Community for Higher Ed: What and Why?

I just got some bad advice. Like, the kind of advice that could kill me. Seriously.

If you have read my blogs for long, you likely know that my professional passions are learning, communication, and innovation. But you may also have noted that my informal passions are guitar, disc golf, and weight management. The first two are easy to explain as hobbies. But the last one is from a lifelong issue with weight.

Very long story short, after trying Keto, Atkins, traditional, Mediterranean, Vegan, and a host of others, and despite sticking to them religiously for 3-6 months seeing all of them have zero impact, I stumbled upon, “The Obesity Code” by Jason Fung. His meta-analysis of hundreds of studies left me feeling hopeful once again. The key is insulin, not calories, not meat vs plants, etc. Let me oversimplify the algorithm: produce more insulin, get fatter; produce less insulin, get slimmer.

So, after pouring through all of his books, I felt ready to tackle things anew. A low-insulin diet, punctuated by 3-day fasts, once per month was going to be my new norm. As I always do, I wanted to see if I could get one “kick off” experience with the expert, so I looked to travel to Canada, where Dr. Fung sees patients. But unfortunately, he is not taking new patients. Nor does he make his contact information available, so despite a few key questions, he is unreachable. His website’s recommendation? Join a community he began.

Of course, the community is lightly moderated by a few nutritionists and other folks, so it costs some money. But since this diet is pretty unusual for modern doctors (who only have a single nutrition class in college, with zero PD follow up), I was hoping not to jump without a net. So I joined. But after a month, I left the group. Why? Some potentially deadly advice.

Again, long story short, I had some problems out of the gate which came down to caloric intake, as well as the use of fiber. I posted my troubles to see if anyone else had found answers, etc. In return, I received some advice from a very-well intentioned person recommending a strategy that would see me almost never produce waste. Apparently this person uses the restroom only once per week or so.

Stick with me - we’re almost there.

As some of you also know, my wife suffers from Crohn’s disease - a disease of the gut. She is doing incredibly well today, but almost died over a decade ago. But throughout the journey of her disease, she has become an expert on all things nutrition, as they impact the gut. Including the need for waste, the need for fiber, and more.

Our system is far more like the Koala’s than the Coyote’s.

Our system is far more like the Koala’s than the Coyote’s.

So, she looked at the recommendation from this “helpful” person and cringed. My wife knew the book and the research it was based on, and she instantly started to put holes in the theory. She said that for most people, the result would be colon cancer or worse. Yes, a person may lose weight by eating (essentially) like a lion or tiger, but the things that would happen in the gut are serious as a pure carnivore’s colon looks exceedingly different than an omnivore’s. Assuming our system can simply “act” like another system, without the infrastructure to back it up is foolish.

You all know that I wear two professional hats these days. One is as Executive Director of IICE and the other is as CAO for a system that is highly community-centric. So this issue, whether you consider it the downside of crowdsourcing or a problem with communities, is real. And I get it.

After the last Presidential election, we saw how communities can be hijacked. Add to the mix some bad actors mining and using data unethically, and it is very easy to see how community can go awry. Next, sprinkle in anonymity for posters, and that community is much closer to a powder keg, waiting to explode.

Google Scholar search of disconnectedness

Google Scholar search of disconnectedness

But despite all of that, we hear cries from students that relate directly to the lack of community. Whether you consider any/all academic groups “learning” communities or not, college students report feeling lonely, disconnected, unsupported, and more. And whether due to better reporting tools or an increase in the spread of the problem, disconnection is now linked to higher and higher percentages of students than ever before, but also closely tied to (overall) student success far more than ever before. Just type “college students lonely” into Google Scholar, and look at the bevy of research going back decades.

One significant option to deal with disconnectedness (especially in 2019) is a digital community. While I was at Saint Leo, my own experiences dovetailed with the research perfectly. As I visited our Centers (satellite campuses), held student-meetings on campus, or polled our large online population, the results were the same. Our students very often felt alone, unsupported, stressed out, and all-around disconnected. This reinforced what I had seen prior to my time at the university. This is a universal, higher education issue.

Yet most institutions seem paralyzed with what to do. For some, the fear of social media outweighs the non-cognitive issues of students. For others, a digital community is not even considered as it is not part of decision maker’s everyday lives. Some administrators believe their staff are somehow better equipped at handling loneliness, despite all of the numbers suggesting otherwise. And finally, a few schools have tried to make use of a community tool, seeing it fail, often because that tool was “on the side” of the student experience. If community is not wrapped into a front-and-center, also-functional experience, it will always struggle.

But the problems of Facebook or Twitter do not have to be the problems of higher education. The problem I experienced, receiving horrific advice is also not really applicable. Why? Because a specific networked public (the research term for this kind of thing) elicits different kinds of help that administrators should be taking advantage of.

One reason I found trouble in the weight group is that the adviser was not an expert. He was a survey of one. So, while his singular survey did elicit some desirable gains, the cost which he had chosen to ignore (or potentially did not know) was too high for my risk-tolerance. But this kind of advice is not what college students seek. When needing help finding an open section, understanding the “tricks” to registering, looking for a tutor, and more, a closed, networked public is exactly what the doctor ordered. The processes for all students are essentially the same. The variables are often the same and the needs are often the same. When one online student asks the community how to get a financial aid question answered and another students chimes in, “Call Jean in office X, she helped me with that immediately!” it’s a win-win for the student and the institution.

Similarly, when using a community tool via a networked public, within an academic environment, there is no need for anonymity. This is especially true if that system has instant messaging, private channels, etc. But without anonymity, students are generally more professional in their messaging.

If that same system triggers alerts to staff, is available to faculty for the continuation of academic conversations or advising, and gives everyone at the institution the chance to better connect, while also ensuring a highly functional, pragmatic experience, good things follow. That is not to say it will not need some TLC. Even the weight community described earlier had facilitators and experts who “popped in” on occasion. While those experts did not need to patrol every thread, they could be alerted to specific topics or ideas being generated as time went on. Similarly, experts from the Registrar, the Library, or any given department could jump in, on-demand, answering questions that went largely unanswered before.

But the biggest problem for (a small but ardent subset of) administrators is around the “social” part of such a system. “What if a student posts something because they are frustrated?” That is the most common thread, typically from administrators who care more about PR than about student success, but to be sure, it is out there. My response, as well as the response of my colleagues when implementing such a system was, “Great!” Why would we say that?

Found him…

Found him…

The best way to describe this may be playing hide and seek with a toddler. Have you tried this? Tell a 2 year old to “hide” and you may soon find that the kiddo has simply covered their eyes or ducked under a table and looked at the floor. There is some psychology at work here, and this is developmentally appropriate, but as adults it seems silly. Just because you can’t see someone, doesn’t mean they can’t see you! Well, similarly, the idea that a post made in frustration would not be propagated to others is just as silly. At best it will be shared only with family and friends, possibly trickling back to other potential applicants. At worst, it shows up on Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, Instagram, or worse. The difference is the institution would likely never know about it, and would never have a chance to respond (to the poster AND to others who may feel the same frustration). The key is that with a system, the college can act on it, the university can respond to it, and an institution can help students overcome it.

I continue to read more and more on the concepts that underlay this need. Neuroscientists, clinical psychologists, sociologists, and educational experts agree, despite most institution’s lack of catching up. From Mindset (Dweck) to Social (Lieberman) to Brain Rules (Medina) to Sticking Points (Shaw) to The Fifth Discipline (Senge) to How Emotions Are Made (Barrett) and beyond, there is more than 5 decades of rigorous research showing the importance of connecting people. Heck, that is why our institute exists. But as we also know, it is an area that higher education is very poor at dealing with. Let me finish with another, somber quote that explains this issue:

“A lack or a deficiency of connection makes people feel unsupported, left out or lonely. When we feel disconnected, our bodies move into a state called “stress response,” which triggers a “fight or flight” readiness. That’s good if we are facing a short-term threat, such as being mugged or needing to help someone who is hurt. But it becomes a problem when people are stuck in a constant state of stress response because they will always feel disconnected. Research has shown that feeling disconnected over time sabotages our productivity and happiness, and shaves years off of our life expectancy. . . . . However, many colleges are under enormous financial pressures to do more with fewer resources to support more students. This reality contributes to a drift toward indifference on campuses because people are so busy they don’t take time to develop supportive relationships. But the higher education community is beginning to see that campus culture matters... (Connection Culture, Stallard, 2015)."

Let’s connect our people better. Let’s build learning communities in the truest sense of that word. If you aren’t sure how, reach out to me. I’d love to help you solve the problem.

Good luck and good learning.

Jeff Borden