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Working Smarter: Leveraging Digital Tools for Student Advising


Sara Churchill, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Erica Rose, University of Nebraska at Omaha


Key Statement: Using digital tools in advising helps create efficiencies in communication, information sharing, and time management, which allows more time for building relationships.

Keywords: Advising, Relationships, Technology


Introduction


Advising is important to a college student’s academic success and perceived quality of experience (Hart-Baldridge, 2020). There are some aspects of high-quality advising experiences that carry across disciplines, modalities, and levels. These include building strong relationships, timely communication, staying organized, and effective time management. Academic advising is complex and multifaceted, and yet many faculty advise without much training. Online environments further complicate things, removing opportunities for extemporaneous interactions and information sharing. Navigating technology can be a very challenging aspect of academic advising. And yet, “if institutions also adopt advising structures and processes that leverage technology [they might] provide a more intensive and personalized advising experience” (Kalamkarian et al., 2018, p. 1). In other words, the right technology tools allow an advisor to build relationships, communicate clearly, stay organized, and maximize time. All of this ensures that information is properly disseminated, allowing for a greater focus on relationship development, which is crucial to successful advising. This article will provide ideas on how advisors can strategically use digital tools in conjunction with advising best practices.



Photo by wocintechchat, Unsplash.



Relationships and Communication


Ask a P–12 educator what the most important teacher-controlled factor is to student success and you will likely get the same response: strong relationships help students become successful learners. This concept holds true regardless of the age of the student. In fact, Felten and Lambert (2020) call it the "beating heart of the undergraduate experience" (p. 1). Research consistently shows that relationship-building is essential to creating successful and satisfied candidates. Hart-Baldridge (2020) goes on to say that "the potential for student connection through academic advising holds significant implications for retention and persistence of college students" (p. 10). Advisors use meetings to communicate critical information about the institution, assist students in navigating policies, and offer a full picture of campus support (Hart-Baldridge, 2020). Ultimately, this "institutional communication" empowers students to be independent learners. In order to accomplish this goal, there are both synchronous and asynchronous tools an advisor can use to their advantage.



Synchronous Tools


Relationship-building often takes place via synchronous digital communication tools like Zoom or Teams. Spending time talking with candidates about their goals and concerns helps students feel supported and combats feelings of isolation as they become aware of themselves as members of a community (Haythornthwaite & Kazmer, as cited in Hrastinski, 2008). Advisors must think carefully about when synchronous communication best serves the interaction. When determining if synchronous communication is preferred, consider whether or not the content of the message is complicated or emotionally charged. Are nonverbal communication cues (body language, voice tone) important? Is spontaneity valuable in the interaction?



Asynchronous Tools


Communications that contain complex directions or are data-heavy are likely better suited to asynchronous methods. Consider if written documentation is needed for policy purposes or even simply as a point of reference for the student. We have long relied on email, but there are a few strategies that can streamline that process. Email templates save time when creating boilerplate responses, responding to repetitive questions, or sending out mass messages or duplicative announcements. Bulletins can also be sent in a timely manner via email blasts or listservs. Felten and Lambert (2020) discuss the faculty’s digital tools at Brown University, including editable emails for advisors to share containing important deadlines and information. “These customized messages spark in-person follow-up conversations that build stronger, more meaningful relationships between students and their advisors” (p. 122). Utilizing a learning management system (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) is another effective way to share information that students want and need. Using courses that candidates are already enrolled in or creating a specific advising course allows advisors to reach students with the push of a button. Social media is another viable tool. Being mindful of your target audience and your institution’s social media policy, you may wish to use a service like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Both social media and learning management systems also help build community, infusing a human element through pictures, videos, and engagement options. A blend of synchronous and asynchronous strategies is sometimes most effective. Sending paperwork ahead of meetings, and following up with summaries and updates, ensures that real-time interactions remain focused on relationship-building.



Organization and Time Management


According to Livingstone and Naismith (2018), the time and work that it takes to effectively advise students is a struggle “balancing time and effort” (p. 88), especially for those who have a large advising load or are expected to also handle teaching, research, and service. Digital tools can greatly assist advising mentors in working smarter, not harder.



Schedulers, Tasks, and Reminders


Agendas can be managed with stand-alone apps like Todoist and Any.do or ecosystem apps like Apple’s Reminders and Calendar and Microsoft’s Outlook Suite. Calendar sign-ups can be an effective way for advisees to set up appointments. You can also create an online form via Google Doc or Sheets or use something like Sign Up Genius or Outlook Calendar.

Consider specific planning needs for each event. Scheduling for a series of topical meetings may be better suited to an online signup form, which affords more control over the scheduling block. Advisors scheduling different types of meetings can streamline the process through tools like Calendly and Fantastical, which allow the user to integrate with several platforms like Zoom and Reminders.



File Management and Document Sharing


Taking the time to organize documents is key. Creating shortcuts to documents, bookmarking folders for consistently used websites, and keeping email archives are all strategies to save time by keeping information easily accessible and searchable. These same strategies can be applied to shareable repositories to make information available to advisees. Create a website, wiki, or develop a course on your learning management system. Even sharing a Google or SharePoint folder effectively distributes documentation. Sending encrypted files or using a service like DocuSign can help safely share important, private documents. These tools eliminate organizing headaches and enhance information accessibility, allowing more energy to be focused on relationship-building.



Conclusion


The right digital tools and strategies help candidates access information, contribute to functional data management, and ensure a focus on relationship-building. While there are many benefits to using digital tools, ensure that you only select tools that are intuitive, integrate seamlessly, and enhance student interactions. This will provide the best experience for both you and your advisees.



Discussion Questions

  1. How do you make your advisees feel valued and seen?

  2. What are the best digital tools you’ve discovered to assist you in organizing your advising load?

  3. What is one way that you can simplify your communication with others?



References


Hart-Baldridge, H. (2020). Faculty advisor perspectives of academic advising.

NACADA Journal, 40(1):10–22. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-18-25

Hrastinski, S. (2008, November 18). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning.

Kalamkarian, H. S., Boynton, M., Lopez, A. G. (2018, July). Redesigning advising

with the help of technology: Early experiences of three institutions.

Community College Research Center.

Livingstone, N., & Naismith, N. (2018). Faculty and undergraduate student

perceptions of an integrated mentoring approach. Active Learning in

Higher Education, 19(1), 77–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787417723233


About the Authors






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