I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Eric Stoller recently (02.06.12) and chat about student affairs, technology, and the future. You may know Eric from his Student Affairs and Technology blog with insidehighered.com or his tweets from @EricStoller in #sachat land. During our conversation, I was able to talk tech, the future of student affairs, and geek out a bit about topics I don’t always get a chance to talk about in my daily life.
My original thoughts behind talking with Eric were to get his insights on social media and technology trends in student affairs for 2012. Mainly things to be on the lookout for and tools to start retiring. Though we talked about this a bit (and will be the focus of a different post), we had a richer discussion about the role of technology in student affairs. Ultimately, how we, as SA professionals, need to start taking technology seriously if we want to remain relevant.
To meet this end of continued relevance, Eric shared his thoughts on education around technology in student affairs preparation programs. Eric was adamant about the importance of integrating technology into these programs beyond just how to use it. “Technology is no longer something to run away from.” Words from Eric that strongly resonated with me. He stated it is critical for texts/e-books to be written about technology for student affairs professionals. Similar to the way higher education law texts have become a cornerstone of many preparation programs, he believes education on technology needs to become embedded in these programs as well. We need to be better educated about technology and it needs to start sooner rather than later.
As we continued, Eric referred to a post of his, Is That Your Computer? Did You Bring That Chair From Home?, where he advocates for SA professionals to care more about the tech hardware they have. Better equipment can mean a better product and more productivity from staff members. I asked if he felt a main reason for this deficiency in hardware was because of a lack of knowledge among staff members and those making the decisions, and he quickly agreed. I know from personal experience that typically computers are passed down or cycled through departments. On the rare occasion when you are able to get a brand new computer, the decision is usually made for you by someone in IT without a real discussion of how you will use it day-to-day. We are fitted with stock equipment and programs, with little to no opportunities for personal customization. Instead of making us more effective, often times it can debilitate our productivity.
This led to Eric stressing the importance of student affairs professionals becoming more involved with the developers of the software we use. He referred to EDUCAUSE as being a prime opportunity for SA professionals to meet developers and IT professionals who want to leverage technology to benefit our work. Eric pointed out how a lot of what we currently have/use is not always the best. It was often adapted for us based on what people thought we needed from other failed software. He did point out Blackboard and OrgSync, in particular, with the latter as being a company that has developed a platform based on need and through collaboration with SA professionals. But this is only one company. And from my experience, it is because OrgSync came to us, and not the other way around. We are content with saying we need something else, something better. However, we are reluctant to engage in conversations with these companies.
What I found most compelling from our exchange was on multiple occasions Eric mentioned institutional librarians and how they revisioned their work to make sure they would remain relevant even with technological advancements. He expressed a need for SA professionals to think beyond “face-to-face” as being the norm for our interaction with students. As institutions continue to change and online coursework increases, we need to start envisioning what student affairs will look like online. How can we provide similar levels of student support? “What is student affairs in the online sphere like?” Eric advocated for SA professionals to have opportunities for what he called “sandbox initiatives” to be built into job descriptions. Eric greatly encourages innovation and strives for a “change in the culture.” To do this, professionals need the time and opportunity to explore these avenues, to try new things.
Interestingly enough, Eric mentioned that most of the push back he gets in the form of comments on his blog comes from student affairs professionals. Now this is what I would consider to be counter-intuitive considering how much I hear student affairs talking about wanting to change higher education. This doesn’t exactly match up. For more insight into this, check out one of his more controversial pieces, Where are the Radical Practitioners? With over 60 comments, one can see there is polarization beyond the academic affairs versus student affairs argument. Even within student affairs, there are multiple perspectives on the importance of our work and trying to change systems. And these varying points of view can be seen through the comments of this post.
Throughout my conversation with Eric, it was easy to see his passions for technology, student affairs work, and the marriage of these two worlds. He strongly believes in what we do as professionals. Essentially, Eric wants to make sure that not only we remain relevant, but also thrive as a profession, and he feels the best way to do this is through embracing technology in our work.