A President's Reflections

Technology and the Human Heart of Learning

Posted on November 14, 2013

I have worked with technology and education for all of my career. My doctoral research looked at the way teachers were trying to shape the new emerging technologies of the late eighties. In the mid-nineties, I spent three years heading a higher education technology group for Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company (the heady days of the dot-com era). At Marlboro College we launched the first degree programs related to e-commerce and even a Master of Arts in Teaching with Internet Technologies. Here, at SNHU, we have become a leader in online learning and technology plays a big part in our groundbreaking competency-based degree program, College for America.

So I’m sort of a techie nerd.

It’s a pretty exciting time for techie nerds in education. In the last twenty-years, the global connectivity afforded by technology has dramatically disrupted higher education. Geographic and market boundaries mean very little. Information has exploded and is moving towards being free. Libraries and literacy have been redefined. A range of technologies have become part of our pedagogy, part of how we interact with students, and a big part of how we deliver all kinds of administrative processes associated with campus life. Data analytics will increasingly provide optics into teaching and learning.

More recently, we have been thrilled by the promise of MOOCs to reach hundreds of thousands of students around the globe, by the insights and power of “smart” adaptive learning systems, and the role of technology in creating new business models and even new providers of education. For example, online learning drove the transition of the for-profit sector from mostly small family run proprietary schools to for-profit behemoths who educate somewhere around 10% to 12% of American college students.

I remain pretty excited about technology.

However, in all of my work I come back again and again to a core reaffirmation of human factors in learning. Technology can help in this area, allowing an advisor to video Skype with an online student thousands of miles away, for example. But the powerful part of the equation is the advisor and student relationship, not the video-conferencing. When we look at the success of our online programs, all sorts of operational practices, data, and technology support the effort.

Yet, the real magic is in the work of our advisors, the faculty members who engage and inspire, and the culture dedicated to student success. MOOCs are great, but mostly content and platform. Adaptive learning is great, but mostly learning science. For our students, the much more critical areas of need are confidence, drive, grit, perseverance, reassurance, aspiration, and curiosity.

These are fundamental human factors – not really even academic ones – that are situated in the messy, unpredictable, shadowy, joyous recesses of the human heart. I know that sounds romantic or fuzzy, but if you listen to our successful students, they never cite in their success any amazing content, the imaginative learning exercise employed in a class, or the cool technology with which they played (though they might appreciate all three). It is always a teacher-mentor, an advisor that was their advocate and learning partner, a work study supervisor on the staff.

No matter the person, the central message alumni recall is always the same: You Matter.

Not being there for students — at an open house, when they are struggling, when they need advice – is a way of saying that they do not matter. Rigid policies that are upheld for the sake of upholding them are a way of saying that students do not matter, or at least that they do no matter as much as the policy. Most insidious of all might be demanding too little of students, the poverty of expectation that says you matter so little we don’t care to ask much of you. Countless underperforming high schools communicate that message every day and we see the result in the remedial needs of incoming students.

I feel badly for students in some ways. Their government mostly tells them they do not matter, dysfunctional as it is. Mediocre schools send the same message. Churches and temples hardly play the same role they once did, and in some notable cases, they even broke sacred and secular laws in terrible ways. We’ve treated the environment in ways that suggest we could care less about the generations that follow us, namely them and their children. The job market is not exactly inviting or reassuring.

But students find their way to us and on our best days we send a differnet message. Barely a day goes by without a reminder of how good SNHU is in caring for students and telling them that they matter. Some examples:

• The call from a OneStop staff person who knows of a student being crushed by circumstance and financial burden, asking for us to provide some more scholarship support.

• The email from a recent graduate saying the extra time a career center person took with him helped them land that new job.

• Any visit to the Advantage Program in Salem, where the staff work magic.

• Faculty taking students to hike the great western parks during break.

• The faculty member who agrees to advise a club sport – in a sport he doesn’t actually like – and then shows up for every single game.

• The coach who ends up teaching as much about leadership and responsibility and commitment as she does about the game.

• The staff person who takes an international student home for dinner on the holidays.

• The faculty member who calls her old graduate advisor and works to get a student into graduate school.

The list goes on and on and these are the norm, not rarities. The message to the student, in every case, is that he or she matters.

Technology does not touch this central human interaction and, as messy and hard to measure and hard to define as it may be, it remains the difference-maker. In a new Fast Company article there is a long and interesting article on Udacity, one of the big three MOOC providers, and its predictable shortcomings and inevitable change of course. As genius founder/CEO Sebastian Thrun talks about what didn’t pan out, I was struck by how oblivious he seems to the biggest issues: lack of meaningful human contact, sense of belonging, the feeling that one matters, and the mix of very human support we provide our students.

We at SNHU also have to be better. We certainly drop the ball from time to time. We can’t ask students to care about intellectual and cultural matters if we don’t show our own passion and care for those same activities. Too many students graduate from SNHU with deficiencies in their skills and knowledge. We still lose too many students along the way.

Someone once told me that we learn best for those that we love best. There were a handful of teachers in my life that I guess I loved, if you use the word “love” loosely. There was Mr. Schlaffman, my 6th grade teacher, who knew most of the Celtics (and later became an NBA ref) and was the coolest guy, and he made me believe that maybe I could go to college someday – when college was not something ever discussed in our neighborhood. There was Mrs. Collins, my high school Social Studies teacher, who instilled in me a curiosity for travel (that later morphed into a passion for travel) and who would for years after write me from far corners of the globe. There was Betsy Harter, the college English teacher who made me love early novels and who left me her library when she died too young. And Helen Heineman, who got me into grad school, and Alan Feldman, who wrote a poem for my inauguration at SNHU.

None of them coddled me – indeed, they each expected a lot and it broke my heart when I fell short, fearing the disappointment I caused far more than the poor grade I received. I came of age under their guidance and they brought out in me my best self. They changed my life. And no technology could have touched my life the way they did.

If you could score me a pair of Google Glasses, the new Samsung smart watch, and a seat on Virgin’s first space flight, I’d happily take all three! But if you could instead get me an afternoon with Professor Harter, I’d trade in a heartbeat. Because what really matters, in education as in life, are people.

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