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Student Affairs and Technology

News, tips, and practical insights about technology for student affairs practitioners.

By Eric Stoller October 16, 2011 9:30 pm UTC

The exhibit hall at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference is enormous. Higher education technology providers construct massive display booths to engage conference attendees. However, for companies who are just starting out, large displays are just not possible. At this year's EDUCAUSE Annual Conference (#EDU11 on Twitter) there will be a new area in the exhibit hall for new companies. Start-Up Alley will feature 18 start-ups that are all about innovation and technology in higher education. EDUCAUSE graciously opened up space on the sold-out showroom floor in exchange for a commitment that participating start-ups engage in market research instead of sales and promotion.

In order to participate, each company had to meet the following conditions:

  • The company should employ 50 or less people.
  • The company should have less than one million dollars in annual revenue.
  • The product or service they are marketing should be less than five years old from when that particular product or service was started.
  • Half of the company’s resources should be dedicated to research and development.
  • The company should have less than 10% of the institutional market share or less than 10% of the target user base / consumer audience for their designated product or service.

The following start-ups will be at Start-Up Alley in about a week and a half in Philadelphia at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference:

  • Class Owl: Potential uses for campus involvement and student activities programs.
  • Course Hero: A resource for academic advisors.
  • EverTrue: Potential use within Student Affairs Communications and Advancement Efforts.
  • GoodSemester: Use for collaborative programs between student affairs and academic affairs.
  • Inigral: Already implemented as a platform for engagement and retention.*
  • Intellidemia: Potential for use within a first year experience program.
  • Iversity: A LMS that helps eliminate silos? Sign me up!
  • iZoca: Student organization management and community building.
  • Kno: An emerging content provider with major publishing partners.
  • Logrado: Student success, real-time dashboards, and at-risk tracking.
  • Nuvixa: An interesting video delivery/engagement platform.
  • OneSchool: A free mobile app that connects students to campus resources.
  • OpenStudy: Crowdsourcing study groups on a massive scale. An intriguing concept.
  • Profology: A professional social network for faculty, staff, and administrators. Another walled garden or a useful service?
  • RoomSync: Uses Facebook as a platform for roommate self-selection.
  • Summit Engineering: Facilities folks should chat with Summit.
  • Tegile: IT hardware...most likely not student affairs related, but we would benefit for sure.
  • uBoost: A service that increases motivation and persistence? Will definitely check it out!

Having previously interacted with a couple of the Start-Up Alley attendees, I am very excited to have the opportunity to chat with representatives from such a diverse pool of companies.

On a semi-related note, I would like to thank all of the PR professionals who read my EDUCAUSE PR-pitch-post and responded with creativity, insight, and flair!

Do you tweet? Let's connect. Follow me on Twitter.

*Inigral sponsors my weekly student affairs web show: Student Affairs Live.

By Eric Stoller October 10, 2011 12:45 am UTC

The Student Affairs Women Talk Tech blog recently featured a post on accessibility resources. Written by a friend of mine, Kathryn Magura, the post includes a link to an ADA resource page, information about the seven principles of universal design, and a link to MIT's resource guide on web accessibility.

Always inspired by Kathryn's accessibility advocacy, I decided to share some accessibility resources that I've come across while surfing the web:

Purdue University has a fantastic web accessibility resource webpage. Resources on the page include: Policy Information, Accessibility Evaluation Tools, Color Checkers, Document/Video Accessibility, HTML5 Accessibility, and Microsoft Accessibility. (Thanks Jordan Toy for sharing this site.)

Video captioning continues to be an issue for content creators. SpeakerText hopes to solve that by providing "fast, affordable transcription." It isn't really that inexpensive, but a 72-hour turnaround time is pretty good. They even have a WordPress plugin.

While it isn't perfect, the Fangs Screen Reader Emulator Firefox add-on can be a good start for developers who want to hear how their webpages render.

Karine Joly's article, "Web Accessibility: Required, Not Optional," is a must-read. Joly writes that there will be at least 11 sessions at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference that focus on web accessibility and that "the time is now for web accessibility in higher education."

Oregon State University's new policy on IT Accessibility "establishes minimum standards of accessibility for particular [OSU] websites and web-based content that will take effect February 22, 2012." The accessibility website at OSU is a comprehensive resource for anyone who is interested in learning more about accessibility.

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By Eric Stoller October 7, 2011 1:15 am UTC

To all the PR firms who are doing a great job of building relationships and sending out relevant pitches, I apologize. This post is not about you. This post is for two distinct audiences: PR firms that give PR a bad name and the companies that pay PR firms for atrocious PR tactics.

It is October. This means that the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference is right around the corner. Last year, EDUCAUSE was my favorite higher education conference. I wrote about the event before, during, and after the conference. EDUCAUSE puts on an amazing conference. The combination of higher education professionals and technology providers make it the premiere student affairs technology event.

When I registered for EDUCAUSE, I signed up via my Inside Higher Ed blogger credential. This was my first mistake (having an email address was my second...). While it is nice to get on the press list for the event, this is a double-edged sword. PR firms swarm when they see a potential story by a blogger. My inbox swells with PR pitches from a variety of strangers who work for unfamiliar PR firms. They are often representing well-known higher education technology providers. However, they are almost always pitching something that has absolutely no relevance to this blog or the audience for which I write. Most of the PR pitch emails read like they came out of an email shotgun. They are not targeted, customized, or contextually relevant.

Because last year was my first EDUCAUSE as an IHE blogger, I responded to every single PR pitch email. I spent a great deal of time engaging with PR representatives and tried to get the word out about student affairs and the work that we do. This year, I'm being more direct. My reply email has generally been brief with a sentence that asks about what they are trying to pitch that is of interest to the student affairs community. The response to my query has been abysmal. Let's just say that once you start to engage with the majority of these firms, they are not capable of representing the product or company for which they work. It's astonishing to me that big name companies outsource their PR to shotgun PR firms.

I'm sure that #EDU11 will be a fabulous event. I'm confident that the meetings that I've scheduled with a handful of companies (via their PR reps) will result in truly interesting conversations and blog material. These PR firms get it. Those who understand that sending a generic email pitch will result in deletion instead of dialog are the firms that should get everyone's PR business.

Building a higher education brand is a tricky task. You want to get the word out to every corner of the edusphere, yet at the same time, you don't want to come off as boring or intentionally non-strategic. PR firms need to reach out to higher education bloggers prior to events like EDUCAUSE with a targeted approach. Ask us about our blog. Find out if our audience is the niche you are trying to reach. I happily write about content, services or solutions that are introduced via creative PR pitches. What is student affairs? Know the answer to that question before you email me. I will be thoroughly impressed. See you in Philly!

Full disclosure #1: My undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa is in Communications: Public Relations. I have a low threshold for bad PR techniques. PR in 2011 is about relationships and context-dependent communications. If you're one of the companies attending EDUCAUSE and your response rate has been low, send me an email. We should chat about your PR initiatives.

Full disclosure #2: I have a cold and my PR pitch patience is paltry. Additionally, if I get one more email about how I can manage mobile devices in the classroom... #fail.

Full disclosure #3: I used to have the tape that featured the single that is of course the inspiration for this post title.

Do you tweet? Let's connect. Follow me on Twitter.

By Eric Stoller October 6, 2011 11:18 am UTC

For the past few years, Twitter has been the source for breaking news. Last night, I started seeing several tweets that mentioned that Steve Jobs had died. Knowing that the Web sometimes spreads false rumors, I typed in and saw that it was true. The Apple homepage was bereft of colorful imagery. The page read: Steve Jobs 1955-2011. An iconic black and white photograph of Apple's co-creator seemed like Steve's final touch. Simple. To the point. Functional.

Steve Jobs' influence on education, entertainment, and innovation was expansive. His impact on business, public relations, public speaking, music distribution, learning/teaching, accessibility, and technological invention makes Jobs one of the most prominent figures of this century.

I remember playing Oregon Trail on an Apple IIe while in elementary school. In high school, the yearbook staff worked on an older Macintosh. The library technology coordinator even had a Newton. Apple products were everywhere. Today, Apple products are still everywhere... in classrooms, boardrooms, dorm rooms and living rooms. On my desk sits a MacBook Pro, an older iPod, a bluetooth Apple keyboard, and an iPod shuffle. Many of my friends have iPads. The iPhone gets more press for an incremental update than most gadgets will see in a lifetime.

I've admired Steve Jobs for a very long time. He was an awesome communicator. He could captivate huge audiences of people. He was blunt. Even when communicating his thoughts about a new Apple campus, his conciseness was ever-present. The innovations that came about while he led Apple are all around us. Jobs helped bring us one of the most stable operating systems we've ever seen, the best (and still magical) tablet in the universe, aesthetically/functionally superior hardware and the game-changing iPhone. Personal computers, mobile devices, and content distribution were dramatically impacted because of Job's leadership and vision.

Thank you, Steve, for giving us so much. At the end of the day, you were an iconic inventor who always made us want to hear three words: "one more thing."

Do you tweet? Let's connect. Follow me on Twitter.

By Eric Stoller September 26, 2011 8:16 pm UTC

In what I hope will be the first of many #SAtech (faculty) profiles, Kristen Renn, Associate Professor of Higher, Adult, & Lifelong Education (HALE) at Michigan State offers up her thoughts about higher education, student affairs, and technology. Renn -- a prominent member of the student affairs community -- teaches courses on student development theory, foundations of higher education, and college student cultures.

How did you get your start in student affairs?

I started in student affairs as many people do. I was an undergraduate student leader with good mentors who suggested I consider the profession. I went from a small, women's liberal arts college - Mount Holyoke - to a master's program in ed leadership at Boston University (co-ed, and 10 times the size of Mount Holyoke). My first job out of the master's was as assistant director of student activities at Wheaton College (MA), which was matriculating the first male students in its history. A year later, on amicable terms, I left Wheaton to take up a similar position at Brown University, where I became an assistant dean in 1991 and stayed through 1998/1999. While at Brown, I decided that I wanted to earn my PhD so that I could become the vice president of student affairs at a small liberal arts college. I began the PhD in higher ed at Boston College in 1994 and through the patience and forbearance of my Brown colleagues, combined half-time professional work in Providence with a graduate assistantship and full-time courseload at BC. Along the way at BC, I decided that I wanted to pursue faculty positions when I graduated. Again, mentors were important factors in the decision.

My first faculty position was at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. My partner stayed in her job at Northeastern University in Boston and we commuted for two years. Seeking a geographic option that could lead to the reunification of our household, I applied to Michigan State. I began at MSU in 2001, and my partner joined me in 2003. MSU and East Lansing are great places to work, learn, and live. If we were closer to the Atlantic Ocean, the fit would be perfect.

You identify as a "tech-evangelist." What does that mean to you? How does that frame the work that you do in student affairs?

I am not an early adopter, but once I get on board I'm all in. For example, I don't have a smart phone. I don't even have a "real" cell phone. I have one of those pay-as-you-go phones that I use for travel (it really is easier to meet someone in an airport if you have one) and keep for emergencies (did I mention that Michigan roads get snowy and icy 3-4 months of the year?). The phone decision - which I revisit often - is one way that I can reduce interruptions and data overload in my life. I just don't need one more way for people to reach me - or, for them to think that they can reach me any time, any where. My phone meets my needs, not those of other people. It's a tool for specific situations.

BUT. I am not closed off to new technologies and to thinking about how they can be used as tools to improve work and life. I've got an iPad. It's made my life better. I recently started tweeting (@KrisRenn), and while I don't know how much better my life is because I tweet, I know that I'm learning things through the smart people I follow. As someone who is a reluctant adopter, I feel like I have a duty to be a "way in" for other reluctant adopters - I can explain how and why a certain technology or mode of social media is useful. I recently evangelized a senior scholar in our field, by sympathizing with his reluctance and explaining how I "tamed" social media. I have credibility with the reluctant group because I can explain - with enthusiasm and not scorn - why they might want to get on board with a particular technology. And, I'm not a techno-utopian. I don't blindly adhere to trends or ignore the downside of social media, for example. But when it's clear to me that a medium or technology has something of value to add, I want to share it with others whom I think can also benefit.

My tech-evangelism frames my work through helping me see new (to me and some others) angles for communication and investigation. I think it's smart to have tools for scholarship and practice that go beyond trends and fads. Discerning what's got staying power seems to be the key - and being able to sort out the entertainment value (which I do not discount) from the scholarly and practical value of, for example, social media.

You're known more for your work on issues pertaining to social justice. Have you written about technology?

I have written just a little on technology - I did a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) article on introducing a hybrid online/in person course in a student affairs master's program at a time when online courses and online learners were seen as something we in student affairs could ignore. I wanted master's students to experience online learning so that they would be in a better position to advise undergraduates and their colleagues on the up- and downsides of online courses. (; Since then, of course, online teaching and learning have entered the mainstream of higher education, yet student affairs professionals still have to be reminded that the majority of "in person" students will take one or more online courses.

Why do you think student affairs faculty don't seem to focus on technology when they publish?

There are many reasons. First, given the timeline from doing a research project that may involve technology as subject or method to writing it up and getting it reviewed to having it come out in a journal (online or print), there's lag. It could easily be three to five years from starting a data collection project to seeing something published - and if the research project is longitudinal, it's going to take longer. So I think that there are pieces in the pipeline. The rate of change of technology has been much faster than the research-to-publication cycle.

Second, most student affairs scholars didn't start paying attention to technology as a topic of study until professionals were already overwhelmed with practical questions like "Should we use facebook posts in disciplinary hearings?" and "If roommates don't talk, but text across the room, will students learn interpersonal skills?" Our colleagues in the scholarly field of communication are ahead of us on this. But there are some great examples of early research by student affairs graduate students and faculty. Professor Patrick Biddix's ( work on e-student protest is a good example.

Third, the national surveys that form the basis for a substantial amount of research on college students (e.g., Indiana's NSSE, UCLA's CIRP, and the federal BPS, NELS, NPSAS) haven't included questions on technology. So anyone working with those data sets is limited.

Finally, most successful researchers have research agendas or lines that are formed around key scholarly questions. And there are a lot of legitimate research and practice questions that aren't related to technology, or at least not in obvious ways.

What effect will online learning have on our traditional models and theories of student development?

Just as there are myriad ways of experiencing place-based learning (e.g., seminar, lecture, lab, video, independent study), there are myriad formats for online learning. Even place-based courses integrate online material and student interactions. These formats and ways of interacting with instructor, students, and content matter in considering student development theories - but not just for so-called online learners. We're all online learners now.

That said, some models work just fine and can be adapted. The ecological approach that I use in my own work easily incorporates technology and online learning - they become elements of the developmental context and modes or tools of interactions that promote (or inhibit) learning and development. We can re-think what it means to "Move Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence" (one of Chickering and Reisser's vectors) when students talk and text with their parents every day. We can even look at development of intercultural competence and identity as products of interactions with and through technology. A fully online student in one of the courses in my department might not be face-to-face with other students, but she might be in a collaborative group project with a US soldier serving in Iraq, a full-time graduate student in China, and a full-time university administrator from Ghana. Intercultural competence will look different online, perhaps, but those three students probably wouldn't have ended up in my classroom in East Lansing working on a group case study.

I lack patience with faculty who have a knee-jerk reaction against online learning. Until they have explored options for creating meaningful student-to-student and/or student-and-faculty interactions online and the affordances of online teaching and learning, I have a hard time listening to them talk about what is lost when students are not face to face. And there's a lot of terrible in person teaching, too. Undergraduate students tell me about large lecture classes where they never interact with other students - how is that better than an online course?

How is technology part of the student affairs graduate student experience?

There are the obvious ways that students bring their own preferences toward and reliance on technologies of personal use and learning - social media, searching for literature/information, working on collaborative projects, putting together presentations/reports/posters. And they are compelled to use the technologies with which we now teach (course management software, online courses). Hopefully they are using information sources like the daily Chronicle of Higher Ed and updates, and ideally also some other daily news source (New York Times, Wall Street Journal,, etc.). So information access and management is a big piece of what they're dealing with.

Social media (twitter, facebook, google+, etc.) is another part, typically of their own choosing, though sometimes required for certain courses or particular course activities. I'm not keen on requiring it, but might begin to at some point once I figure out how to make it an educationally meaningful activity and not just a trendy add-on now that I'm feeling all hip and tweety.

A central, I hope, and very interesting use of technology is in grad students' work with undergraduates in assistantships, practicum placements, and so forth. I like hearing about how they use technology to do assessment - formal or informal, be available as advisers, be efficient in their work, and connect with diverse students. To whatever extent their colleagues and supervisors use technology in student affairs work settings, I hope that grad students are involved and contributing to that process. My GA, PhD student Blue Brazelton (@BlueGBB), introduced me to Dropbox, which has changed my life (seriously), and inspired me to give Twitter a try. So there's certainly a place for grad students to "mentor up" in their workplaces.

What could we be doing better in terms of teaching technology at the student affairs graduate level?

First, faculty would have to have more competence ourselves. We professors are used to knowing more than our students, and when it comes to technology, this isn't always the case. As a society and as a profession, we are all learning technology at the same time. So I may know more about student development than my students, but I don't know more about technology than most of them. What I do have, however, is the ability to take perspective on the field and try to see what, how, and where technology could help us do our work better in service to students and institutions. Fortunately, MSU provides me with outstanding support in learning and teaching technology. Our College of Education provides superb support for faculty, partly in the form of Terri Gustafson (@TerriGus). Terri is a PhD student who works full time leading our Center for Teaching and Technology.

Second, we simply must get over the "student affairs happens only (or best) in face-to-face settings." I think this idea has roots in the counseling foundations of some areas of student affairs. But even counseling and outreach services don't have to happen in person to be effective. Until and unless we get over the "bricks and mortar only" mindset, we can't do our best job teaching technology. Even "in-person" students are so fully immersed in digital media that a steady menu of place-based programs and services will miss opportunities for promoting their learning and development.

Third, we need to infuse technology skills and use into the curriculum. It turns out that many students are good at using google to look for information, but don't know much about how it works. Teaching them that can be helpful as they think about web page design for a student affairs office, for example. Pressing them to get better at using digital media to present their ideas in class or at conferences helps them do their jobs better. And being explicit about the affordances AND limitations of technologies helps them become critical participants in digital culture.

Finally, we need to give students spaces away from technology. We need to build low-tech experiences into the curriculum and co-curriculum so that grad students - who are enormously busy - get to know (or remember) what it's like to listen to their ideas and feelings, and to those of others. A low-tech activity I've started this year is "Theory to Go" - an optional, weekly, one-hour walk around the river that runs through MSU's campus, on which we talk about the theories we are learning and listen to one another puzzle through questions related to putting theory into practice. No phones, no computers, no "Can someone google that for us?" Just a handful of people walking and talking about theory. If students take up this habit on their own, I applaud them. But if they take just one hour a week away from technologies, that's still a good thing. I'm not anti-technology, but I do worry that young adults may never discover the kinds of non-technologically-mediated experiences that have served scholars and professionals well for millennia.

What are your thoughts about social media and its impact on student affairs?

It's been interesting to watch the field go from curiosity ("I wonder what this LiveJournal and MySpace things are about? Do you think they've got staying power?") to panic ("Look at those photos on TheFacebook! They're all drunk!) to legalistic ("Can we use those Facebook photos in a judicial case?") to acceptance of and participation in social media ("Have you friended your VPSA? Are you following @DeanElmore on Twitter?"). I don't know that social media have created new forms of bad behavior (harassment, bullying, ostentatious inebriation), but they certainly give them high-def visuals, ubiquity, and permanence that they didn't always have in the same ways. Student affairs as a field has had to respond.

But there are also myriad ways that social media give professionals opportunities to participate in student culture, observe it, and be thoughtful about responding to it that we didn't have before. Parents also are more involved - for better and for worse - in the lives of students through social media. We've got more eyes and ears in student culture than we had before, and we can use it to help students.

Who do you look to for inspiration and innovation in the #SAtech sphere?

Boston University's Dean of Students Kenn Elmore (@DeanElmore) has been ahead in this game for quite some time. He started his dean blog years ago and fills it and his tweets with smart, provocative ideas that cut across pop culture, high art, BU daily life, and student community building. He uses social media to intrude, gently, on the status quo of our lives. Kenn is the kind of professional I emulate: he's not locked into a solitary worldview, on technology or anything else, and he makes you want to see what he's going to do next. He also brings you along with him on his new adventures.

What events, conferences, books, or websites do you attend, read, or peruse for information about #SAtech?

I'm still getting my toes wet here, and my tech interests aren't just in SA - they're more broadly in higher ed, particularly in the ways that digital media influence teaching, learning, student development, and intellectual life. My colleague Steve Weiland keeps me apprised of the smartest work in higher ed in this area. "Hamlet's Blackberry" (William Powers) is essential reading - it reminds us that we didn't invent technology...or tech-overload, and "DIY U" (Anya Kamenetz) was humbling. I stay abreast of Cathy Davidson's MacArthur-funded work and to Christine Greenhow's writing. I don't conform to their version of techno-utopianism - nor do I appreciate the dismissive rhetoric sometimes used to dispatch those who hold opposing views - but I think it's important to take their work seriously, in part because they have the ears of important foundations and policy makers. Mark Bauerlein is another person to follow, even if one doesn't agree with him.
I read the blog EdTechDev and lurk around for interdisciplinarity's sake. I follow #SAtech and a number of prominent #SAtech tweeters.

What are your thoughts about the intersections of social justice and technology?

There's lots of potential for good and for bad here. Technology can be a great tool for education, advocacy, and organization for social justice. It can help people who have never met someone like "X" get to know something about X's culture. But it can also be a way to keep us in our separate worlds. It's like having 600 cable TV stations and a DVR - if I had them, I could just watch what I already know I like and never try anything new, or hear anything with which I disagree (Hello, Fox News and MSNBC, I'm talking to you). When I only find the articles or books that match my search terms on, then I miss seeing what else is out there. When I only look at websites that already meet my interests, I miss encountering the "other." At least if I'm browsing magazines in the bookstore (remember those?), I realize that some of my neighbors are as interested in Car and Driver or Town and Country as I am in The Economist and The Advocate. If I only read on my iPad, I don't even have to know about things I'm not already interested in. So that's a downside for diversity and social justice - technology enables us to educate, organize, advocate, but also to isolate ourselves. And I'm not sure we will move quickly toward social justice if we're walking around campus with our earbuds in, looking at our phones for text messages, not seeing the students protesting for X cause.

Any final thoughts about student affairs and technology?

It's an exciting time. Technologies have been changing teaching and learning since people started writing stuff down. Higher education as we more or less recognize it today has been influenced by transportation technologies (trains, cars, planes) and communication technologies (phones, typewriters, computers, internet, digital media). We're not the first generation of student affairs professionals to deal with technological change at work and at home. When Mount Holyoke put phones in student rooms during my first year, one fear was that students wouldn't hang out together in the lounge anymore, waiting for the (one) pay phone on the hall to ring. There's always going to be something new. If set our sails by our professional core values - creating environments that promote holistic learning and development for all of our students - we can make our way to the next day, when the winds and tide will change again. Onward!

I may be biased, but I think this profile just became required reading for the majority of student affairs graduate programs. Thanks Dr. Renn!

Do you tweet? Let's connect. Follow me on Twitter.

By Eric Stoller September 25, 2011 10:30 pm UTC

Can your phone be your wallet? That's what Google is hoping will happen with last week's launch of Google Wallet. When I wrote about Near Field Communication (NFC) last year, the focus was mostly on mobile content access/consumption. With Google Wallet, a NFC-based system, we can purchase items using our cellphone. Contactless payments have been around for quite a while, but I've always thought that they were somewhat suspect. Google Wallet may bring contactless payment capability (and confidence in said technology) to consumers in vast amounts. The only caveat being that most phones in the United States are not NFC-ready. However, I would imagine that NFC will soon become a standard least in Android-based phones. Especially now that "MotoGoogle" has happened.

For those higher education administrators who work in campus auxiliary services, Google Wallet should have an instant appeal. Campus transactions via contactless cellphone purchases are most-likely going to become the standard way in which we buy things. As these new technologies evolve and improve, campus auxiliaries will have to look at their own technological growth. Campus card services are not going away, but phone-based transactions are certainly going to become more mainstream.

When I watch the clip of George Constanza as he struggles with his wallet, I am reminded of my father's wallet as it is the exact same outrageous size as George's. My father will probably never adopt Google Wallet. Will you?

Do you tweet? Let's connect. Follow me on Twitter.

By Eric Stoller September 22, 2011 2:00 am UTC

Are we ready to support online learners? This is the question that I posed in a previous post this month. The answer, as read in the post comments, seems to be that we are not yet ready. So who is? Well, it turns out that a company in New York City might be stepping in to fill the void while student affairs figures out how best to support online learners.

2tor, founded in 2008, provides institutions with a package deal. Schools get a fully functional learning platform as well as a dedicated community manager. It's a unique relationship because 2tor is about relationships instead of just selling a product. They recently sent me an email, and unlike 99% of PR pitches that I get, this message was thoughtful and inline with the content that I write about. After an hour-long Skype conversation with Jenn Pedde, Community Manager for the MSW program at the University of Southern California, I decided to bombard Jenn and the folks at 2tor with a mammoth set of questions. Here is their rather engaging response which includes commentary from the Vice Dean of the USC School of Social Work:

2tor Basics from Chip Paucek, 2tor's President & Chief Operating Officer

How many schools is 2tor working with right now?

We are working with three universities on four programs (We work with USC on two programs). Our programs are:

  • MAT@USC: Masters of Teaching from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education,
  • MSW@USC: Masters of Social Work from the University of Southern California School of Social Work,
  • Nursing@Georgetown: Master’s in Nursing from Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies,
  • MBA@UNC: Masters in Business Administration from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School,

Most higher education solutions providers don't provide a community manager for their SIS/LMS, this really makes 2tor different in my mind. How many higher education community managers are there?

We have a community manager dedicated to each program, so we have four in total.

How does the funding model work?

2tor provides the initial funding to our partner universities to help them in build, launch and support a transformative online learning program. We believe that in order to truly make these online experiences great and to do it right, there needs to me some initial investments as it is operationally very different than a traditional on-campus program, for example, an online student can’t stop by the registrar’s office at 2 in the afternoon, we help to provide the infrastructure to make that possible.

With this investment includes our team, for example technologists, who help build a state of the art LMS, a faculty support team to help on-campus faculty familiarize themselves with the online platform and community managers like Jenn to work with on campus officials and support the online student experience. It is important to note that all academic and admissions related are outside our purview and those decisions are made by the university.

At the end of the day it’s about the student experience and we succeed if the student succeeds, so student retention and student outcomes are our metrics.

Also notable is that we partner with these schools for the long term and on an exclusive basis in each academic discipline, therefore USC’s social work program is our only social work partner and we want to continue its tradition of being the absolute best social work program available, so in that respect, we and USC share that mission.

What types of reports or assessments are available to track student engagement with the 2tor system?

We are able to identify at risk students earlier which is very helpful. Faculty also has access to activity reports where they can see exactly which students have visited which areas of content.

Community Management Questions by Jenn Pedde, MSW@USC Community Manager

Describe your collaboration with the student affairs / student services folks at USC.

I work directly with the student affairs staff at the USC School of Social Work and together we strategize to bring the USC Trojan experience to MSW@USC students in communities across the country. The school offers virtual students the opportunity to participate in the "Student Org" which is the main activities body to create student life and serves on campus and Virtual Academic Center students. MSW@USC students are elected to positions on the "VAC Caucus" which is advised by a faculty member and is charged with planning student activities such as Homecoming and lobby days. We act as facilitators for student elections, webinars, events, meetups, etc. with the university to ensure MSW@USC students know they're valued Trojans, who are connected to the school and have access to the great resources USC has to offer.

One great example of how we do this is the coordination we provided for the online participation for MSW@USC students at a live on-campus annual event, All School Day. (view the event here, Virtual students asked questions live online, viewed this event via webcast and participated in virtual break out groups to discuss topics of that were raised at this event. Some students that lived in the Southern California area went to campus to attend the event. It was a great experience all around for our students.

What has surprised you the most with the 2tor system and the students at USC?

What has surprised me most is how active and engaged our online students are despite not being near campus. They really want that human connection with the university and their classmates, and they're getting it. The technology has made it possible for face to face web-based study groups, learning on the go with our iPad and iPhone app, and live online classes where a professor can engage directly with students. You definitely can’t sleep in the back of the class at the Virtual Academic Center, everyone is on web cam! We also have small classes of no more that 15 people per class that helps in creating active discussions. MSW@USC students have also forged close friendships through the program with people that live in different states. They've created hundreds of community groups in the Virtual Academic Center, such as one for military spouses, LGBT advocacy, and parental support groups. Students are always posting and talking to each other in Facebook groups and pages, ready to lend a hand to help new students transition into life as a MSW@USC student or asking about different classes. On campus students at USC are also included in these public groups as well, so that helps create a great unified community feel.

What are some challenges/opportunities that have occurred with being a community manager for online learners?

Any great community manager knows that online relationships must be nurtured and taken offline in order to grow. Being that our MSW@USC students are spread throughout the country (and also doing their Field Practice experience in their local agencies) one of our biggest challenges has been creating that offline connection. As our student numbers grow (by the end of this year we'll have more than 700 students enrolled in 38 states and 4 countries), we’ll be expanding our activities that include local meet-ups, game watching activities at local USC alumni centers, and volunteering opportunities.

Answers by Paul Maiden, USC School of Social Work Vice Dean

What do you like about 2tor?

The technology used to developed the Learning Management System (LMS) which is the synchronous and asynchronous instructional platform used to deliver the courses in the VAC is outstanding. 2tor also understood and embraced our vision to become a national and eventually global school of social work.

Why did you choose to use 2tor instead of a different provider?

A large component of the MSW degree is the 1st and 2nd year field placement experience which is considered the signature pedagogy of social work education. In the virtual learning environment, this necessitated the development of a national model of field education which has not been done before. 2tor was the only potential partner that was willing to help us develop this national network of field placements for our VAC students. We also viewed the technology that 2tor proposed to develop the LMS as being superior to what the other provider was using.

What have been the key differences to providing online learning environments vs. in-person experiences? Is online really all that different?

From Annalisa Enrile, who teaches in the VAC ---

Key difference in the online versus in person environment is obviously you don't have the luxury of a physical connection to students like you do on an in person class but that's really the main thing. And that just means you have to work a little harder and be a little more creative to achieve that. For example, you open your virtual classroom space a little earlier so there is time for some small talk and rapport building just like in an in person class when people come early or stay late so they can talk with you. Also you make sure to build in some activities that keep your virtual class dynamic and interactive so they are not just watching your talking head in a screen. However there are other ways that I think a virtual platform is better such as for instance I find that my online students are better prepared- they have read the material and are ready to discuss it when we get to our live session because they have gone through all the asynchronous material.

There are not huge differences between the in person and the online classes and teaching, but I do think that there are vast opportunities in using the online platform that we are just beginning to utilize and the potential is great in terms of the levels of creativity we can reach.

What metrics are important to admins at USC?

The most important metrics to us are quality of instruction in the virtual learning environment, learning outcomes and retention and matriculation of students in the VAC.

I must admit that I was fairly skeptical of a for-profit company engaging in student affairs work, but the folks at 2tor appear to have a very unique, student-focused, student-friendly, and innovative business model.

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By Eric Stoller September 20, 2011 12:45 pm UTC

Initially, I had planned on doing my best to write a balanced view of the money-making-machine known as the U.S. News & World Report College Ranking & Lists. For a prospective student, the ranking data contains information about tuition, total enrollment, acceptance rate, first-year student retention and 6-year graduation rates. I thought, well, at least there's some data that students can use even if the ranking numbers are a tad bit arbitrary and biased. As I was surfing through the rankings data, I noticed two columns of data that were not displaying numerical information. I clicked on the the "compass" graphic and was taken to a sales page that offered up "expanded profiles" for the "best deal" price of $24.95 for a year of access. While I really couldn't care less about the actual value of the U.S. News rankings, I take umbrage with the cash cow that it has become. And, we are complicit because we sustain its existence.

Last Tuesday's Inside Higher Ed article about the drop in participation amongst higher education presidents gave me hope that some are finally ceasing their willful engagement in this supremely questionable endeavor. However, a recent discussion on a higher education web developers listserv reinforced the fact that some still find the "badge" to be valuable. In fact, due to the exorbitant fees that U.S. News charges to display the "best badge," some schools have gotten creative with their web marketing. Instead of paying the $1,000 cost (web use only, 12 months) to display the award badge, some higher education web developers display a graphic of the cover of the U.S. News magazine as a way to indicate their ranking status. By the way, the cost for unlimited electronic use of the best badge for only a year is $5,500. Imagine if a majority of the 1,600 schools in the U.S. News rankings list paid for either the limited web use or even the unlimited option. It is potentially a multi-million dollar operation.

So here's the rub: We sustain the very ranking system that we criticize. That's unfortunate and fairly hypocritical. What really bothers me is that we then sit back and let U.S. News charge prospective students and their families for the privilege of accessing information that we should be giving to students for free. For unlimited use of the best colleges badge, it will cost a school $8,200 for a year. U.S. News debuted their rankings list in 1983. Since then, we've been legitimizing its existence every time we "pay to display."

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Catharine Hill's article on "Diversity and Rankings." Hill states that "[ranking lists] aren't going away." Fortunately, these types of rankings and their "pay to play" model can go away, but only if we stop paying for their existence.

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By Eric Stoller September 16, 2011 8:00 am UTC

When I first read about OKStateU - Oklahoma State University's (OSU) new social network, I was admittedly skeptical. Built using BuddyPress, an open source social network based on WordPress, OKStateU launched this fall as a "social media site for students." Billed as an "ad free" and "exclusive" space for OSU students, faculty and staff, OKState appears on the surface to be yet another attempt by an institution to create a campus walled garden. A walled garden refers to online spaces that have limited access based on membership in a particular group. Several institutions have created walled gardens in the past with limited success. The main reason for failure generally stems from the fact that campus communities have usually already formed in online spaces other than the ones that the university has created. The initial push from an institution can generate excitement, but once that excitement fades, the walled garden strategy isn't usually sustainable.

OKStateU may be running off of BuddyPress, but it reminds me of a similar walled garden site -- Ning. And, anyone who has followed higher education for any amount of time knows that Ning used to be the de facto site for creating a social network that didn't rely on Facebook. Ning sites come and go like old mining towns of yesteryear. Note that I like BuddyPress. I think it can be a great platform for community engagement. I know of at least one student affairs association that is using it as a place for connection-making and information-exchange. However, in my experience working with undergraduate students, if you build an online space that is separate from where the critical mass is engaging, your walled garden will eventually fade into obscurity.

When I read that OKStateU provides OSU students with online space to create "discussion groups, athletic groups, and personal interest groups," I was dumbfounded as I can't help but think that Facebook will probably be where OSU students will form communities of interest. The introduction video for OKStateU mentions that OSU is a Desire2Learn school. Didn't D2L recently announce a feature set that included social integration? Wouldn't it be easier to add social connectivity to a reliable LMS? One less site or service to manage seems like a benefit in my view.

Since the OKStateU site isn't entirely locked down to non-OSU members, I was able to browse around the site. There is a fair amount of interaction. I'm glad that folks at OSU are engaging in out-of-the-box thinking. It's always exciting to read about a new project. However, walled gardens are incredibly difficult to sustain. I wonder if the strategic goals of OKStateU could have been met using existing sites, tools, or services?

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By Eric Stoller September 14, 2011 1:45 am UTC

Initially, this post was going to be titled: "If you've ever sent "unsubscribe" to a listserv, please break the glass and read this post immediately." Unfortunately, that many words won't fit in our blog headers. Alternatively, I was debating whether or not I should include lemmings somewhere in this post as it seemed rather apropos. If you haven't already guessed, this post is all about listservs. While not a how-to per se, I have decided to write up a short treatise on that which seems to elude most listserv subscribers: the simple act of unsubscribing from a listserv.

Let's begin. Perhaps you received an email forward from a friend. Said email originated from a listserv. Thinking that you could bypass your friend's emails, and become a participant on the list, you sign up and begin receiving messages. It was so easy to sign-up, wasn't it?

This is where things go horribly wrong. When you received your introductory listserv email welcoming your presence on the list, you ignored most of what it said. Yes, you did. It's okay. I've been there. However, hidden in that first email is your set of instructions for how to leave the list. Think of it this way: You are the Greatest American Hero and you've just deleted the instruction manual for your suit.

After reading all of the listserv emails over the summer, something inevitably happens...the Fall term commences. Your free, email-reading time is reduced to -20 (yes, a negative amount of time, that's how bad it gets sometimes). And then, someone sends out a message that just one single person doesn't want to read. So they then do the unconscionable act of replying with "UNSUBSCRIBE."

250 emails later, the listserv has erupted with a rash of messages that look something like this (these are actual examples from a recent list meltdown):

  • "UNSUBSCRIBE" - Easily the most popular response. Sometimes in the subject. Sometimes in the body. Sometimes in both the subject and the body. All caps are added for emphasis.
  • "Please remove..sent from my iPhone" - I get it, you're on a mobile device. Thanks.
  • "Please remove me also from this list." - The listserv elves must have removed other people from the list.
  • "PLEASE remove me from this ********** list!" - Naming the list in your least they knew what the list was called.
  • "AGAIN, PLEASE REMOVE ME FROM THE LIST!!!!!!" - Multiple exclamation points will surely cause the emails to stop.
  • "whatever this is PLEASE remove me from it tooopleaseeee way out of hand now tyty" - I love how some people (in this case, a list full of professionals and faculty members) like to build a bonfire and add more fuel to the pyre.
  • "Please remove me from this listserve! I have been inundated with e-mails from others also trying to unsubscribe." - Please turn in your drivers license. Clearly you shouldn't be allowed to operate a motor vehicle and you are banned from using email for a lifetime.

Please note that I love email. However, if you sign up for a listserv, please learn how to operate it before you join the community. The "unsubscribe me" meme is a waste of time and a productivity killer. How many times does this have to happen? Please do all of us a small favor, pay it forward if you will...NEVER EVER RESPOND TO A LISTSERV WITH UNSUBSCRIBE. Thanks!

I think in the future, in addition to Googling a potential hire, I'm also going to check if they have ever sent "unsubscribe" to a listserv.

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2011 - October
2011 - September