Every day, I see two people having lunch with one another, both glued to their cellphones, not talking. And I cannot help but think: something valuable is being lost. What is the point of scheduling a lunch date with a friend when your attention is somewhere in digital la-la land?
Working on a college campus, I see many situations like this. Someone forgets their cellphone at home and suddenly it seems as if the earth is crashing down. Cellphones have become the new-age security blankets.
I recently took a group of students on a community-building trip to play mini golf, and they were more preoccupied with taking photos, and posting them to Instagram, than they were actually able to enjoy playing the game. Declaring to the world, online, about their fun day at mini golf trumped engaging in conversation and laughter with those who were there right beside them. In that moment, I witnessed how cellphones have changed the in-person human-interaction landscape.
We cannot blame these students entirely, as this is their norm. On average, a person checks his or her smartphone 150 times per day. Nielsen Media Research has dubbed those born after 1990 and who have lived their adolescent years after the 2000s Generation C, in large part because of their constant connectivity to all digital things. Students who are now entering our colleges' and universities' doors simply don’t know life without cellphones, iPads and laptops. And cellphones are not all bad. These gadgets help college students easily keep in touch with families who may be far away and give students access to campus resources to help navigate the complexities of their new college life.
Yet we all pay a price -- and one that is hard to see, as the damage usually takes place within people. But that does not mean it is any less real. As a master’s student at the University of San Francisco, I have been studying the impact that cellphones have on student engagement. Research has shown cellphone use changes brain activity, negatively impacts one’s ability to identify nonverbal cues and our empathy for others, and can increase risk of depression, anxiety and stress.
And just as concerning, authentic in-person conversations happen less frequently. So while students today may argue that a cellphone is just an object, we who work at colleges and universities can argue otherwise.
In fact, along with their diploma, college graduates should take with them useful skills that they will use in their everyday lives. As educators, it is our job to teach students to think about their relationship to their cellphones and other gadgets. If we care about the livelihood of our current and future generations of students, we need to make teaching healthy digital boundaries a priority on our campuses.
For instance, colleges and universities should consider creating workshops and resources that teach students such boundaries. Liberty University in Virginia is an example of a pioneer in that area. This year, as a part of the university’s academic and advising support services, Liberty launched the nation’s first Center for Digital Wellness with the purpose to “raise awareness about the dangers of digital overuse and saturation.”
The center has organized innovative events including a Digital Detox retreat, where students spend a weekend at a camp with no Wi-Fi access. The center also provides students with a variety of resources such as a digital wellness quiz and a digital wellness challenge that encourages students in concrete ways how can change their daily behaviors using technology.
In addition, a student-led Reclaim Conversation campaign on that campus encouraged students to go out and talk about the importance of face-to-face conversations for happy lives and healthy relationships. Even in its early stages, students at Liberty have already seen changes in their own behavior, how they see others and their relationships with their friends and communities.
The center’s webpage highlights student testimonies on how involvement in the center’s programs has helped enrich their relationships and their ability to self-reflect and be engaged. As one student notes, “My digital life is different now because I have increased my intentionality of making friendships a priority over spending time online. So I have to be more efficient with time to have space for meeting a friend for coffee or spending time in a conversation. It is worth it. I need rich relationships.”
One might argue that it’s too late to try to teach healthy digital boundaries at the college level and that it should instead be addressed in elementary and secondary school. I agree this issue should be dealt with at an earlier age, and I encourage K-12 educators to start thinking of ways they can teach our youth about it. For now, I challenge those of us in higher education to take a lead on dealing with this pervasive issue on our campuses.
While your institution may not have enough fiscal or human resources to build a physical Center for Digital Wellness like at Liberty, you can start in small ways. You can make changes to your student employee handbook for your office, and you can make a change to the office environment. Use your student employee handbook to teach skills of professionalism and tell students to put away their cellphones during work shifts to be more attentive to their work and those whom they are serving.
You can also carve out a portion of the new student orientation program to raise awareness of the issue. Try replicating SoulPancake’s experiment Take a Seat -- Make a Friend to get students talking with one another, and see how much more they learn about their peers without their phones. By doing such an activity, students can experience firsthand the potential upside to unplugging their phones. That can set the tone, telling students to rethink how they show up and participate in campus activities throughout the school year. In these ways, new students can start their college experience on a positive foot while truly engaging with their fellow classmates, as well as faculty and staff members.
In short, we all need to start thinking, start talking and start listening to one another on our campuses. Let’s all put down our damn cellphones.
Jadelin Pikake Felipe is a student services specialist at Stanford University's Archaeology Center and formerly director of enrollment management operations at Menlo College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Higher education is increasingly looking to technology as a means of tackling persistent equity challenges and improving student outcomes. Yet technology in and of itself is not a solution -- unless people use technology to create new systems, behaviors and student experiences.
Encouraging various individuals across an entire institution to use technology in this way is no simple task. It requires thoughtful leaders who understand how to leverage technology to spur deep cultural shifts, those that fundamentally reorient the way an institution meets its students’ needs and engages its faculty and staff members in that challenge.
Many colleges are particularly interested in applying technology to student support services, which have traditionally been underresourced and overburdened. Technology-mediated advising systems are commonly used to plan educational programming, identify and intervene with students who may be at risk, and monitor student progress. They have the potential to clarify program pathways and connect students to vital support services, thereby increasing student retention and completion.
But how does a college move from putting an electronic advising tool in place to creating large-scale technology-mediated change? My colleagues and I at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, studied colleges engaged in this work, and we have learned a great deal from their experiences.
One of the most intriguing findings is the role of leadership -- and not just high-level leadership. Both senior and midlevel project leaders must share a commitment to the same actionable vision of technology as a tool for change. Although it is often assumed that presidents and senior leaders are the key to success, our research supports James Jacobs’s assertion in Inside Higher Ed, which said midlevel leaders are “the real change agents.”
Colleges often consider the implementation of a technological tool as simply a technical problem -- a set of solutions to address inefficiencies. But technology-mediated advising tools ideally provide the gateway to a much larger discussion about a college’s entire approach to advising, moving from a shallow service model focused on course registration to a holistic model that provides individualized support throughout a student’s time in college and that actively intervenes to keep students on track. As other scholars in education leadership have noted, such a major realignment requires transformative change across three levels of a higher education institution: structural, process and attitudinal. Without change at all three levels, opportunities to better serve students through improved systems will be missed.
This kind of transformative change qualifies as what change experts refer to as an adaptive challenge -- one that requires each institution to develop new ways of problem solving because there are no obvious or clearly “correct” answers. For a college or university to undertake such change, it must have leaders in place across all levels of the institution who are capable of motivating people to have difficult, honest conversations and of encouraging them to think and act differently. As opposed to the authority conferred through a title or an organization chart, leadership for transformative change is a complex, dynamic process.
Four Key Approaches
Through our research, we identified four different leadership approaches:
Presidential. Senior leaders have a clear vision for change, but have not fully articulated their vision to project leaders.
Visionary. Senior leaders and project leaders collaborate to develop a shared vision of change, and senior leaders grant project leaders the authority for carrying out that vision.
Technologically focused. Neither senior nor project leaders have a clear vision for using technology to drive change; both are focused on the mechanics of implementing the technology.
Divided. Project leaders understand the potential for change, but they lack support from senior leaders. For these deeply rooted changes to occur, support from both levels of leadership is crucial.
At the institutions we studied, senior leaders controlled financial resources, shaped the institutional culture to encourage receptiveness to new technologies and had the authority to mandate use when necessary. Perhaps counterintuitively, the colleges with a presidential leadership approach were unsuccessful in achieving change, even though they had strong senior leaders. It was only when both senior and project leaders were aligned around an adaptive vision of change (a visionary leadership approach) that structures, processes and attitudes were altered.
For example, at one college, the introduction of an education planning tool sparked several major changes. The senior leadership team championed technology-mediated advising as a crucial component of the institution’s student success agenda. Meanwhile, the project leaders were deeply committed to improving advising services through a greater emphasis on multisemester education planning.
As a result, change occurred in the three key areas. The college lengthened advising appointments to allow more time for using the planning tool and also made the creation of an education plan a requirement for a student success course -- a mandatory course for most first-year students covering a range of topics related to acclimating to college and making use of college resources (structural change). Advisers began interacting with students differently, focusing on mapping out courses for an entire degree, rather than just selecting courses for the upcoming semester (process change). They also started to view themselves as professional counselors supporting institutional goals for improving student success rather than administrative clerks (attitudinal change).
Together, all of these changes transformed the way the college approached education planning. Prior to the introduction of the digital planning tool, the only tool available for long-term planning was a paper worksheet that was used randomly and inconsistently. Describing the switch, one adviser explained:
"When you just have a piece of paper that somebody handed you, it has very little meaning. But if you get to drag and drop and move things around and read course descriptions… it’s a little bit richer. It’s more interactive …. The interactive piece, both with the digital materials and with the adviser, I think, allows for an experience that improves their ability to internalize their plan."
For these deeply rooted changes to occur, support from both levels of leadership was crucial. Senior leaders controlled financial resources, shaped the institutional culture to encourage receptiveness to new technologies and had the authority to mandate use when necessary. However, midlevel project leaders were the ones who ultimately drove change on the ground. Placed in the difficult position of serving as a communication channel between frontline staff, such as advisers, and senior leaders, they were responsible for translating the vision for technology-driven change into action, integrating technological tools into existing systems and processes, and encouraging both advisers and students to use the tools.
Without the support of senior leaders, project leaders did not have enough legitimacy or institutional backing to create the change that was needed. And without the support of project leaders, senior leaders did not have enough knowledge of day-to-day advising functions to create that change, either.
What was the impact on the students? Even though we were only studying the early stages of rolling out these technologies, at the colleges with visionary leadership, significant numbers of students were using the education plans to begin more long-term thinking about their educational and career goals. They were also responding to early alert messages received through risk-targeting systems, and following up with their instructors and advisers to get help when needed
Interestingly, we also found through our research that it is not necessary for senior and project leaders to begin with a shared adaptive vision. Only one of the three colleges that was beginning to demonstrate signs of change started off with aligned leadership. At the other two colleges, the technology implementation itself served as a learning process for both senior and project-level leaders. In both cases, at least one leader recognized the technology’s potential and was able to convey that vision to leaders at the other level.
Thus, based on our findings, we recommend that colleges considering engaging in technology-meditated reform consider three key steps. First, they should assemble implementation teams that include both strong senior and project leaders. Second, they should provide adequate support for project leaders so that they have the authority to be seen as credible by advisers and other frontline staff, as well as have the legitimacy to convey staff needs to institutional leaders. And finally, they should focus on an adaptive, reform-oriented vision for change occurring at multiple levels -- structural, process and attitudinal -- a vision that connects technological tools to larger advising reforms.
Transformative change is challenging work requiring a great deal of collaboration. Implementation of new technologies and processes usually takes longer than anticipated. Identifying the right combination of senior and midlevel project leaders will not be easy. Supporting project leaders so that they have the authority to enact changes and the credibility to convey staff needs to senior leaders may be even harder still.
But investing in the careful selection and support of midlevel leaders is critical for visionary change to take root. Once aligned, the right kind of leadership supporting both the project implementation and the larger institution can make technology adoption a powerful tool for institutional transformation.
Serena Klempin is a research associate with the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.