Thursday, May 31, 2012

High Tech, High Touch

We’re moving in two different directions, and only beginning to realize it.

On the one side, we’re moving to more online instruction and more automated or nearly automated processes.  The idea is to both increase convenience for students -- especially those with jobs and/or families -- and to improve the economics of the college by increasing enrollments and cutting costs.  By going high tech, we hope to get around some of the cost issues that bedevil us when we do what we’ve always done.

On the other side, we’re trying to improve the success rates of students generally -- and of students from underrepresented groups specifically -- by a panoply of “high touch” strategies.  Intrusive advisement, mandatory orientation, learning communities, freshman interest groups, and mini-prep classes -- all of which we’re using -- have been shown to help, but do so through increased labor intensity per student.  They’re expensive.

Each side makes sense on its own terms.  It’s clear that we need to reach a sustainable budgetary equilibrium, and that we can’t count on the state stepping up to do it.  And it’s also clear that the social justice side of our mission requires helping students succeed who might otherwise fail, and doing it without lowering standards.  

It’s just hard to do both sides at the same time.

Community colleges have bifurcated missions already, trying to handle both academic transfer and workforce development.  Now they’re also trying to be both more automated and more personalized.  With less money.

To make the conflict concrete, take mandatory orientation.  Both national research and our local numbers suggest that students who attend freshman orientation have higher pass rates than students who don’t.  As long as orientation is voluntary, it’s hard to disentangle the extent to which that reflects the benefits of orientation, as opposed to a form of self-selection; it may just be that the more conscientious students show up for orientation, so what we’re really seeing is a proxy measure for conscientiousness.

On the theory that it’s worth a shot, we’re moving to making orientation mandatory for new students.  The idea is that the students who most need the nudge will probably be the ones who most need the benefit.  From a social justice perspective, it’s a no-brainer.

But it conflicts with the idea of lowering barriers to enrollment and serving students at a distance.  If the cultural expectations of online students involve instant access, then making them jump through more hoops will violate those expectations.  Even if the hoops are intended to be good for them.

I don’t think it’s quite at the level of flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, but sometimes it does get a bit jarring.  The tension between high tech and high touch is increasing, and we’re only beginning to grasp the source of the confusion.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college find a way to be both high tech and high touch that doesn’t require a bazillion dollar grant to pull off?