Technology can help, but colleges need professionals

I am puzzled when reformers talk about technology as THE answer to improving student success. The assumption for almost all technology solutions is that they are cost-effective, in large part because they can do certain functions for more students than people can do. Yes, that’s right, just as robots have replaced workers in manufacturing plants, some reformers seem to believe that computer terminals and the software programs they run are apparently more cost effective than the professionals they replace. Leave aside for the moment that technology is expensive, and it has to be replaced or upgraded every few years. (IPhone 6 anyone?) And we should also leave aside that professionals are needed to keep technology operating. (Tech support?) The reality is that for many students – and I would argue perhaps the majority – technology alone is not the solution.

Yes, colleges should communicate with students via texting and social media rather than email or phone calls – and definitely not via snail mail. But college students, especially low-income, first-generation students, need – even deserve – more. In my view, even if colleges can use technology to provide 24/7 access to course curriculum, or send automated text messages to students to remind them of class or to see a counselor, the majority of students enrolling in college need some human interaction in order to be successful. Don’t misunderstand my point. I think technology can be a wonderful aid to colleges and for students, but without the personal contact of faculty, support services staff, program administrators, and fellow students – technology is no solution at all.

Let’s take the latest iterations of the technological solution: predictive analytics and integrated planning and advising services (IPAS). Advocates for these technologies argue that by leveraging “Big Data,” colleges can more effectively target support services to students, customizing outreach strategies and interventions; or can offer students, advisors and faculty shared information to stay on track to completion. Most of the time, when I hear stakeholders talk about these technology solutions, the conversation rarely deviates from the technology itself, or the algorithms the software uses, or the various data systems that are integrated. But if we look a little closer, the technology by itself is NOT the solution – these technologies are tools that people need to use.

We need to have a serious conversation about how professionals at colleges and universities serve the students at their institutions. If predictive analytics can inform faculty that a student is struggling, then we need to talk about what faculty will do with that information. If IPAS helps an advisor see that a student is drifting away from their declared program of study, then we need to talk about what the advisor will do with that information. If an automated text message is sent to a student, because they are not attending class or are at risk of keeping their financial aid due to poor performance, then we need to talk about who at the college is going to act on this information.

So the next time you hear about how technology is going to improve student success, make sure to ask who is responsible for acting on the information this technology is providing. Better yet, interject into the conversation that technology is only as good or effective as the people who use it – technology can help, but colleges need professionals to provide supports to students, faculty to engage students in active and collaborative learning, and administrative policies and procedures that dissolve barriers rather than exacerbate them. Oh, and don’t forget that technology also need techies to keep it running.

Derek V. Price