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“Together Alone?”: can technology facilitate connection?

Posted: July 26, 2018 — We all know social connection technology is here to stay. In 2004 when Facebook was a fledging start-up, no one under the age of twenty-two knew what it was, let alone how to use it. Now, “Facebookers” in their 60s, 70s and beyond have made it a part of their daily lives. A sure sign that social connection technologies are mainstream, is when your grandmother tags you in a “pic” at her birthday party or “snaps” you a video of her blowing out her candles.  But is all this social connectedness for good or ill? Are we, as cultural analyst Sherry Turkle states in her 2012 TED talk, “being alone together”? Are we simultaneously being with each other, while we also check in elsewhere on our individual devices? Should we have access to each other 24/7, or would our time be better spent connecting the “old-fashioned” way via phone call or letter, then waiting for a response? Are both mutually exclusive; can we strike a balance?

At FM, we ponder these types of questions. How much access should we have to our students and them to us? We constantly strive to find the correct balance between accessibility and privacy, of letting students be on their own but to also be available should they need our help. In this search for balance, two new social connection technologies have been helpful to us.

Starfish, is an early alert and student retention software. It allows identification of students in need, facilitates cross-department communication with and about the student, and assists academic advisors in managing issues to resolution. This one-stop platform allows students, advisors and instructors to all be on the same page regarding student performance and success. If the instructor is concerned about the student, they simply “raise a flag” alerting the student and their advisor to the concern. If a student has a question they can virtually “raise their hand” or access their Starfish “success network” of college staff that can assist them. Starfish even has student and staff profile pictures, just like Facebook, so both can virtually “see” each other.  In this manner, all parties, (students, staff and instructors) can easily communicate and connect with one another.

One of the primary tenants of good service is to connect with your customer in the manner through which they are most comfortable. In higher education, our students have told us if we want to reach them we should text them. Mongoose, a texting platform for colleges, allows us to do just that. Advisors can compose their messages to students via the Mongoose website and receive responses there, as well as in their email inbox. For students, the message appears as a standard text message to which they can instantly respond and, most importantly, get an answer back. This software allows advisors to reach out to their students individually and exchange in back and forth dialogue that is essential for true person-to-person connection.

Ms. Turkle concluded her TED talk on an optimistic note with hope that, “technology can lead us back to our real lives.” FM’s use of both Starfish and Mongoose does not replace “real life” interactions; it actually facilitates them. The instructors and students behind these platforms are real with real concern and care for the students they serve. These technologies allow us to open and grow connections with each other and our students. They allow us to bring everyone together rather than leaving students out on their own, all alone.

Jean A. Karutis, Associate Dean for Student Retention and Success

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