The EvoLLLution is an online publication that looks at the impact of non-traditional methods in higher education and society-at-large.
In July 2018, the editors asked Ed Finn, ACM’s Liaison for Innovation and Collaboration in Teaching and Learning, to pen an article on changing student expectations through the lens of technology in higher education, specifically communication by faculty and staff. Published in August, the piece also recently was featured as a companion piece to the publication’s Year in Review.
It’s reposted here with permission from The EvoLLLution. (Note: The full 2018 Year in Review ebook is available for free download here).
A while back, I received a package from Amazon in the mail and realized that I had misread the description. Within 10 minutes, I had a new shipping label, return authorization and estimate as to when my bank account would be credited. Within an hour, I completed this task, chatted with my mobile phone provider, medical provider, and bank. I would trust that many of you engage in the same types of activities. Oh, occasionally I do pick up the phone and call a real person, but I have found that the email/chat alternative tends to give me more flexibility. Most of us have an expectation that we can handle multiple issues quickly, with minimal disruption to our daily routine.
As an adjunct faculty member and someone who works routinely with faculty and staff on issues of technological integration, I started thinking about this expectation of “right now.” After all, we do not have to wait for responses the way generations have in the past. We expect all responses to be “just-in-time,” as if there is some algorithm waiting to address our individual wants and needs. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not going to decry technology or call for a “return to the good old days.” On the contrary, I think the movement towards a more responsive academy is a good thing. The real question is: Where do institutions draw the line between being responsive and addressing quality of life concerns for those doing the responding?
Attempting to answer this question just sparks more questions. So, what do we do? Do we set a standard that says all communications will be responded to within 24/48/72 hours? Do we create some complex structure that defines an “emergency situation?” If the communication includes misconduct alleged against a faculty member, do we circumvent the existing shared governance procedures in lieu of expediency? If you think this last one is not an issue, you have obviously missed some of the most recent headlines.
The truth is that communication is difficult and trying to provide a “cookie cutter” approach is often less effective and allows for avoidable misunderstandings. For example, if I get a stock reply from eBay about my customer service inquiry telling me that my message is important and someone will follow up, I am happy with that level of engagement. However, if I am a student and I feel my professor is discriminating against me or a tragedy has befallen my family, the stock answer is not going to work. We must acknowledge that the proposition of customer to the company is not the same as that of the student to campus. True, there are similarities, but the relationships between students, faculty and staff run much deeper.
We are back to our question: What should we do? While there is never going to be a perfect solution, it is important to set expectations that can be met. In my teaching capacity, I have app notifications and text messaging set to let me know when students send a message in the system. I encourage students to exclusively send messages through the system, so I can receive instant notifications. However, just because the message is seen immediately, that doesn’t mean it warrants an immediate response. A student needing to miss class in three weeks because of an appointment doesn’t need a “just-in-time” response, whereas a student notifying me of a death in the family or medical emergency does. It is important to note, too, that the initial response does not need to be complete, but rather an assurance that things will be taken care of.
Now that we have addressed a couple possible scenarios on the faculty side of things, what about administration? How can institutions be agile enough to respond in a timely way while still allowing enough time for due diligence to take place? After all, dealing with a claim of academic misconduct, harassment, discrimination, or violence does not allow for a rapid complete response, and may require many levels of simultaneous communication. Responding too rapidly may cause more problems for both the person reporting the incident and those accused.
Let’s step back for a minute. If communication is contextual, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is no way to come up with standardized responses. However, we also know that a culture of expedient communication drives expectations. Perhaps the role of administrators and faculty is to reframe and reset expectations from the outset. This includes not only devising frameworks that allow for adaptability and agility, but also having conversations about the decision-making processes that lead to communications. Additionally, increased transparency about the process and who is responsible may temper expectations. This allows not only for consistency for those contacting faculty and administrators, but also for a better understanding of what actions are required by those providing responses. After all, students should not expect a 24/7 mentality except in cases where a true emergency exists.
To be fair, virtually all institutions are moving in this direction, with some further along the path than others. I stand by my contention that increased and timely communication is good for higher education. I also adamantly believe the comparison of students to consumers is flawed and does a disservice to all parties involved. The way to balance access created by technology is to reinforce the relationships between faculty, staff and students. Creating a climate of mutual trust and empathy may mitigate misunderstandings from the start.