The Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR) recently published the National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. The study concludes that the majority of undergraduate students are satisfied with their university’s ability to bridge technology and academia. It was nice to see that because it shows that universities are really catering to the new generation of students. Some of the more surprising findings revealed that students at two-year institutions differ from other undergraduates in their technology ownership and preference, and that students as a whole are still attached to traditional technologies such as desktop computers. Being a student myself, I can relate to some of these findings but I think the study missed a critical point of interest.
I was really disappointed that this study focused solely on technology for academic purposes and excluded how technology was being used to optimize administrative services. When I say administrative services, I’m referring to things like: the application process, course registration, academic advising, paying fees and financial services, purchasing books, scheduling, etc. From my experience, these services are light years behind the rest of the institution. They are stuck in the stone age.
For example, I would like to be able to go online and see if the bookstore on campus has my Economics textbook in stock. I want to have the ability to pay my tuition online instead of waiting in a queue for 45 minutes. I want to be able to talk to an academic advisor via chat because I don’t live on campus. And for crying out loud, I really wish an email would get sent out when there is a class cancellation that affects me. These sorts of things aren’t luxuries anymore – they are expected as basic standards for customer (student) service.
Believe it or not, my frustration was even more palpable when I was applying to universities three years ago. I’m sure the added stress of transitioning to university life had something to do with it, but I was bewildered by how long it took to receive the information I wanted. Everything was done via snail mail, phone calls and face-to-face meetings. I was driving all over the city to meet with advisors, getting stuck in traffic and checking the mail every day. It was tedious and annoying to say the least. I thought to myself ‘universities might be beacons of knowledge and personal growth but they’re certainly not on the forefront of technology’. Fortunately the classroom environment turned out to be more advanced than the application process would have you believe – but why did I have to wait until I walked through the door in September to see that?!
Now that I look back on it, I think about how much easier it would have been for everybody if these universities would have complemented their services with digital tools or alternatives. For the “digital natives”, it’s the little things that matter, like timely responses to emails, frequently updated websites, centralized information, social networks and user friendly applications. We look for convenience and usability in technology which extends to all aspects of our lives. Unfortunately, the journey of choosing a university – arguably one of life’s most important choices – did not reflect this. It was very inconvenient and inefficient. The decision is never going to be easy but getting the information you need to make the proper decision should be.
In closing, the ECAR findings emphasize that “In students’ eyes, effective, frequent and seamless use of technology characterizes a highly effective institution” and I couldn’t agree more. I also believe that this reputation is shaped long before a student enters the classroom. Prospective students are sizing up the institution’s ability to employ even the simplest digital services; from the time they make the first inquiry all the way to graduation. Digital natives are a crucial demographic – as both the present and the future of their respective universities, they will define their insitution’s reputation. They are here to stay, so it’s about time universities started accommodating them.