#SAtech profile: @KrisRenn - Tech Evangelist / Reluctant Adopter

In what I hope will be the first of many #SAtech (faculty) profiles,

September 26, 2011

In what I hope will be the first of many #SAtech (faculty) profiles, Kristen Renn, Associate Professor of Higher, Adult, & Lifelong Education (HALE) at Michigan State offers up her thoughts about higher education, student affairs, and technology. Renn -- a prominent member of the student affairs community -- teaches courses on student development theory, foundations of higher education, and college student cultures.

How did you get your start in student affairs?

I started in student affairs as many people do. I was an undergraduate student leader with good mentors who suggested I consider the profession. I went from a small, women's liberal arts college - Mount Holyoke - to a master's program in ed leadership at Boston University (co-ed, and 10 times the size of Mount Holyoke). My first job out of the master's was as assistant director of student activities at Wheaton College (MA), which was matriculating the first male students in its history. A year later, on amicable terms, I left Wheaton to take up a similar position at Brown University, where I became an assistant dean in 1991 and stayed through 1998/1999. While at Brown, I decided that I wanted to earn my PhD so that I could become the vice president of student affairs at a small liberal arts college. I began the PhD in higher ed at Boston College in 1994 and through the patience and forbearance of my Brown colleagues, combined half-time professional work in Providence with a graduate assistantship and full-time courseload at BC. Along the way at BC, I decided that I wanted to pursue faculty positions when I graduated. Again, mentors were important factors in the decision.

My first faculty position was at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. My partner stayed in her job at Northeastern University in Boston and we commuted for two years. Seeking a geographic option that could lead to the reunification of our household, I applied to Michigan State. I began at MSU in 2001, and my partner joined me in 2003. MSU and East Lansing are great places to work, learn, and live. If we were closer to the Atlantic Ocean, the fit would be perfect.

You identify as a "tech-evangelist." What does that mean to you? How does that frame the work that you do in student affairs?

I am not an early adopter, but once I get on board I'm all in. For example, I don't have a smart phone. I don't even have a "real" cell phone. I have one of those pay-as-you-go phones that I use for travel (it really is easier to meet someone in an airport if you have one) and keep for emergencies (did I mention that Michigan roads get snowy and icy 3-4 months of the year?). The phone decision - which I revisit often - is one way that I can reduce interruptions and data overload in my life. I just don't need one more way for people to reach me - or, for them to think that they can reach me any time, any where. My phone meets my needs, not those of other people. It's a tool for specific situations.

BUT. I am not closed off to new technologies and to thinking about how they can be used as tools to improve work and life. I've got an iPad. It's made my life better. I recently started tweeting (@KrisRenn), and while I don't know how much better my life is because I tweet, I know that I'm learning things through the smart people I follow. As someone who is a reluctant adopter, I feel like I have a duty to be a "way in" for other reluctant adopters - I can explain how and why a certain technology or mode of social media is useful. I recently evangelized a senior scholar in our field, by sympathizing with his reluctance and explaining how I "tamed" social media. I have credibility with the reluctant group because I can explain - with enthusiasm and not scorn - why they might want to get on board with a particular technology. And, I'm not a techno-utopian. I don't blindly adhere to trends or ignore the downside of social media, for example. But when it's clear to me that a medium or technology has something of value to add, I want to share it with others whom I think can also benefit.

My tech-evangelism frames my work through helping me see new (to me and some others) angles for communication and investigation. I think it's smart to have tools for scholarship and practice that go beyond trends and fads. Discerning what's got staying power seems to be the key - and being able to sort out the entertainment value (which I do not discount) from the scholarly and practical value of, for example, social media.

You're known more for your work on issues pertaining to social justice. Have you written about technology?

I have written just a little on technology - I did a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) article on introducing a hybrid online/in person course in a student affairs master's program at a time when online courses and online learners were seen as something we in student affairs could ignore. I wanted master's students to experience online learning so that they would be in a better position to advise undergraduates and their colleagues on the up- and downsides of online courses. (http://studentaffairs.com/ejournal/summer_2005/UsingOnlineImmersion.html; https://www.msu.edu/~renn/RennZeligmanJCSD.pdf) Since then, of course, online teaching and learning have entered the mainstream of higher education, yet student affairs professionals still have to be reminded that the majority of "in person" students will take one or more online courses.

Why do you think student affairs faculty don't seem to focus on technology when they publish?

There are many reasons. First, given the timeline from doing a research project that may involve technology as subject or method to writing it up and getting it reviewed to having it come out in a journal (online or print), there's lag. It could easily be three to five years from starting a data collection project to seeing something published - and if the research project is longitudinal, it's going to take longer. So I think that there are pieces in the pipeline. The rate of change of technology has been much faster than the research-to-publication cycle.

Second, most student affairs scholars didn't start paying attention to technology as a topic of study until professionals were already overwhelmed with practical questions like "Should we use facebook posts in disciplinary hearings?" and "If roommates don't talk, but text across the room, will students learn interpersonal skills?" Our colleagues in the scholarly field of communication are ahead of us on this. But there are some great examples of early research by student affairs graduate students and faculty. Professor Patrick Biddix's (http://elps.utk.edu/Faculty_Staff/biddix.html) work on e-student protest is a good example.

Third, the national surveys that form the basis for a substantial amount of research on college students (e.g., Indiana's NSSE, UCLA's CIRP, and the federal BPS, NELS, NPSAS) haven't included questions on technology. So anyone working with those data sets is limited.

Finally, most successful researchers have research agendas or lines that are formed around key scholarly questions. And there are a lot of legitimate research and practice questions that aren't related to technology, or at least not in obvious ways.

What effect will online learning have on our traditional models and theories of student development?

Just as there are myriad ways of experiencing place-based learning (e.g., seminar, lecture, lab, video, independent study), there are myriad formats for online learning. Even place-based courses integrate online material and student interactions. These formats and ways of interacting with instructor, students, and content matter in considering student development theories - but not just for so-called online learners. We're all online learners now.

That said, some models work just fine and can be adapted. The ecological approach that I use in my own work easily incorporates technology and online learning - they become elements of the developmental context and modes or tools of interactions that promote (or inhibit) learning and development. We can re-think what it means to "Move Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence" (one of Chickering and Reisser's vectors) when students talk and text with their parents every day. We can even look at development of intercultural competence and identity as products of interactions with and through technology. A fully online student in one of the courses in my department might not be face-to-face with other students, but she might be in a collaborative group project with a US soldier serving in Iraq, a full-time graduate student in China, and a full-time university administrator from Ghana. Intercultural competence will look different online, perhaps, but those three students probably wouldn't have ended up in my classroom in East Lansing working on a group case study.

I lack patience with faculty who have a knee-jerk reaction against online learning. Until they have explored options for creating meaningful student-to-student and/or student-and-faculty interactions online and the affordances of online teaching and learning, I have a hard time listening to them talk about what is lost when students are not face to face. And there's a lot of terrible in person teaching, too. Undergraduate students tell me about large lecture classes where they never interact with other students - how is that better than an online course?

How is technology part of the student affairs graduate student experience?

There are the obvious ways that students bring their own preferences toward and reliance on technologies of personal use and learning - social media, searching for literature/information, working on collaborative projects, putting together presentations/reports/posters. And they are compelled to use the technologies with which we now teach (course management software, online courses). Hopefully they are using information sources like the daily Chronicle of Higher Ed and InsideHigherEd.com updates, and ideally also some other daily news source (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN.com, etc.). So information access and management is a big piece of what they're dealing with.

Social media (twitter, facebook, google+, etc.) is another part, typically of their own choosing, though sometimes required for certain courses or particular course activities. I'm not keen on requiring it, but might begin to at some point once I figure out how to make it an educationally meaningful activity and not just a trendy add-on now that I'm feeling all hip and tweety.

A central, I hope, and very interesting use of technology is in grad students' work with undergraduates in assistantships, practicum placements, and so forth. I like hearing about how they use technology to do assessment - formal or informal, be available as advisers, be efficient in their work, and connect with diverse students. To whatever extent their colleagues and supervisors use technology in student affairs work settings, I hope that grad students are involved and contributing to that process. My GA, PhD student Blue Brazelton (@BlueGBB), introduced me to Dropbox, which has changed my life (seriously), and inspired me to give Twitter a try. So there's certainly a place for grad students to "mentor up" in their workplaces.

What could we be doing better in terms of teaching technology at the student affairs graduate level?

First, faculty would have to have more competence ourselves. We professors are used to knowing more than our students, and when it comes to technology, this isn't always the case. As a society and as a profession, we are all learning technology at the same time. So I may know more about student development than my students, but I don't know more about technology than most of them. What I do have, however, is the ability to take perspective on the field and try to see what, how, and where technology could help us do our work better in service to students and institutions. Fortunately, MSU provides me with outstanding support in learning and teaching technology. Our College of Education provides superb support for faculty, partly in the form of Terri Gustafson (@TerriGus). Terri is a PhD student who works full time leading our Center for Teaching and Technology.

Second, we simply must get over the "student affairs happens only (or best) in face-to-face settings." I think this idea has roots in the counseling foundations of some areas of student affairs. But even counseling and outreach services don't have to happen in person to be effective. Until and unless we get over the "bricks and mortar only" mindset, we can't do our best job teaching technology. Even "in-person" students are so fully immersed in digital media that a steady menu of place-based programs and services will miss opportunities for promoting their learning and development.

Third, we need to infuse technology skills and use into the curriculum. It turns out that many students are good at using google to look for information, but don't know much about how it works. Teaching them that can be helpful as they think about web page design for a student affairs office, for example. Pressing them to get better at using digital media to present their ideas in class or at conferences helps them do their jobs better. And being explicit about the affordances AND limitations of technologies helps them become critical participants in digital culture.

Finally, we need to give students spaces away from technology. We need to build low-tech experiences into the curriculum and co-curriculum so that grad students - who are enormously busy - get to know (or remember) what it's like to listen to their ideas and feelings, and to those of others. A low-tech activity I've started this year is "Theory to Go" - an optional, weekly, one-hour walk around the river that runs through MSU's campus, on which we talk about the theories we are learning and listen to one another puzzle through questions related to putting theory into practice. No phones, no computers, no "Can someone google that for us?" Just a handful of people walking and talking about theory. If students take up this habit on their own, I applaud them. But if they take just one hour a week away from technologies, that's still a good thing. I'm not anti-technology, but I do worry that young adults may never discover the kinds of non-technologically-mediated experiences that have served scholars and professionals well for millennia.

What are your thoughts about social media and its impact on student affairs?

It's been interesting to watch the field go from curiosity ("I wonder what this LiveJournal and MySpace things are about? Do you think they've got staying power?") to panic ("Look at those photos on TheFacebook! They're all drunk!) to legalistic ("Can we use those Facebook photos in a judicial case?") to acceptance of and participation in social media ("Have you friended your VPSA? Are you following @DeanElmore on Twitter?"). I don't know that social media have created new forms of bad behavior (harassment, bullying, ostentatious inebriation), but they certainly give them high-def visuals, ubiquity, and permanence that they didn't always have in the same ways. Student affairs as a field has had to respond.

But there are also myriad ways that social media give professionals opportunities to participate in student culture, observe it, and be thoughtful about responding to it that we didn't have before. Parents also are more involved - for better and for worse - in the lives of students through social media. We've got more eyes and ears in student culture than we had before, and we can use it to help students.

Who do you look to for inspiration and innovation in the #SAtech sphere?

Boston University's Dean of Students Kenn Elmore (@DeanElmore) has been ahead in this game for quite some time. He started his dean blog years ago and fills it and his tweets with smart, provocative ideas that cut across pop culture, high art, BU daily life, and student community building. He uses social media to intrude, gently, on the status quo of our lives. Kenn is the kind of professional I emulate: he's not locked into a solitary worldview, on technology or anything else, and he makes you want to see what he's going to do next. He also brings you along with him on his new adventures.

What events, conferences, books, or websites do you attend, read, or peruse for information about #SAtech?

I'm still getting my toes wet here, and my tech interests aren't just in SA - they're more broadly in higher ed, particularly in the ways that digital media influence teaching, learning, student development, and intellectual life. My colleague Steve Weiland keeps me apprised of the smartest work in higher ed in this area. "Hamlet's Blackberry" (William Powers) is essential reading - it reminds us that we didn't invent technology...or tech-overload, and "DIY U" (Anya Kamenetz) was humbling. I stay abreast of Cathy Davidson's MacArthur-funded work and to Christine Greenhow's writing. I don't conform to their version of techno-utopianism - nor do I appreciate the dismissive rhetoric sometimes used to dispatch those who hold opposing views - but I think it's important to take their work seriously, in part because they have the ears of important foundations and policy makers. Mark Bauerlein is another person to follow, even if one doesn't agree with him.
I read the blog EdTechDev and lurk around http://www.hastac.org for interdisciplinarity's sake. I follow #SAtech and a number of prominent #SAtech tweeters.

What are your thoughts about the intersections of social justice and technology?

There's lots of potential for good and for bad here. Technology can be a great tool for education, advocacy, and organization for social justice. It can help people who have never met someone like "X" get to know something about X's culture. But it can also be a way to keep us in our separate worlds. It's like having 600 cable TV stations and a DVR - if I had them, I could just watch what I already know I like and never try anything new, or hear anything with which I disagree (Hello, Fox News and MSNBC, I'm talking to you). When I only find the articles or books that match my search terms on scholar.google, then I miss seeing what else is out there. When I only look at websites that already meet my interests, I miss encountering the "other." At least if I'm browsing magazines in the bookstore (remember those?), I realize that some of my neighbors are as interested in Car and Driver or Town and Country as I am in The Economist and The Advocate. If I only read on my iPad, I don't even have to know about things I'm not already interested in. So that's a downside for diversity and social justice - technology enables us to educate, organize, advocate, but also to isolate ourselves. And I'm not sure we will move quickly toward social justice if we're walking around campus with our earbuds in, looking at our phones for text messages, not seeing the students protesting for X cause.

Any final thoughts about student affairs and technology?

It's an exciting time. Technologies have been changing teaching and learning since people started writing stuff down. Higher education as we more or less recognize it today has been influenced by transportation technologies (trains, cars, planes) and communication technologies (phones, typewriters, computers, internet, digital media). We're not the first generation of student affairs professionals to deal with technological change at work and at home. When Mount Holyoke put phones in student rooms during my first year, one fear was that students wouldn't hang out together in the lounge anymore, waiting for the (one) pay phone on the hall to ring. There's always going to be something new. If set our sails by our professional core values - creating environments that promote holistic learning and development for all of our students - we can make our way to the next day, when the winds and tide will change again. Onward!

I may be biased, but I think this profile just became required reading for the majority of student affairs graduate programs. Thanks Dr. Renn!

Do you tweet? Let's connect. Follow me on Twitter.


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