Realistic Expectations – of ourselves, our students, and one another

Several days ago, the Associated Press (AP) wrote about a recent survey conducted by the AP and AOL about Americans’ use Instant Messaging (IM). The results of this survey should not be a surprise to anyone who follows the research or simply pays attention to what has been going on the last few years. Two years ago, I even wrote about IM in the specific context of student affairs.

I personally ran into (and was swallowed by) this divide a few years ago. I was inexplicably invited to a meeting between mid-level and senior administrators to discuss how we can better conduct business during the first few weeks of class. A primary concern was that the normal lines of communication, primarily the telephone, were ineffective during that very busy time. Most of the desired communication revolved around relatively short and quick questions that would hopefully help us avoid sending a student or a parent to another office or building. When I suggested that we should explore IM as an alternative communication media many attendees at the meeting stared at me like I was an alien. Although a few attendees agreed that it was a good idea and that or their staff used IM in just this manner, the idea was tabled and never mentioned again. And I was never invited back for another meeting.

The lesson to learn here has little to do with IM. The real lesson is connected to the gap between students’ expectations and uses of technology and our own expectations (of one another and of students’) and uses of technology. To explore this lesson a bit more, let’s briefly look at e-mail.

We can look at some of the same research referenced above in the IM discussion (supplemented, of course, with additional research) to get an idea of students’ uses and perceptions of e-mail. We can also see that our own perceptions, broadly speaking, differ from our students’. For many of us, e-mail was the “killer app” that drove networking and desktop computing. We use e-mail to keep in touch with everyone – staff, colleagues (to how many listservs are you subscribed?), friends, and family. Teens and young adults, however, typically use e-mail to (a) stay in touch with their older e-mail-reliant contacts and large groups of people and (b) conduct formal or official business. Likely explanations for their behavior include the prevelance of alternative forms of communication common amongst their contacts (i.e. everyone has an AIM screenname, Facebook account, or MySpace account) and the overwhelming presence of spam in their e-mail. For us, spam is a relatively new phenomenon that is foreign to the medium of e-mail. For younger generations, spam is an inherent part of e-mail; e-mail, to them, has always had a very low signal-to-noise ratio. In other words, for many of us e-mail is seen as the primary and often the only way to communicate on the Internet. Younger generations know that is not true and are (clumsily, at times) learning to select more appropriate media and take advantage of new ones.

This certainly has implications for colleges and universities. Obviously, this affects (or should affect; too often, it doesn’t) how we communicate with prospective and current students and alumni. Not only do we display our own limitations and biases when we use the wrong medium, we also risk our message getting lost, ignored, misinterpreted, or miscontextualized. As persons whose bottom line is directly affected by how well they communicate with members of these younger generations, admissions and public relations folks are getting the message and, more importantly, tailoring their message and its medium. Let’s make sure we in student affairs and IT are doing the same.