John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Who Are We Doing this For?

April 10, 2013huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

This is a question I have been asking myself for years, and largely in the context of considering some proposed policy or action involving how my or some other institution is or is considering treating its students.

One of the biggest changes I have observed and thought about has been the movement over the past two decades to drive more and more support and information transmission functions “to the web.” Americans loved technology long before the computer. In fact, my favorite American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, observed in the late 1840’s: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

Because I work primarily with colleges and universities that serve disadvantaged and underprepared, lower SES students, I constantly ask myself whether or not what we are trying to do for them, no matter how well intentioned, will further advantage—or disadvantage them.

And so as I observe how at most campuses we want to drive students to the web to glean what used to be found in print catalogues and what used to be explained by academic advisors in real time sessions, how we provide orientation, advising, registration, library help, you name it, all on line, I can’t help but wonder who are we doing this for?

Are we doing this because it is more convenient for us?

Because it reduces the time we actually have to spend with students? Thus freeing us to do our real work….much of that also done using technology.

Because it is more convenient for the students?

It gives them 24/7 access as compared to the much more limited times we might be available to do this real time.

Because we believe that they really would prefer to get their information this way?

Because it is more cost efficient?

Because it has enabled us to reduce staff resource allocations and hence expenditures?

Because we have been persuaded by the most recent purveyors of technology solutions to buy their products so we have the latest upgrade?

Because we believe—or want to believe those purveyors’ promises of greater efficiency and even miraculous educational outcomes like improved student retention?

What about students who live in contexts where they cannot afford on-line access?

What about students for whom the economic inequality in this country means they cannot afford to have their own versions of the technology that we are now requiring them to use?

I ask these questions because I am still trying to practice a mantra that I learned and insisted I practice when I first became an academic administrator way back in 1974: Thou shalt do your best to do for students what might be best for them as opposed to best for you or the …(in my case, University).

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