2008 NASPA Conference: Technology in Student Affairs & Higher Education Master’s Degree Curriculum

The first program I attended on Tuesday that had a strong technology focus was a presentation of original research into the technology components of student affairs Master’s programs. The program was entitled “Technology in Student Affairs & Higher Education Master’s Degree Curriculum” and it was presented by two persons from Hillsborough Community College and one from the University of South Florida. It led to significant discussion of the topic among a very diverse group of attendees; as with many programs, the discussion itself was of a high enough quality that it was worth attending the program for the discussion alone.

The presenters began by citing some facts from large national surveys and research that attempted to measure the prevalence of technology use in America. The researchers cited these facts to attempt to establish the importance of technology literacy. I think they would have been better off skipping it as this audience didn’t need to be convinced and the time could have been better spent on their original research and related discussion.

The research they next cited, related to student affairs preparation programs and their priorities and effectiveness as it relates to technology, was much more appropriate and effective. For example, in his 2006 article Waple reported that of the 28 skills and competencies identified, “Use of microcomputers in Higher Education” was ranked by respondents as the 7th most important skill or competency but also the one in which they gained the least competency in their Master’s program. The presenters also briefly discussed the role of the CAS standards, particularly the fact that the only mention the standards make of technology (outside of distance education) is in relation to ensuring faculty have adequate technical support and resources.

The original research they conducted seemed to have two aims: explore the prevalence of technology in the Master’s curriculum and begin to explain those findings. To accomplish this, they employed two methods. First, they looked at the available Master’s programs and their publicly-published curricula. Second, they administered a brief web-based survey to faculty in those programs to see if their responses would match with their publicly-published curricula and ask why technology is or is not integrated into the curriculum.

150 programs were included in their research. Of those 150 programs, the review of publicly-available information indicated that only 5 programs require students to take a technology-related course in the major with other programs providing an elective course in the major or addressing the topic in other courses. The majority of the programs either do not address the topic in their publicly-available information or only address the topic through elective coursework.

The survey results largely supported the review of publicly-available information. The most interesting information came from the question that asked the faculty to explain the rationale for the inclusion or exclusion of technology-related coursework in their program. Those who include the material expressed that technology competency is simply required for their graduates to become effective professionals. Those who do not include the material seemed to believe that there simply isn’t any room in the curriculum for this “additional” topic. The presenters wondered aloud if some of these responses may indicate resistance to the idea of including technology in the curriculum.

The researchers presented several sets of recommendations to address this topic. Of course, “conduct more research” was among their recommendations. Also included was a listing of recommended knowledge and skills that Master’s students should gain or be made knowledgeable of through their graduate work. The list of specific skills generated significant discussion among the audience members and presenters as there always exists a tension between teaching specific skills  that may quickly become out-of-date and more generalized foundational knowledge that may last much longer but be more difficult to teach and understand.

One audience member explained that he sees three different suites of skills that need to be addressed:

  1. Practical use of technology (for practitioners)
  2. Management of IT as a resource
  3. Student use of technology and its impact on student development

Several current Master’s students in the audience also discussed their viewpoints with one expressing how difficult it is to be the youngest professional in the office with the natural expectation that she is the most tech-savvy. Another expressed how it has difficult to map his desired skillset, including competency with technology, onto the course offerings at his institution.

One touchstone referenced throughout the presentation and discussions was Prensky’s concept of digital natives and digital immigrants (I recommend reading Henry Jenkins’ criticism of Prensky; it also includes several informative links to both the Prensky’s original formulation and other discussions of it). One of the most powerful assertions made by an audience member is that student affairs faculty will always be digital immigrants, at best, given their personalities and interests (in the interests of full disclosure, it was Will Barratt who made the assertion during the presentation, the same person who wrote that article).

The final point made by the presenters is a very powerful one: If we believe that technology competency is a necessary skill for student affairs professionals (and the literature seems to indicate that we do) AND we’re not teaching that competency in our Master’s programs (and this research seems to indicate that we aren’t), then how do we expect new professionals to acquire this competency? Are they expected to arrive at grad school with it? Learn on their own time? Or is this simply a glaring hole, a mismatch between our expectations and reality?

I asked the presenters if they would be willing to publish or share the results of their research in a more widely-available format, particularly the results of their survey of publicly-available information. I am hopeful they will do this as it would be a very valuable resource and I hope to see them publishing the results of their work soon. It’s interesting, informative, and very important to the future of the profession.