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Student Engagement

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There are many facets to the student undergraduate experience. To truly engage students not just with their academic studies but also with the institution and each other, colleges and universities need their student support units to enhance the student experience. Technology can be an enabler in this arena, as it is in others. In this column, I will explore student engagement with student support units through examples taken from my own institution, the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). Many institutions and organizations are involved in similar activities.

Student Self-Service via Technology

If we look at the EDUCAUSE "Student Guide to Evaluating Information Technology on Campus," we see a variety of ways in which technology solutions impact students:

  • Accessing library collections
  • Updating personal information
  • Checking admission status
  • Paying bills or paying for services with debit cards, smart cards, or one-card systems
  • Applying for and viewing financial aid awards
  • Registering for, adding, and dropping courses
  • Learning course grades
  • Viewing and printing unofficial transcripts
  • Ordering textbooks
  • Checking progress toward completion of degree requirements
  • Finding the school catalog on the web
  • Supporting career-planning services

Most higher education institutions make general information available for nearly all services and student support units, typically on the web but also on Facebook or other social media sites. Moreover, many processes have migrated to the web and become self-service. Students can now engage with the institution at any time and place.

Suzan Gonia, Program Associate for UMD Continuing Education, describes how self-service tools enhance student engagement with the institution:

"I want to engage and enable the people in our programs. Time is valuable, and the people in our programs are committing that valuable resource to learning. The time they spend on paperwork or getting information should be kept to a minimum. That's good customer service, and using technology makes good customer service easier to provide. I can't be there 24 x 7 to meet our customers' needs, but my website can be, and a video posted to the web can be. When I answer an e-mail, I can provide links, videos, and online forms immediately, saving the student time and energy better spent on other things."

For an institution to provide these online services, the technology must be accessible to all. At UMD, Disability Resources, the Library, Human Resources, and Information Technology Systems and Services have collaborated to ensure that technology resources are accessible to students, faculty, and staff. Penny Cragun, Director of Disability Resources, reminds us of the importance of accessible technology:

"Accessible technology is essential for the participation of students with disabilities. Inaccessible or difficult-to-use technology limits the full participation and engagement of students with disabilities. This is especially important to consider when the university is adopting any new technology. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education stated that the federal government has ruled that universities may not adopt Kindle as a required technology, since it is not accessible to individuals with visual impairments."1

When services move online, students may no longer interact directly with staff members, who used to present the face of the institution. In many cases, this lack of face-to-face engagement is more than offset by the convenience of having information at your fingertips at any time or place. But we should think carefully about keeping students engaged with the institution in other ways.

Student Engagement with the Institution

A step up from simply providing information or services with technology is using technology to enhance interactions in ways that make students feel more connected. Jeni Eltink, Director of UMD First Year Experience & Students in Transition, talks about how she and her staff have engaged both students and parents at orientation programs using clicker technology:

"I believe that we are among the first, if not the first, college in the country to employ the use of the clicker technology in our orientation programs. At orientation, our incoming students respond to questions about their experiences before college, expectations of their college experience, academic study time and habits, their challenges, and their desired point of entry for social integration with the campus. We began this in March 2007 and have had great success. Our goal for the use of the clicker technology was to create an interactive environment where students learn about the behaviors that increase their persistence, academic success, and satisfaction with their education. We achieved this and went a step further when we discovered that the active engagement of students with this material (as opposed to just hearing it in lecture format) increases students' retention and recall of this information. So far we have made the clicker presentations with more than 1,000 incoming students and their families."

Other student support units use technology tools to engage students more directly with their services. The UMD Library offers "Chat with a Librarian" on its home page. The Library Ask Us program also supports instant messaging, text messaging, and e-mail, among other communication methods. My own department, Information Technology Systems and Services, combines traditional help desk, desktop support, and computer maintenance services into a one-stop Tech Center, where students stop in for hands-on assistance.

The UMD Knowledge Management Center is a specialized physical space where students can go to learn more about technology tools designed to enhance their college experience. In particular, the center supports the following technologies, which are available system-wide to all University of Minnesota students:

  • Engage! is a web-based tool that helps students search for engagement opportunities throughout the University of Minnesota system, with a version for each campus.
  • ePortfolio is a web-based system with which students manage and display their own information and records.
  • Graduation Planner is a tool students use to plan their academic career at the institution, often in preparation for meeting with their academic advisers.
  • Academic Progress Audit System (APAS) shows students whether and how they are meeting their degree requirements.

Lisa Reeves, Associate Director of the Knowledge Management Center, provides this more detailed description of Engage!:

"Engage! is a campus-specific search engine that provides students with ways to get involved both on and off campus: undergraduate research, volunteer, leadership opportunities, and student and recreational groups. This tool was designed using the Google Site Search, so the interface is familiar to students. We incorporated keyword, category, and popular search options and included student spotlights and videos, which allow students to discover what other students participated in and to learn more about organizations."

Lisa served on the system-wide team that developed Engage! as well as Graduation Planner. Here is Lisa again, describing Graduation Planner:

"The Graduation Planner is a tool designed to assist students in developing critical skills while doing something relevant and necessary — planning for their degree requirements. Through the planning process, students can develop skills in critical thinking, problem solving, seeing the big picture, paying attention to details, and flexibility. This process engages students in their college careers. The system is tied to the University of Minnesota's degree audit system, course information system, and course sequencing system, so that students get the most accurate data possible when they use the tool. By using the Graduation Planner with their advisees, advisers can guide students in the skill development and course planning process. When students begin to plan for themselves, advising sessions can become richer in discussion, with just a few minutes spent on course plan review and the rest of the time spent on other issues. Advisers can also leave comments on plans to record the session or inform students on where they need more work or where they have been successful."

Jeni Eltink describes how several technology tools have been used to enhance teaching in the UMD Seminar, which introduces students to life at UMD.

"A common concern voiced by the instructors of UMD Seminar was that they did not have enough time in class to adequately teach APAS and Graduation Planner. Lisa Reeves in the Knowledge Management Center created a Moodle module that provides extensive information about APAS and Graduation Planner. Students can now complete the module at their own pace, outside of class. As a result, students come to the APAS/Graduation Planner lesson in class already knowing the background; class time can be spent actually exploring how these tools apply to their own academic records. It allows for both an individualized experience and consistency across sections. This module was introduced in the UMD Seminar class in fall 2009 and has since been used in almost 50 sections, reaching more than 1,200 freshman students."

These examples demonstrate just some of the ways in which technology tools assist student support units in engaging students with the unit and with the institution. The active participation required of students in these examples enhances their experience and solidifies their learning.

Student Engagement with Each Other

Students grow and learn through their interactions with each other during their college years, and technology tools support this type of engagement, too.

Corbin Smyth, Director of the Kirby Student Center, talked with me about the work his unit has done. The center's staff has facilitated the development of many technology tools in the past year. Kirby Student Center is the heart of student social life on campus. The center will soon have a new image-driven website with improved navigation, better content management, and blogs for staff to provide news and events. Late Night Kirby, one of the student center programs, has a Facebook page with more than 200 followers. Kirby Student Center is also considering using Facebook for a ride-share program. Perhaps the biggest change for Kirby has been adoption of the CollegiateLink program, which provides registration, web space for documents and pictures, and online discussion forums in support of UMD student organizations and clubs. As with many technology tools, this one replaces a completely paper process with a fully online system, and it also bypasses the direct interaction staff members used to have with students who came in to register their clubs. Kirby Student Center compensated for this lack of direct interaction by offering training modules to club organizers. The CollegiateLink site also has a discussion area, which enables students to build online communities related to their organizations. Over the next few years, I expect to see Kirby Student Center leading the way with tools that advance student interaction.

Conclusion

UMD is not alone in providing engaging offerings designed for student support. The sidebar "Other Engagement Efforts" shows how some institutions and organizations are using or developing technology tools to provide students with self-service offerings, connections with their institution, and interactions with each other.

Endnote
  1. Marc Parry, "Inaccessible E-Readers May Run Afoul of the Law, Feds Warn Colleges," The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 29, 2010.

Linda L. Deneen

Linda Deneen is the Director of Information Technology Systems and Services (ITSS) at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). The ITSS staff of forty people provides the students, faculty, and staff of UMD with computing, telecommunications, networking, and audio-visual services. Linda is also a tenured associate professor of computer science at UMD. She holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Michigan State University. Her special interests include IT staff development, faculty technology development, partnerships, technology costs and funding models, and web development.

 

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