Using best market tools to connect electronically with students should be priority for all universities.

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In my frontline academic advising role at a flagship state university, my daily work is fairly predictable. I’m a department specialist for a humanities program with a dwindling number of majors; all of whom enjoy the subject material, and either have a firm stock reply for post baccalaureate plans, or are a bit lost in their direction for post grad life. While all students have access to a personalized degree audit and other state-of-the-art technologies to navigate campus resources and support their degree progress, there are inevitable glitches and confusion. Therefore my daily work mainly involves a flurry of busyness in walking individuals through degree requirements, providing referrals, or in some way answering questions about what could be a best next step in course work or life generally. On one hand, every hour of my work day can involve wearing a different hat. And yet by predictable I mean that certain times of year inevitably come with certain types of questions, and I can have all my hats ready for any situation which may arise.

By flurry of busyness, I really do mean it. My traditional university job provides me a half-time contract, so 20 hours of my week is spent in individual 45 minute student appointments, replying to emails, and the variety of trainings and meetings that comes with most university staff roles. And my roster currently lists that 521 active enrolled students are my responsibility. That means I am the go-to person for any academic question (or personal question that can impact academics) large or small, at any time, for these 521 individuals. My state-of-the-art calendaring system inevitably fills up 2 weeks in advance, and emails that resemble text messages can sometimes take multiple back-and-forth replies before I can comprehend what is really needed by that person. Technology glitches have on more than a few occasions taken time away from my primary duties, and my home institution does aim to utilize state-of-the-art technology. With responsibility to 521 people, I don’t have time in my work day for anything beyond what will best serve my students.

High roster numbers, fulfilling jobs beyond my formal description, and technology glitches are not my complaint: I am in a job I enjoy, in a community I have belonged for 15 years, and I am a proactive-planner personality suited for my professional responsibilities. When I think about how my time is spent, and the students and colleagues with whom I work, I feel fulfilled. And the problem that leads me to write this article is instead, how should I spend my time, and who are the students that should require my attention. Technology should support my time, so I can connect with students where they are at; my time should not be spent finding work-arounds with inadequate technology.

I work at a “traditional” university, and work primarily with “traditional” students. While supporting diversity is the era buzzword in higher ed graduate programs, and there are certainly diverse needs that cross my desk, the majority of students I see fit a “traditional” demographic. Students that are centrally located on or close to main campus can more readily access my office hours. Tech savvy students can more easily access required course technology, transcripts, and my calendar. Email and in-person are the only primary formats where I can connect with students (if I am meeting with someone, I feel it is rude and inefficient to answer a ringing phone). This leads to no-shows when students can’t physically get to my on-campus office, or are somewhere they can’t make a phone call. Emails can address the questions that are asked, and missed non-verbal cues lead to many unanswered questions. That assumes a student can pro-actively utilize campus resources, or technology systems that have glitches, are less than intuitive to operate, and not consistently ADA compliant. In an occasional quiet moment, I wonder who are those students who need the service I offer, whose name is on my roster but my attempts at outreach haven’t worked. Constraints on my time mean that unless someone appears on my radar, I can’t provide for them. How many people wind up as an attrition number because I can’t connect with them? Traditional tools connect to traditional students, and will continue to perpetuate traditional retention numbers until unconventional solutions can more widely be implemented.

Technology in higher ed can be a catch-22: on one hand it can support the self-sufficiency for students who need it. Adequate technology resources can go a long way for certain students who need the varied time, space, and presentation opportunities to meet diverse learning needs. On the other hand, there should always be a place and space for the human connection that an advisor or instructor can provide. Jonathan Rees stated well in his article there is a need for implementing technology tools that “automates the scut work of advising while maintaining the crucial human relationship at the center of the mentoring process”. Some technology pieces that I use everyday are critical: degree audits, tracking student’s records, logging case notes, even appointment booking. And, I wonder for the challenges advisors face, what better (not more, but improved) technology opportunities might be possible, while simultaneously keeping the human connection central to the advising role. Certainly if this has not yet been possible to have a fully integrated tech system for a 30,000 student flagship university, this is no easy task. And to speak directly to the question of retention numbers that every university asks, too many students fall through the cracks because they can not fit into whatever has been the traditional mold. Diverse tools are required to support the diverse needs of all kinds of students.

As a front line advisor at a large flagship university, I feel the weight of being under a bureaucratic system, and I am not a primary decision maker for the tech tools used by my university. And I can have a voice, and share my concerns and perspective. If the technology tools are available to connect with students who cannot otherwise be connected, financial priorities can not ignore what attrition numbers will demonstrate. Students that remain unconnected to the human experience they should have within a higher education setting will, for better or worse, move on.

The institutions of higher education that can most appropriately integrate the best market tools to connect community members electronically, will reflect a new era for a long-standing industry in need of new approaches for working with and graduating diverse student populations.

Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.

Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.

I am a professional Academic Adviser, having worked with undergraduates and graduate students since 2001. I specialize in providing personalize support for students experiencing transitions in their education. My goal is to help you consider what advanced educational options, and next steps in academic and career pursuits, are best for you.
Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.

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About the author: Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.
I am a professional Academic Adviser, having worked with undergraduates and graduate students since 2001. I specialize in providing personalize support for students experiencing transitions in their education. My goal is to help you consider what advanced educational options, and next steps in academic and career pursuits, are best for you.