THE BLOG
08/20/2013 05:01 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

The Good News and the Bad News About College Students and Technology

I am ancient. I remember when I typed my 85-page senior honors thesis on a Corona typewriter sitting in my dorm room, record player blaring as I sang along to the Beatles. I had to use carbon paper so making a mistake was a disaster. I had a space in the library where the books I was using for my research were stacked high and often lugged back and forth to my dorm room. When 20 some odd years later I settled down in my second career and had to do my doctoral dissertation I used a Mac. I still had stacks of books around me because the internet was just emerging. Two years ago when I wrote my book, I CAN Finish College, I sat at my laptop, Pandora in the background (still Beatles) and simply clicked back and forth to varied websites when I needed source material. So it should seem that technology is a totally good thing for students. But not so fast. I do not suggest we go back to the era of my Corona. But I do think that some of the ideas floating about regarding the end of college as we have known it in favor of a totally cyber experience miss the point.

Today the focus of students attending college is clearly on preparation for the workplace. However, note that colleges have been preparing people for work largely since the turn of the last century. I went from a political science degree in college to a corporate career that involved both public affairs and marketing. The Liberal Arts degree (which frankly covers all the major disciplines) has been the basis for corporate careers and leadership for 100 years. We do not need college to teach students how to use technology per se. They are learning it from infancy. They may need to learn how to use it wisely, responsibly and strategically. They may need to learn new platforms and applications especially as they relate to disciplines or professions. However, college serves a multitude of purposes.

The disciplines all offer different ways to learn about people and the world around us. They require different skill sets and approach research and learning in different ways. Some of these ways resonate for some people and not others. Hence the choice of major ideally should play to the individual's strengths vs. some ideal of practical application that may change in less than a decade (witness social media's impact on marketing careers). Learning what makes the world tick and how to engage research and understand problem solving are the workplace skills. Technology is the handy-dandy tool that facilitates the process, provides access to data and information and connects scholarly communities of interest.

In academia there is now the drive toward MOOCs. These massive open online courses can be taught by brilliant scholars but you lose the connection to those scholars in real time. One of the key aspects of the college experience is learning how to interact with people of all kinds. This is an essential workplace skill. The professor is like the boss. You have to know what makes him/her tick and how to relate to a person in authority. The students who do best in college have strong relationships with faculty. The students who might need to learn these social interaction skills are first generation, low-income and often students of color. They are intimidated by the classroom experience and as a result do not ask questions in class or use office hours. They can hide in MOOCs. However later employers do not find them as ready for the workplace as those who have had smaller classes with real people.

Even in the classroom students are often not listening anyway as they text or surf the web. Some professors have banned the use of cell phones and computers in class. Technology can augment or detract from study skills. Again back in my era I took copious notes on pale green lined paper with peacock green ink. Very classy. But at least I had notes to draw on to remember what the professor said and to study from -- maybe to share with an absent classmate. Actually, taking notes on a computer can be efficient as can having the professor email them to the class or include them on a blackboard or other communal sharing platform. But you remember more when you take your own notes. It can be cool to take a picture of a diagram on the board as long as you can avoid the temptation to also photograph the weird student in front of you as well.

Technology has made research from all over the world available at our finger tips. We are not limited to what is in the stacks in the campus library. I must say that I made some splendid discoveries browsing the stacks in search of particular items of interest. But I do love that I can find anything in a matter of clicks. However, it still takes a librarian to teach how to navigate online scholarly journals or show a student the rules to avoid plagiarism and how to attribute to sources properly. In large part, thanks to technology, cheating has become ubiquitous. Students do not know the boundaries between what I thought and what they thought and how intellectual property is property . And if you can steal ideas then all else is fair game too.

Technology has made processes much smoother. I remember as recently as the 1990s when lines at NYU would go around the block into the registrar's office before there was online registration. At the same time these processes can be faceless and frustrating. As a VP of Student Affairs I was once able, with my team, to reconstruct our college's website so as to make processes like registration user friendly which also opened up time for staff to deal with tougher personal issues with students instead of answering the same question over and over. But students should also be encouraged to talk to the humans involved in these processes in order to get their particular issues resolved. They can become defeated by the faceless, technological bureaucracy. And if defeated they drop out. Again learning how to interact with other people is a workplace skill that should be learned in college.

I think back to 1984 when Alvin Toffler published Future Shock. The most important idea of the book was that of high tech and high touch. Those who would propose that the college experience can be replaced fully by technology do not understand that learning is an interactive and social process. For those going to college in late adolescence they are engaging in a transitional period of maturation. For those going to college to prepare for careers, they must build networks and resumes along the way. A purely technologically driven college experience, employers tell us, will not deliver the skills that make for good leaders, productive colleagues, or worthy stewards of any endeavor. Those skills involve working with other people. Enforced classroom etiquette, or taking on team projects or service learning are all good ways to engage students in activities in real time and real life. It is important to read facial expressions and body language. You can't do that in a MOOC.

The late Neil Postman in Technopoly warned of embracing technology without a humanist perspective and a look down the road at consequences. So while I would not give up my computer for the old Corona for love or money, I do want to have our institutions approach the value of technology with a balanced eye and sensitivity to human needs.