Coddle students? or leave them alone?

As students go to college–particularly traditional students going straight from high school to college–they are “new” adults, and colleges often want to help them develop outside as well as inside the classroom. I believe it’s useful to call out the continuum of support for students, going from one extreme, “coddling,” to the other extreme: “abandonment.” Smaller, private schools tend to be very protective and watchful; larger, public schools tend to leave students to fend for themselves.

For parents of traditional students, at least, a significant portion of the college value proposition is the college watching out for their children as they develop. Watching out for kids costs money, for example in terms of adult/student ratios (e.g. teacher/student, resident director/student).

I believe that we need to design higher education services with a full, conscious understanding of how our institutions are trying (or not trying) to support students. We can use that understanding to design our IT services.

Here are some examples of the protective vs. the “leave them alone” mentality:

  • Advising: do advisors¬†select the courses? actively advise the student? passively advise the student (i.e. answer questions)? meet with the students? exist?
  • Special favors: do staff break rules to help students (e.g. keep the library open when it’s about to close)? do staff actively advocate for students? are staff interested in helping? will staff talk to students?
  • Flexibility in class assignments: will faculty bend over backwards to accommodate unusual student situations (e.g. letting students re-take their final exam because they say they had an allergic interaction to something)? will faculty move assignment due dates because of events important to their students? will faculty accept late assignments? do students receive a 0 for late assignments regardless of why they’re late?
  • Listening to students: if students want a popular band to come to campus, will they get the money for the band to come? if students protest, will the school change? do students have any venue for expressing their opinions?
  • “Do-overs” for grades: if a student fails a class, can they take it a few more times and only have the final time count? if they fail, can they re-take it once and only have the final time count? if a student fails, can they take the class again? are there “weed-out” classes explicitly designed to fail students?

This thinking applies to IT services, too: should IT services be designed to “protect” students (sometimes from themselves)? Or should students be fully responsible for their own decisions?

I’m going to list several situations, but not provide answers. In my mind, there is no right answer–it depends on the value proposition of your particular institution.¬†However, I think you can make better decisions about how services should be designed if you understand this continuum–and if you understand that people are rarely on the same page about how much the student should be supported vs. be independent. Note also: often, the people deciding how much to “protect” students are not students.

Should IT remove “distractions” from the classroom?

Sometimes students don’t listen in class–maybe they instead use Facebook. Is it the school’s job to make these students pay attention, or are they adult enough to decide whether they want to listen?

Some people (notably some faculty) think that the school should remove distractions from the student, by not installing or by cutting off network access in classrooms and/or disabling University-owned devices from classrooms.

Should IT back up student files?

Students may have institution-provided storage: Google Drive, a network share, an external drive, or a computer, for example. Is it the student’s job to back up these files, or IT’s job?

On one side, students need to learn how to back up their own files, and it can be safer to lose all your data in college than it might be later in life. On the other, it stinks to lose your files and IT is usually capable of backing up files.

If the LMS crashes, should students be allowed to turn in assignments late?

If the learning management system (LMS), say Blackboard or Sakai, crashes at 3 AM the night before an assignment is due, should students be allowed to turn in their assignments late? Or should they understand that technology fails sometimes and have planned for a potential outage?

Should the Service Desk be staffed 24×7? Or 9×5?

If a student needs computing help at midnight, should they be able to get immediate help from the Service Desk? Or should they have planned so that they don’t find out at midnight that they need computing help?

If students email something inappropriate, should the email be blocked–or purged?

If a student sends their transcript to the wrong address (say “my-dorm@example.edu” rather than “my-professor@example.edu”), should there be a control in place to prevent that message from being sent? Or, even more, should IT go into people’s email boxes to remove the message?

Printing for students

Should students receive free printing? Discounted printing? Full-price printing on campus?

  • Private university prof

    At the (private) university where I teach, we lean toward the “coddle” end of the continuum. Of course, we don’t see ourselves as coddling our students. I would describe the focus as being motivated by the best interest of the student. For example, it’s in the student’s best interest to be nudged toward independence. Policies and processes (late work accepted or not? consequences of submitting work late? no electronic devices permitted to be used or displayed while class is in session? etc.) are clearly stated on a course syllabus and the student is then expected to follow them.

    As for the role of IT, in the classroom I expect to be in on decisions about which technologies my discipline or topic needs and then for all the technology to work. I like being virtually (smile) unaware of the people behind the technology when I’m teaching. Outside the classroom, I like for IT to solve my technology problems, discuss IT issues central to my professional endeavors to raise my understanding of it to a reasonably intelligent level, from my dullard natural inclinations. I like to collaborate with IT: IT is the expert or the problem-solver-colleague when I run into issues, while I am the needy one.

    I’m not particularly proud of all of this being teaching and instructor/student centered, yet that seems to be the focus of the private university: education of the whole student, inside and outside the classroom.