Assumptions and Stereotypes

A few days ago, Beloit College published their annual “Mindset” list describing how this year’s incoming college students differ from previous groups of students.  The list is humorous and largely fills its role of reminding college and university faculty and staff of how culture continues to change and shape the expectations of our students.  While I acknowledge that the list is not intended to be taken completely seriously, I think that we can see a serious message if we look behind the list and it’s not the message the authors meant to convey.

This list says more about those who wrote the list than the students they are purporting to write about.  Moreover, it reveals assumptions that many of us make about college students: too many of us still think that the typical college student is just out of high school and enrolled full-time for four years before graduating and moving on.  That may be accurate on some campuses but at many colleges the student body is becoming increasingly “non-traditional:” older, part-time, and unlikely to graduate in four years.

With respect to Beloit’s list, we first observe that students beginning college now may not be in the “Class of 2014.”  The 4-year graduation rate for all first-time first-year students who matriculated in 2001, the most recent year for which these data are available, is 36.2%.  In other words, just over a third of the students* who began college graduated in four years.  Of course, Beloit College has a much higher 4-year graduation rate of about 75%.  But if we want to apply this list to all students at four-year institutions then maybe we title it the “Class of 2016 (We hope!)” list.

Second, this list assumes that the students matriculating this year are young, probably fresh out of high school.   This is probably the case for Beloit as it is a small, residential college with only a few transfer students and virtually no part-time students.  But the picture is different for many institution.  Nearly one-third (29.3%) of all college students are 25 years of age or older.  Further, of all of the nation’s students at four-year institutions, over one quarter (26.5%) are part-time students who are typically much older than full-time students.  (Edit: NPR has more about the growth of non-traditional students in U.S. higher education.)

This discussion fits the topic of this blog in at least two ways:

  1. These assumptions about students are the same assumptions that lead so many to believe that all college students are technologically savvy.  That’s not a fair assumption and it’s simply not true.
  2. It’s possible that these assumptions are particularly widespread among student affairs professionals, particularly younger or newer professionals whose experiences (residence life, student activities, greek advising, etc.) have only been with traditional students.  This is understandable given their experiences but it’s out of line with the reality of American higher education.

I admit that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon.  But we make too many assumptions about students and this list is an excellent example of a set of those assumptions.  We have to fight our natural tendencies to stereotype and make assumptions lest those tendencies continue to lead us astray (Irma Pelt gets what I’m trying to say).

* – Graduation rate is a tricky measure to interpret because of how it’s defined.  Basically, it doesn’t include all students, particularly transfer students.  But good or bad, it’s a widely-used measure so we’ll go with it for now.

Diversity Among Student Affairs Technology Collaboration Experiences

Next year’s NASPA conference is in Chicago which is only a few hours away. For that conference, I have proposed a panel discussion of student affairs and IT collaborations.  One of the (self-imposed) primary requirements for this panel is that the panelists should have a diverse set of experiences.  But how does one define that?  To put it another way, what am I looking for in these panelists when I say that they should be “diverse?”

When discussing diversity between institutions, several common measures or characteristics often arise (at my research shop we call these and other common characteristics “the usual suspects” since we use them in so many of our analyses): the various Carnegie Classifications, governance/sector (public or private), geographic region, urbanicity, and selectivity.  We could view our panel as diverse if they have experiences from a broad number of different categories listed above.  It stands to reason that many or all of those characteristics may have an impact on how student affairs staff collaborate with technology professionals.  For example, many of those characteristics are related to institutional wealth which surely affects how units on campus collaborate.  It may be easier for wealthier campuses to employ more specialized personnel (e.g. hire more technical staff in the student affairs units rather than depend on or collaborate with other technology units).

It might also be valuable to judge the diversity of the panel by their experiences.  This, of course, brings us further down the rabbit hole because now we have to define what we mean by “diverse experiences.”  One approach that seems to have been useful and practical was to ask what kind of collaborations potential panelists had experienced and categorize those experiences.  Some had experienced a collaboration focused on a single large project.  Others had regularly collaborated with technology professionals on projects large and small as part of their regular, assigned job responsibilities.  And others have experienced collaborations primarily as ad hoc adventures as the department’s most technology-savvy employee.

Similarly, it may also be worthwhile to consider the professional roles or job responsibilities of the potential panelists.  As mentioned above, some have little or no technology component in their formal job responsibilities.  Some have technology management, oversight, or planning as part of their job portfolio.  Finally, some are technology professionals with IT project management or implementation in their position description.

Finally, we might look at the technology professionals with whom the collaboration(s) occurred.  Collaborations with departmental colleagues, student affairs technology professionals, and central IT professionals likely differ in many interesting and important ways.

So what did I do?  It might be fun to say that I carefully analyzed the above dimensions and came up with a panel that represents as many of these dimensions as possible and practical.  But the reality is that I graciously accepted nearly all of the Technology Knowledge Community members who volunteered to assist in any way.  As we moved through the process of broadly brainstorming ideas through drafting the format of the program and finally to drafting the program proposal, volunteers bowed out, found other programs or projects to work on, or simply disappeared.  In the end I was left with a core group of dedicated and experienced professionals who will make an incredible panel.  When I looked at all of the above dimensions of diversity I was pleasantly surprised to see that the panel named in the proposal is indeed quite diverse.

I am very hopeful that this proposal will be accepted and you will be able to benefit from the experiences of these wonderful professionals.  The process of putting together the proposal was very useful and interesting as it forced me to consider all of the ideas above (and more!) as I sought to put together a diverse panel.  Student affairs professionals often speak of diversity as a value and desirable goal and it’s always worthwhile to consider that idea in different contexts.

NASPA Leadership Exchange SNS Article

I’m traveling to Boston right now to attend the NASPA conference and bad weather in the midwest and northeast is making travel…interesting. I found myself with a few extra hours in Atlanta’s airport when I checked my e-mail and found the new copy of Leadership Exchange in my Inbox.

In the new (Spring 2008) issue of Leadership Exchange are two articles related to technology. One is in the regular Technology Tools column and it’s entitled “The Great Divide in Social Networking Sites.” I wrote the article and you’re welcome to download a copy of the article as it was when I originally submitted to the editors a month or two ago. The article discusses apparent differences between users of SNSes based on race and class. Such differences are always interesting to student affairs professionals as they are keen advocates of the less privileged (which you should not read as implying that there is necessarily an injustice involved here; many people simply like to congregate in and socialize with relatively homogeneous groups of people who resemble themselves).

The other article is the (regular?) “Web Sites to Watch” column. NASPA’s editors specifically solicited information about Social Networking Services from the Technology KC. Included in the list are Digg, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Ning. I’m very pleased to see the Technology KC continue to grow and gain exposure!

Divisions and Gaps

Jakob Nielsen‘s latest “Alertbox” article is entitled “Digital Divide: The Three Stages.” In this (very brief) article, Nielsen posits three types or stages of divides that “alienate huge population groups who miss out on the Internet’s potential:”

  1. Economic Divide
  2. Usability Divide
  3. Empowerment Divide

Nielsen argues that the Economic Divide is largely a non-issue in modern America. His other two divides are very similar to Jenkins’ Participatory Divide. In short, both of these researchers believe that significant divides still exist between (a) Internet users and non-users and (b) different groups of Internet users. The two researchers differ in some ways on the exact form and causes of those differences but those differences appear to be more in point of view than significant and substantive differences. As a usability researcher, Nielsen concentrates largely on the user experience and how users interact with particular tools, suites of tools, and technologies. Thus his focus is often on how someone can or cannot use something to perform a particular task. Jenkins, on the other hand, is a communications researcher whose focus lies more on the sociological impact of technologies and societal changes or influences caused, aided, or disrupted by technologies.

One subtlety that is masked by the label “divide” is that these divides are more like continuums than binary, black-and-white issues. Whether one speaks of Nielsen’s Usability Divide or Empowerment Divide or Jenkins’ Participatory Divide, these are areas in which one can have more or less (understanding, power, or rates of participation). Even the seemingly-black-and-white issue of access is a continuum wherein no possible access and high-speed, always-available, unfiltered and uncensored access lie at the endpoints of a continuum with different levels of access in between (borrowed access, slow access, filtered or censored, etc.).

For us, it’s very important to remember that our students will come from both sides of these divides and all places in between. I don’t have good data at my fingertips but I have no doubt that traditional measures of diversity such as race, ethnicity, SES, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. play huge roles in where one lies in these issues. The role of SES should be obvious. In his exploration of fan culture, Jenkins has noted the role of gender and the differences in how men and women interact with and use technology to interact and collaborate. danah boyd, herself a noted researcher in these areas, speaks of the role that communications technologies (specifically, IRC) played in her experiences as a young queer woman, technologies that may not been available to her had circumstances (location, finances, experiences, etc.) been different. It’s very important for us to begin to understand how (a) access or lack of access to, (b) understanding or lack of understanding of, and (c) use or non-use of these technologies – technologies ubiquitous and essential for many young people – is shaping and influencing youths in America (see the recent debate about DOPA for a great discussion of these issues). I assert that we don’t understand this right now as it’s complex and changing very rapidly. I further believe that applying what we know about young people (both through our experiences and through our research i.e. student development theory) we can uniquely contribute to this discussion and begin to understand its importance.