisors and our campus support services involved in the conversations around what data is needed.
We need to build a scholarly community around student success on our campuses that everybody on campus is a part of. We need to all be having those conversations about what we need to know and how we want to access that information. Then, the technology can be used to facilitate that. What you don’t want to have is technology that tells us what we should think and we need to know. We don’t want to be in a situation where advisors are simply waiting for a computer to provide them a script. Frankly, if all advisors are doing is waiting for a script or a screen to tell the student what they can find out themselves, then they’re not using technology effectively.
Evo: What are some of the long-term ramifications of higher education leaders over-relying on technology as a replacement for human interaction and relationships?
CN: If we allow technology to replace human advising, we will see a growth in the number of people who have college degrees but can’t translate any of those skills or knowledge into the workforce. This is because a computer can’t talk to the students about how to leverage what they’ve learned in new environments. It’s critical to students to understand how to see the skills, the abilities and the knowledge they get from their education—be it an engineering degree or a humanities degree—in the workforce.
Technology can’t do that. It can get the student a degree, it can get them a pathway to follow and they can check off having met all the needs. But we’re not going to have graduates who are truly educated and truly ready to take on the adult responsibilities of the future. Technology can’t prepare students in the same way a personal relationship with faculty, advisors and career counsellors can. Those are the pieces that are going to create graduates who can deal with adult responsibility, move into the workforce and become effective citizens of the future. Without those relationships, we’re not going to have graduates who can do that.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the capacity for technology to really transform the way advising is done?
CN: I think there is huge capacity for technology to support and advance advising. We are far behind the curve in a lot of areas of higher education when it comes to leveraging technology. In a recent survey from Tyton Partners, they found that many schools are very slow in implementing new technologies, so we have a long way to go.
My hope is that schools don’t panic and jump too quickly into spending lots of money on technology before thinking about the relationships they need to create and the student success initiatives they need to put into place. There are a number of things we need technology to help us do better, but students’ needs should guide our choice in technology. Technology shouldn’t drive the types of relationships we have with students.
Author Perspective: Association