Digital Is Only a Distraction If Students Don’t Have Useful Things to Do With It

Can we blame them if we're not mobile?

The debate about the ‘digital distraction’ technology causes in the classroom isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Professors claim students are distracted by their phones during class, that they aren’t paying attention, that they can’t multitask, that their learning suffers. (If pointing out the negative of a potential situation were all it took to change a habit, the distracted driving trend would disappear in a heartbeat.) Students counter that when they’re bored in the classroom, they go to their phones… “give me something relevant, and digital-related to do—stop boring me.”

Educators across the country are trying to find ways to marry digital excitement with learning outcomes, for the better. Yet the financial aid office seems to be at the very very back of the pack when it comes to keeping up with our digital, mobile-minded customers. Why?

Mobile Technology – Here to Stay

According to the PEW research center, 67% of cell owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls—even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating. And 44% of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their beds because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other other updates during the night. Millennials are the largest segment of smartphone owners, according to Nielsen. In 2014, 85% of Millennials aged 18-24 and 86% of Millennials aged 25-34 owned one. A multi-year study of students’ mobile learning practices in higher education confirms that “mobile device ownership is high and continues to increase among students.”

Percentage of students who own a device and use it for learning - 2012 and 2014

The Dizzying Speed of Information

With a smartphone ever-in-hand, students are never (or rarely) without access to the information they want or the tools they need. They have high expectations around speed and accessibility of information. Don’t believe me? Check out  Internet Live Stats, part of the Real Time Statistics Project, for an overwhelming visual of the data that flows in one second… here are some highlights:

  • 7,098 Tweets
  • 32,678 GB of internet traffic
  • 52,678 Google searches
  • 116,114 YouTube video views
  • 2,463,035 emails sent

Yet we want students to fax sensitive information or drop by the financial aid office…. See the issue?

Financial Aid Offices Need to Overhaul

Rather than trying to hold back the digital tsunami, financial aid offices should be embracing mobile technology and EdTech offerings. Forcing millennials (or anyone who doesn’t prefer to do things the old-school way, for that matter) to download and fill out an application, then scan and fax it back isn’t the right approach. Neither is adding more staff to financial aid offices to help quell the growing lines (in-person and on the phone) of people who need support. Making advancements in our digital/mobile capabilities is.

Our Hurdles Are Not Their Problems

When a student who has grown up with technology at their fingertips begins to look at applying for Financial Aid, we must seem almost prehistoric. True, our industry has unique issues and concerns:

  • Compliance risks
  • Information security
  • Limited technology resources
  • Competing priorities
  • Budget constraints

We have to band together to find mobile solutions that drive student success. We need to stop saying digital advancements don’t apply to us.

How We Move Ahead

It’s time to be honest about the mobile/digital experience we’re offering student who apply for financial aid. Here are some suggestions that can help us get started.

  • Audit your school’s financial aid website to gauge if it is mobile friendly. Is the text big enough to read? Are the links spaced out enough? Does the content render in a reader-friendly way on a small device? Google’s mobile-friendly test analyzes URLs and offers suggestions on how to improve.
  • Model digital best-practices in other industries. Today’s banking experience looks nothing like banks of the past. Mobile apps, virtual chat, checks deposited by photo upload… these are all things that are possible—and can improve the student experience in financial aid.
  • Regularly reevaluate. Hypothesize, build, evaluate and iterate. Being okay with the status quo doesn’t cut it.
  • Do more than check the box. Go beyond providing the minimum regulatory required information: make the content consumable and approachable by our students.

Think Differently

As Rubin wrote, “Iterative development acknowledges that we will probably get things wrong before we get them right and that we’ll do things poorly before we do them well.” Financial aid offices need to take the risk to get some things wrong (and fix them) as we move forward to where our students need us to be.

About the Author

Amy Glynn, VP Student Financial Success

Amy Glynn joined CampusLogic in 2013, focused on helping colleges and universities deliver student financial success through automation, advising, and analytics. Ever-focused on improving staff efficiency and the student experience, Amy has spent more than a decade optimizing the financial aid process while ensuring institutions maintained compliance with Federal Title IV regulations. A sought-after national-stage speaker, Amy champions ideas that can help turn the tide for the nearly 3 million students who drop out of higher education every year for reasons related to finances. Student financial success has become a strategic imperative for all higher education institutions and Amy often lends her voice to policy discussions focused on improving accessibility, driving informed borrowing, and increasing completion. Amy earned her Master of Science in Higher Education from Walden University.

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