Sunday, March 18, 2018

Embedded with the Enemy


For two years I was honored to serve as the chair of the Program and Content Committee for ACUTA.  My primary responsibility was to coordinate the committee‘s mission to procure quality speakers and intense educational content for these who work in Information Technology in higher education.  In the midst of those responsibilities, for the 2016 Annual conference in San Diego, I thought to assemble a random student panel to answer questions for our attendees. 

Like most of my good ideas, this one resulted from equal parts inspiration and desperation.  We needed to fill a speaking slot at the conference on short notice and San Diego State University was overflowing with students.  I thought a chance to interact directly with students might give our attendees (mostly back office information technology and telecommunications staff) a chance for some entertaining feedback.  It was a hit.  We held student panels at each event following until the end of my term.

From each panel, I took away insights into what students really wanted – not what a magazine reported that they wanted, what they truly desired.  It was invigorating for a back office staff member to hear how technology was affecting student lives.

And, if you’ve never heard a student directly thank you for your work in maintaining some obscure piece of infrastructure, then you haven’t lived.

But, rallies fade and insights can grow stale.  Once returning to the office, direct and energizing interaction disappeared and feedback was once again reduced to reports, customer surveys, focus groups, complaints, refinement requests, trouble tickets, project proposals, six sigma, performance appraisals…

And then I started graduate school in the Fall of 2017.  I was a student.

And overnight I stepped into a role I thought I understood, in a technological environment that I know I understand.

And immediately, I stumbled. Loss of Wi-Fi meant something completely different.  I was limited in where I could work on group projects.  I tripped during registration.  I registered for classes in one web site, found out what books I needed in another, and actually took classes at another web site.  I followed procedural forms from yet another web site in order to make sure my class fees were paid.

As a service user, I was left wondering why it was so hard to get the services I needed.  While working, I was busy patting myself on the back for being part of the team that delivered those services with minimal downtime and short response time.  I had never lived it from the user perspective.  And living it, is a completely different experience. 

And now, I was interacting with students on a daily basis.  In conversation after conversation, I was learning what was truly important to our student body: easy use of systems, calendars, and ubiquitous campus Wi-Fi in the exterior of buildings.  Student Pokemon Go players became an unpaid cadre of Wi-Fi testers now that they knew they had some one’s ear.  They’ve directed me to multiple sites where Wi-Fi needed to be reinforced and the students had a demonstrated need.

With all of the efforts we take to solicit student opinion, the simplest solution seems evident. Become a student.  Many institutes of higher education offer free classes as a benefit but I don’t think that we truly realize the gains that come from having employees become students.  The employees become invested in the institution.  The institution has value and the students are no longer complaining kids, they become our peers.

And, as UF begins the effort of rolling out two factor authentication to our general population, I’m glad that, as a student, I was able to bump my head against the student side of adaptation before the general population.  Luckily, my professor was kind enough to allow me to have my phone with me during our secure testing procedures.  His rules did not allow for any phones or anything other than a laptop, but without my phone I cannot log in to any university system.  He and I worked it out, and I was able to report back on a probable pain point in our upcoming deployment.

They aren’t the enemy, but there’s no better way to understand the students on your campus than becoming one of them.  And, staff enrollment is an underutilized option that institutes of higher education have available for both professional development, and student outreach.  We shouldn’t ask whether classes will help our employees in their roles, but rather acknowledge how the act of taking classes at our colleges inherently make them better employees. 

Staff involvement in our campuses pays dividends.

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