My physics teacher in high school would sometimes share the ideas or situations he had been mulling over in recent days. He would always end the story with, “these are the things that keep me up at night.” Sometimes he would be talking about complex physics problems, other times world events, and once the fact that green peppers are always less expensive than the other colors. (A musing I did not appreciate until many years later, and found myself doing my own grocery shopping.) As the number of years I spend in higher education increase, I find myself being “kept up” a lot when thinking about student issues.
Most recently, one of those issues came to me through my experience teaching a FYE course for Emerging Media and Communication majors. On our campus, we try to place students in sections based on their major, and then these major specific sections are taught by an academic advisor. Given the nature of our program, our two introductory classes require students to blog, maintain a twitter account, and bookmark class related links via Delicious. In a discussion about the courses, several students expressed that they were finding it an adjustment to have so many of their assignments based on the Internet. Many of them felt, while they may have used online resources frequently while in high school, to have class participation include blogging and tweets is a new ballgame.
Some discussed how it is difficult to come up with blog topics when you are “forced” to write. Others said it takes a lot of effort to find meaningful articles and links to tweet/bookmark, not just say things like, “I just ate a ham sandwich.” What struck me, was the student who said, while pointing to his laptop, “this is the first computer I have ever owned. It’s been hard for me just figuring out how to use all these things, and then I have to figure out what to write.” The other students didn’t address the first part of his comment, instead empathized with having to come up with blog topics. This student has self-disclosed at being first generation, low SES, and working close to full time to help pay for school. He went through high school using campus computer labs, and the public library computers. One of the main reasons he chose his major, was the prospect of high-paying career opportunities post graduation.
I know this student is not alone in his situation. I know we have many students that struggle to make ends meet, and keep up with the costs of their education. But what kept me up that night was the idea that as we move forward with a more technology-infused college experience, how easy it is for us to leave students behind.
It is easy to say that this first year class is tech savvy based on their use of smart phones and social media. It is easy to believe that they will know how to navigate the technology placed in front of them, and be able to understand the useful applications of social media because it is a part of their everyday lives. Yet, it is in these assumptions I fear we will increase the divide between the students who have, and the students who have not.
I do not think this makes the case to use less technology in classrooms, or in higher education. Instead, I think it serves as yet another reminder that as professionals we need to be mindful and informed about the technologies we use. We need to remember that students using our online registration systems, course blogs, and online academic catalogs may speak English as their second language, may not have access to a computer at home, may have visual impairments, or may not have been allowed on Facebook because their parents thought it was inappropriate (as was the experience of one of my FYE students). I believe we need to continue to educate ourselves so that we use these technologies meaningfully, and are able to be a resource for those students who may not be familiar. In my time as a student affairs professional, I have found we are often the ones who connect the dots. We are able to see the larger picture of the student experience a little more clearly than our campus counterparts. This is a gift that only really matters when we work to make the campus experience better for our students.
As I continue to think about these issues around technology and access, I ask you fellow colleagues, what higher education issue keeps you up at night?