Student Attitudes toward Technology in Advising

Students love tech.

If they could spend all day on their phones, they would, so the story goes.

But dig a little deeper and students will tell you there are times when they can't find what they want through digital tools.

In new research into the use of technology in college advising, the Community College Research Center (CCRC) examined how students perceive and use technology. In focus groups, the students — 69 mostly full-timers at six colleges ranging in age from 16 to over 60 — had no objection to using technology for simple tasks like registering for classes, and appreciated the ease and convenience it provided.

But we also found that many students want to talk to advisors face-to-face for more complex topics such as planning courses of study across semesters, choosing majors, and considering career paths.

These students understood that counselors could help fill gaps in their knowledge and turned to advisors to learn planning skills they could apply down the line. They sought advising interactions that could, in essence, be learning experiences. This desire echoes literature indicating that, ideally, advising should be approached as a form of teaching. Unfortunately, advising-as-teaching happens less often than it should, especially in under-resourced colleges.

In an effort to take the pressure off poorly staffed advising departments, more colleges are turning to a variety of integrated planning and advising, or IPAS, systems to automate more advising functions. The products provide a range of features including automated communication, systems for identifying academically at-risk students, interactive course planning modules, and shared staff access to notes from advising sessions. Many colleges, academics, advocates, and stakeholders believe that students will gravitate toward the new technological tools and assume that as they take the burden off advising staffs, they will also succeed in improving the advising experience for students.

Our study finds that just deploying technology and hoping that students use it isn't likely to change their experiences or, ultimately, their outcomes. Instead, what is needed is a deliberate approach to integrating technology tools into improved advising models that allow for advising-as-teaching. To do this, it is important to understanding students' attitudes toward technology in advising. After all, if they don't use the tools or the reforms don't meet their needs, they won't work.

The Community College Research Center's new study looked at student attitudes toward technology at three levels of advising:

  • administrative tasks,
  • supporting and encouraging students, and
  • more intensive advising to help students develop skills to identify their goals and plan for the future.

For simple tasks, students were happy to go online and skip the extra time waiting in line or making an extra trip to campus to meet with an advisor. But they had more mixed feelings about using technology for encouragement and emotional support, particularly through early alert systems. Some students felt the alerts showed the college cared, while others felt they were invasive and judgmental.

At the same time, most students wanted to learn from advisors how to approach complex decisions, such as planning educational and career paths. For that, they needed to meet face-to-face and work through the steps to reach a decision. Technology could help with that process, the students said, by allowing them to do research ahead of time and come with questions. But they did not feel it could replace one-on-one advising.

Overall, students supported a middle path for advising, neither all digital nor all person-to-person. Technology, in their view, could play a helpful supportive function, but not replace the person in the office who knows how the system works and can answer the unasked questions.

Based on this research, institutions may want to consider targeting technology tools toward less complex advising tasks. In the best-case scenario, technology could improve advising without a huge new investment by freeing advisors from clerical tasks so they can focus on a more in-depth, face-to-face, advising-as-teaching approach. That would give them a greater chance of helping students overcome the challenges that can derail their educational careers.


Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian is a research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

© 2016 Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian.