Friday, July 31, 2009

What a Pakistani village chief has to Teach Higher Education

I recently read Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Moretenson & David Oliver Relin.  In Chapter 12 of the book ("Haji Ali's Lesson").  The authors share an experience that Mortenson had with a Pakistani man named Haji Ali.  In a nutshell Mortenson learned an important lesson from that encounter--namely, that building relationships is critical for any individual or organization that wants to do work that makes a difference.  

That seems somewhat paradoxical in the age of tweets, power lunches, and other "efficient" or "time-saving" practices.  But, those of us in education--a business that claims to be about improving people's lives through learning--should take notice and consider the way in which we do things.  If your campus is like mine, you have probably seen a lot of "innovations" in the last few years that seem very forward and progressive, but that beneath the bells and whistles actually hurt relationships.  

Here are a few examples from my own experience:
  • No more admissions letters.  On my campus we have decided to save time and money by discontinuing the practice of sending letters to students informing them that they have been admitted to our university.  Rather, they are instructed to visit their application page and to check their "application status."  A status of "admitted" is meant to replace the letter most of us remember receiving.
  • Online "One-Stop" student services.  In the past our institution staged a "one-stop" shop during the first two weeks of each semester.  This was a place where many of the useful campus resources (tuition payments, parking services, registration, etc.) were centrally located and available to students from 8 - 5.  This allowed students to visit a single "shop" to run their pre-semester errands.  We have now discontinued this practice and have moved everything online.
  • Electronic Advisement Tools.  Within the last year we have launched a "MYMAP" registration and course planning system that allows students to create four year educational plans in an electronic medium.  The system helps students "organize" the list of courses they plan to take, "plan" which specific semesters they plan to enroll in those courses, and then "register" for courses during the appropriate semester.  

The list could be longer and I'm sure you could add to it.  At this point let me say that none of these things are inherently bad.  The university will save money by not mailing admissions letters, money that could be used to improve instruction.  Allowing students to purchase parking passes online before they arrive saves them from the headache of waiting in a line during the first week of classes.  Technology can definitely improve education and we have plenty of examples of that.  But, this also seems like a slippery slope that has the potential to move us away from some of the personal interactions, conversations, and relationships that I believe are critical to good educational practice.

In our efforts to be quick, seamless, and efficient, we sometimes eliminate opportunities for meaningful relationships to form.  There is power, for example, in a new student having a face-to-face conversation with a caring financial aid counselor who takes the time to help the student explore their options and find a financial aid package that best suits their needs.  The student leaves knowing that their are people on campus that care about their success.  That sort of experience, early in a students time on campus, can help shape their perspective of the institution and motivate them to excel.  An online financial aid selection tool might be faster, but something is lost when we eliminate the need for personal conversations.  In terms of advisement, some students may be able to navigate their experience using an electronic tool and even craft a very good educational plan.  But, an academic advisor, trained to engage students' in reflective conversations can do much to help students articulate their goals, dreams, and aspiratioins.  The vision that emerges in these conversations would seem to pay dividends in terms of student movitation, engagement, and persistence.

So, while relationships take an investment of time, effort and, often, monetary resources.  Those investments seem necessary to make if we want our educational enterprise to lead to the personal development of students.  It also positions those of us who interact (or should interact) with students--faculty members, student affairs professionals, admissions staff, etc.--to learn and develop through those interactions.  

Let's not get to antsy to innovate and streamline things.  It could come back to bite us.  Building relationships is just as important as building websites, curricula, or campus infrastructure.

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