Saturday, February 21, 2009

Student Technology Forum

So often we make assumptions about what students want, based upon our reading or casual observations or our own experiences as students. Instead of making assumptions, why don't we talk to students more often?

Last semester a few colleagues from IT and I met with Student Government (SGA) leadership to discuss technology and library issues on campus. What's working, what's not, what can we do to provide better services for students? I did not expect some of our best students--our campus leaders--to admit to Googling for resources for a paper or to not know about many of our services such as chat reference and one-on-one consults. The students in the group who used library resources tended to stick to just one database such as JSTOR or Academic Search Premier. The discussion was lively and enlightening, and we decided to offer a much larger student forum in the spring.

I was delighted that SGA and IT took me up on my offer to hold the student forum in the Hub. We felt that offering the event in the evening in a heavily trafficked location like the library would provide a much bigger turnout. The previous event was entirely attended by Student Government leadership, likely because it was in the middle of a Thursday afternoon in a small meeting room. Plus there were no incentives like free pizza or giveaways.

So on Tuesday, February 17 at 7:30 pm, IT and SGA invited students to come to the Hub to talk about technology but also to take advantage of free pizza and a drawing for the iPod Touch (five of them!). The date and time were carefully chosen--away game, wasn't televised until 9 pm--to draw maximum attendance. IT advertised on Facebook and sent an email to all students. We posted flyers around campus, and about an hour before the start of the event, we talked to students on every floor of the library and distributed flyers.

To our amazement, over 250 students came to the forum. While it was nearly impossible to have a substantive discussion with a group this large, we did ask them some questions before we turned them loose on the pizza. What they told us wasn't too surprising--they wanted more wireless on campus, particularly in their rooms in the residence halls, they wanted more cell phone coverage inside of campus buildings, they loved the Hub (hooray!) and wanted more places like it around campus. In general, they greatly preferred wheeled furniture and wanted more whiteboards. When I asked them if they had ever used "the help desk" or even knew why it was there, I got a lot of blank looks and had to explain. Several students made comments about individual issues, and I suggested they visit "the help desk" in the Hub. They appreciated the advice, though that made it even clearer that they were unfamiliar with our services.

Once the pizza line formed, many of us mingled with the students and asked more questions. I found it useful to talk with students in the pizza line--captive audience, can't escape. Seriously, I had some good conversations and heard many of the same comments repeatedly about wireless, furniture, and so forth.

The ticket for the prize drawing was a short survey about their communication preferences, what kinds of devices they own, what services they are familiar with, what other services they would like to see, etc. IT staff are still compiling the results, and I am very curious to see the responses. I have heard already that some students answered the "what other services would you like to see" question with: moving sidewalks, Segways for all, deer with antler-mounted lasers. At the very least, these will be fun to read.

So what to do differently next time?

We had some obvious logistical issues, but that happens when you have events that large. I've learned a great deal about these things from my experience with the Hubbub parties, so we'll just add our observations to the list of things to do differently next time.

While I love hosting events in the Hub, we may move the forum to a new location next semester to attract a different group of students. Several of the campus computer labs have been designated as "hublets" by IT--basically spaces that are information commons-like, so perhaps one of those locations will be the next host. We are also considering holding a forum focused more on faculty and graduate students--perhaps a wine and cheese party?

Photo by Tony Jenkins

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