By Robert Ubell (Columnist)
Jan 13, 2020
“A couple of decades ago, when I was dean of online learning at Stevens Institute of Technology, a small STEM college on the Hudson with a view of mid-Manhattan, we polled our digital students about why they chose to enroll as virtual learners. Did they come to our virtual classrooms for the strength of our faculty? The quality of the program? The reputation of the college?
When we tallied the results, one reason emerged as a driving force for our online learners: They came seeking convenience.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. Noted Columbia University legal scholar, Tim Wu, has called convenience, “the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today” and “perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies.”
Of course, technology has brought new conveniences for on-campus as well as online students. Back when I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, for example, each semester I’d queue up for hours in the school gym in front of long tables with blank-faced staff to register for class. I’d fret that my longed-for Shakespeare class would close-out by the time I finally reached the front of the line.
Today, students register painlessly from their dorm, home, or anywhere with their laptop or smartphone. And that is what students now expect, since digital services have practically eliminated standing in line anywhere. Raised on apps and on-demand media, students can access almost anything, merely by keying a link. But these days colleges can be left behind in their digital services.
“Higher education has not yet figured it out,” Peggy McCready, associate vice president for IT services and support at Northwestern University, recently told me. “Service and support at universities are not up to the level of personalization we’ve grown accustomed to at the drugstore, where your prescription is refilled automatically and you’re reminded when you haven’t picked it up.”
One reason, she argues, is that colleges and universities are often radically decentralized, making the standard of service different in different campus departments and sectors. “With a more diverse student population, nontraditional students, without helpful and easily accessible tools, struggle to find resources they need to succeed.”
Inconvenience–like forcing students to rush around campus from one dean’s office to another for approvals–neither builds character nor imparts learning, but inflames exasperation with a college’s inattention to student needs. Student life is complicated and stressful enough without adding unnecessary obstacles.
“As consumers, convenience is one of students’ key expectations, but not often realized on campus,” said academic IT guru Lev Gonick, Arizona State University’s CIO, in an interview last month. “Even so, convenience is a huge and basic student expectation. Wrap-around services make students feel they are very much part of the university.”
Eighteen months ago, ASU launched a mobile app, an online one-stop-shop, helping students, not only with maneuvering campus services, but decisively providing robust student engagement. ASU students have now downloaded it 130,000 times, accessing it more than 3.4 times a day to check class schedules, navigate campus services, or see student alerts–all in the palm of their hands. Thanks to an integration with TicketMaster, it even gives students access to ASU football games.
One place on campus that has been quickest to bring in conveniences has been the library, where paper card catalogs were long ago retired for digital searching. “The importance of convenience is especially prevalent among younger generations in their studies, but is true across all demographic categories—age, gender and academic role,” concludes a recent report from OCLC, the giant library technology cooperative.
And for plenty of students, college is just not possible unless it is made convenient enough to fit into the limited time and space they have to devote to studies. That’s especially true for students working full-time jobs, for parents caring for children and for others who cannot just hop into their cars and drive off to a campus.
That’s why online programs at colleges have also been a leader in focusing on convenience, and why more than a third of the nation’s students are now online.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that digital replacements for onerous tasks will be simpler or easier to use. Just recently, it took me more than 20 minutes, with several failed attempts, to submit student grades to an awkwardly designed online form that would have been a snap with just pencil and paper. And no one is spared the frustration, waiting while rudely long irritating tunes keep you on hold, attempting to right some trivial, but hostile digital error. Flaws in online convenience can turn into a nightmare of dysfunction.
There are those who think that convenience is just an expensive trick, exploited by capitalism to circulate commodities faster than ever to increase profit. Like Sirens in The Odyssey, consumerism seduces our desires–envy, fame, or happiness, and love–compelling our keyboard fingers to click-open our credit cards faster than ever.
“Making things easier isn’t wicked,” argues Wu. “On the contrary, it often opens up possibilities that once seemed too onerous to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries.”
For scholars and academic leaders who encourage young minds to explore philosophy, science and other heady pursuits, focusing on student convenience may seem a foolishly trivial detour from what matters most. Yet ignoring convenience could send college students fleeing to more accommodating places that pay more attention to what they need.
And we owe our students convenience for the respect it represents, the sanity it embraces and the kindness it demonstrates. And for some colleges that face falling enrollments, becoming more convenient may be key to survival—just like the shops along my street that have been threatened by Amazon and other online options.”
Robert Ubell is vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on virtual education, Going Online, is published by Routledge. He serves on the advisory board of the Online Learning journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.