A Survey of Technology Usage in Student Affairs

A few months ago, several members of the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community leadership team began to toss around the idea of creating a list of technology competencies specifically for graduate students as they entered into their first full-time jobs in student affairs.

We wanted to ask: what technologies are student affairs professionals using in their jobs? What skills are incoming professionals expected to have as they enter the field? What do people want to know?

But out of these questions we began to realize the lack of a benchmark for technology usage within the profession. So over the course of weeks and months, we set out to create a survey and assess just that. And, more importantly, we set out to kickstart a conversation around the role that technology has in the present and future of student affairs.

I. The Basics

First, let’s dive into some of the basics about the survey (of which you can find an untouched, archived version here – please note that while you can submit responses, we will not be collecting more data). We created the survey using the free Google Docs service, which is great for collecting short responses and doling out quick information.  We utilized a sort of snowball method using email, Facebook, and Twitter and as such have no real idea of what the response rate was. We simply used Excel to analyze the data and parsed the qualitative responses ourselves. The infographic you see below was created with the free website http://piktochart.com.

Due to the nature of this survey, it is probably best to be open about its shortcomings up front: everything we did was in our spare time as graduate students and professionals, using free web programs with absolutely no budget.  This limited our approach in obvious ways, many of which were reflected in how we collected data. We relied heavily on word-of-mouth via email, Facebook, and Twitter updates to spread our survey, which leads us to the most important point: in all likelihood this data is skewed towards professionals who were already inclined to use technology in their personal and professional lives. In fact, our data supports this – no one listed their technological skill level as below average or very below average, but 78% listed their skill level as above average or very above average. Additionally, 95% of all respondents reported using a smart phone.

However, among the 315 respondents we did find an encouraging amount of diversity on the two demographic questions we asked (professional status and functional area). Everyone from grad students (63) to faculty (15) and senior student affairs officers (26) responded, along with a healthy 79 new professionals and 132 mid-managers.  Among those professionals, 27% listed Residence Life as their primary functional area, followed by Student Activities (16%), Leadership (5%), and Orientation (4%), among many others.

II. The Data

The survey was broken down into two main sections: quantitative questions on the use of various technological platforms and skill sets, and qualitative questions on critical skills and future learning. The results for both were eye-opening, to say the least.

For the quantitative questions, we divided the section into both personal and professional usage categories. The numbers for personal use were unsurprising: 96% of respondents used Facebook, along with 82% using Twitter and 81% using YouTube. However, more respondents used the social media platforms at work than we thought: 71% utilized Facebook, 63% used Twitter, and 49% used YouTube.  While these numbers are not as staggeringly lopsided as those in personal use, they still show that, among respondents, social media is an important part of the work environment.

We also asked about other technology-based platforms outside of social media, yielding some interesting results. 99% of all respondents regularly used Microsoft Office applications, 86% used presentation software (such as PowerPoint or Prezi), and 58% utilized cloud drives to store documents and information.

When asked how important various social media platforms were to student affairs in terms of student engagement, the numbers were intriguing: a whopping 95% believed Facebook was important to engagement, and an equally impressive 93% believed Twitter was as well.  Even Instagram, Skype, and Pinterest received large amounts of support from the respondents (68%, 57%, and 40%, respectively). Similarly, when asked what skills they believed new professionals should have, 99% of respondents said Microsoft Office, 96% targeted social media, and 95% said smart phone use.

The numbers are significant. Even if we assume that the average survey respondent had an above average skill level with technology, the sheer proportion of those who believed that social media and other technological platforms had a real place in student affairs says quite a bit about where we might expect our profession to be heading in the next several years. These conversations have been going on for quite some time, and the numbers from this survey lend plenty of credence to the idea that technology will only continue to grow in its influence on student affairs and higher education.

Interestingly, only .05% of respondents (that is not a typo – one half of one percent) reported using accessibility-based tools regularly in their work environment. While the specifics of technological accessibility are outside of the scope of this small survey, it is an important consideration moving forward: how are we maximizing access to technology and information?

To supplement our quantitative data, we also asked three qualitative questions to our respondents:

1) What technology-related skill is most useful to your job on a regular basis?

Many respondents took this question as a chance to point out specific tools as well as skills. Productivity tools had the largest portion with 170 unique responses, encapsulating programs like Microsoft Office, presentation tools, email platforms, and collaborative tools.  However, with 51 responses, social media also accounted for a large portion.  One respondent stated, though, that while strong social media skills were important, “being able to structure whatever information I need to get out starts with productivity tools.”

As for general skills, adaptability was a key theme. One respondent noted that “the landscape for these skills changes too rapidly for grad schools to be expected to reach them. Instead, we should instill values of change and innovation in students.” Similarly, being able to learn new skills on the fly was often listed as a crucial skill. Another respondent said that “understanding how to search for information” was important, because regardless of whether he or she knew the answer, they knew “how to find the answer.”

2) What technology-related skill is most critical for a new professional?

Social media use appeared prominently again for this question, along with productivity tools and presentation platforms.  Knowing “how to use social media strategically to build a professional network and use it as a tool to communicate effectively with the students they serve” was one example of a common refrain among the responses, many of which indicated that simply understanding how to communicate effectively on technological media was crucial. This was echoed by another respondent, who noted the importance of “understanding that tone in written form (email, text, tweet) can be misconstrued and having the ability to communicate effectively in these forums is extremely important.”

One respondent succinctly put what many other respondents either hinted at or stated outright throughout the survey, saying: “Honestly, openness to learning continuously. What’s relevant today won’t necessarily be tomorrow. A never-stop-learning attitude can go a very long way.”

3) What technology-related skills or platforms would you be interested in learning more about?

Perhaps the most surprising result in the qualitative data was the most sought-after technology-related skill: coding.  With 50 specific responses, the ability to code and do basic web design was mentioned regularly. One respondent summed up the feelings of many others, saying “I have no earthly idea how to do it, and it may be a useful skill somewhere down the line.”

Unsurprisingly, both social media and graphic design came close behind coding as the most desired technological skills for student affairs professionals.  There was also a clear desire to stay on the leading edge of education technology specifically, a sentiment encapsulated by one respondent who said: “Whatever is the emerging trends.  I am not concerned with platforms but more how do I say [sic] with or ahead within my field.”

III. The Future

The data is clear: basic technological platforms such as social media, presentation software, and productivity tools remain vital to student affairs professionals, and have a definite place in the profession’s future.  And with a staggering number of respondents making clear the importance of new professionals coming into their jobs with specific technology-based skills, it is important that we begin looking at how we can prepare graduate students and other future professionals to meet the needs of their positions.

Numbers, too, such as the .05% of respondents who utilized accessibility technology should give all of us pause.  For the many ways in which we are successfully integrating technology into our profession, it is clear that an equally large number of aspects go unnoticed or undervalued.

Over the next several months (and years) we in NASPA’s Technology Knowledge Community hope to make good on this information and provide the services that student affairs professionals want.

We also hope that this survey is the first sentence in a lengthy and evolving conversation about the role of technology in higher education and student affairs.  Virtually all of the data we received supported the idea that technology is becoming more and more integrated into our profession, and it is immensely important that we begin to discuss the implications of this sooner rather than later.

- Kevin Valliere (@kevalliere) is a student affairs graduate student at Texas A&M University. He maintains a blog at http://www.kevalliere.com, and can also be reached at vallierekevin@gmail.com.

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  1. #1 by ammamarfo on August 6, 2013 - 8:48 am

    This is a great start to our conversation about tech in student affairs. I’d be interested to see what this survey would look like if we reached out to that admittedly “below average” population and asked what they want to see or believe is important. Perhaps a follow up, paper/pencil format could be done specifically to target that sector?

    I’m also really interested in the 0.5% that reported using accessibility technology. I wonder if that number is so low because so many rarely interact directly with the devices, instead leaving it to disability support services. Further, was anyone from disability support services represented in respondents? I wonder what that sector’s tech usage looks like, and if the population they serve heavily uses the other tech that was otherwise reported as highly utilized…hmmm…

  2. #2 by Kaela Parks on August 9, 2013 - 5:11 pm

    I too question why 99.5% of these above average tech loving student affairs professionals say they do not use accessibility related tools in their daily work. Adding alt text to images or captions to videos can and should be part of standard business. There are awesome tools out there, and there are innovative work flows that can be leveraged, but alas, there is much yet to be done in terms of increasing awareness, developing appropriate policies, recognizing standards, and cultivating a culture of shared responsibility.

    Truthfully, we are already long past the days when Disability Services should be expected to come along and retrofit. In today’s digital environments, the accommodation model simply doesn’t cut it. If we wait for someone to encounter the barrier, then report it, then wait for us to fix it, we have already violated their civil rights. Everyone else had access 24/7. It is not fair.

    We have a real responsibility to ensure our online presence, our information, and our engagement points, are conceived of, and built, with accessibility in mind so that each individual who has a right to benefit, can do so in a relatively straight forward manner.

    For those who haven’t seen it, take a look at the recent Louisiana Tech settlement. It is requiring implementation of policy that will ensure all technology, including websites, instructional materials, and other electronic and information technology is accessible.
    http://www.ada.gov/louisiana-tech.htm

    For a definition of accessible, see the recent agreement with the South Carolina Technical College System which states that “Accessible” means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner with substantially equivalent ease of use.
    http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/investigations/11116002-b.pdf

    If any of this has folks interested, consider participating in the upcoming audioconference through the Association on Higher Education and Disability – A Clear Standard for Access to Instruction
    http://www.ahead.org/events-and-workshops/audio-conference

    This is an exciting time. Technology is infused in education more then ever. Student affairs professionals have an opportunity. We can embrace technology and work toward not only greater student engagement, and professional competency, but also greater social justice.

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