Monday, August 18, 2014

College & Student Finances / The Internet of Words

It is that time of year where Rink Rats has a summer break: this is the final week of our three week hiatus, we welcome two guest bloggers. Enjoy, we will see you on August 25 with our regular Rink Rats.

How Colleges Can Help Students Navigate Their Financial Lives

Many colleges have started financial-literacy programs in recent years. In a guest post, Bryan Ashton describes a new requirement of students at Ohio State University. Mr. Ashton, assistant director for financial wellness, presented this topic at last months’ National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ conference, in Nashville. Too bad he represents THE Ohio State University.

Most people agree that students and young adults do not fully understand their own finances. While the notion of writing a check is becoming (understandably) even more foreign, concepts such as budgeting, compound interest, and saving seem beyond the grasp of many people. Study after study shows students are failing financial literacy with grades of D and F.

That pattern, combined with the important financial decisions that we ask students to make in pursuing an advanced education, has led to increasing interest in adding financial education to the curriculum in elementary and secondary schools and on college campuses. In recent years such literacy has been pitched as the silver-bullet solution to economic problems (think of some of the response to the housing crisis of the last decade). That thinking is beginning to infiltrate popular opinion in the discussion of student loans and increasing borrowing.

At Ohio State University, we do not see financial literacy as a silver bullet but rather as an institutional responsibility to inform our students.

We are in the process of phasing in a requirement that all students complete a financial-education program during their second year, through the Scarlet and Gray Financial Program in the Office of Student Life’s Student Wellness Center. The mandate combines online learning and a one-on-one meeting with a student coach. The coaches, who are trained to assist their peers with financial concerns, volunteer their time to help students understand their financial goals and current financial situation, and develop healthy financial attitudes and behaviors.

On a broader scale, the one-on-one interventions allow us to deliver not only education but also support and guidance during a time of need—for example, when a student is applying for an emergency grant or loan.

We believe in covering all aspects of financial literacy and focusing on more than just management of student-loan debt. Such a holistic approach includes providing financial coaching to students in moments of financial crisis, developing core financial education, and instilling the mindset of financial planning that will serve students well as they navigate the world of insurance, retirement planning, and debt management.

Our institution’s motto, “Disciplina in Civitatem” (“Education for Citizenship”), truly represents the philosophy behind our investment in financial education. The skills that we can teach students and the thinking that we can expose them to are essential for life at and beyond Ohio State.

My co-presenters are from the University of California at Berkeley and Indiana University, two campuses that provide a mix of structured online content, group workshops, and one-on-one coaching in their financial-literacy programs. Those institutions are developing a culture of affordability through changes in philosophy on their campuses.

At Ohio State we recognize that much more research is needed to provide an evidence base for financial-literacy programs. However, we feel very strongly that we need to prepare current students to become future consumers, understand long-term financial consequences of today’s decisions, and manage the debt that may come with obtaining a degree.

As the research base evolves, we hope one day to link those efforts more concretely to institutional priorities such as lowering borrowing and default rates. For now, instilling financial literacy as part of our outside-the-classroom experience has allowed us to begin to create a culture of financial responsibility across the campus.

The Internet of Words

Ten years ago, an odd request landed in my email inbox. It was a message from my sister, Anne, sent to me through a company called Friendster, prompting me to join her friend network. I puzzled over the missive for several minutes, trying to determine what she was asking me to do. Was this some new peer-to-peer file-sharing service, like Napster? Why would Anne want me, her sibling, to identify as a friend? We were close, but not that kind of close. And wasn’t I already part of her network? We shared the same parents, after all. I mulled over the message a little longer before hitting delete.

I was introduced to the phrase "social networking" in early 2006. Two years later I joined Twitter, following a brief courtship with the now-defunct microblogging service Jaiku. Shortly after that, I signed on to Facebook. By 2009, I was fielding follows and friends like a pro.
By then the puzzlement I’d felt at Anne’s Friendster request seemed quaint. The technology had moved on—MySpace and Facebook were then vying for dominance—and so had the language. Some observers still debated whether or not social-media friends were authentic ones, but the argument wasn’t nearly as heated as it had been a couple of years earlier. Along the way, "friend" morphed into a verb, like "Google." I couldn’t help but smile when a colleague’s spouse, new to Facebook, messaged that she hoped I’d "befriend" her. The word seemed antediluvian.

The Internet of today looks a lot different than it did back in 2004, when 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg introduced Thefacebook. YouTube wouldn’t launch for another year, and Twitter, a year after that—never mind the iPhone, released in mid-2007, or the Amazon Kindle, arriving later that year. The iPad landed in 2010, around the same time as Instagram and Pinterest. That was the year Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson pronounced the World Wide Web dead. Cause? The explosive growth of apps that, he claimed, had rendered Web pages and browsers obsolete. The web wasn’t quite 20 years old. Even print had enjoyed a longer run.

The language looks a lot different, too, having twisted, folded, and stretched in tandem with these changes. Until recently, "clouds" were just masses of water molecules aloft in the sky. Today they’re places to store vast troves of digital data. I remember when "platforms" were just mundane surfaces for standing on. Now they’re complex systems on which developers build suites of high-tech products and services. Words once confined to geekdom, like "algorithm," have crossed over into the mainstream. And usages are blurring. Upon ordering dinner at a restaurant, the waiter, who introduced himself as a "server," stated that he’d "get those ‘apps’ right out." I had to wonder, did I just download a meal from this guy?

Changes in the language are as much a part of the story of technology as innovative new products, high-stakes mergers and acquisitions, and charismatic corporate leaders. They bear witness to the emergence of new technological realities, yet they also help facilitate them. Facebook wouldn’t have a billion-plus users absent some compelling features. It also wouldn’t have them without people like me first coming to terms with the new semantics of friendship.

Were he still alive, the cultural-studies scholar Raymond Williams might have counted "friend," "cloud," "platform," "algorithm," "server," and "app" among today’s "keywords"—clusters of terms whose definitional shifts register where social change is "active and pressing." Keywords remind us of the degree to which the story of technology is a human one, grounded not only in the calculi of science and engineering but also in the welter of everyday talk.

If standard definitions haven’t kept pace with the practicalities of privacy in a social-media age, neither have dictionaries, the places where those definitions are sanctified and stored. Dictionaries change all the time, of course, and are therefore artifacts of a living language. Yet there’s always a sense in which they’re arriving late to the party. In early 2014, Merriam-Webster added these and other ostensibly new words to its roster: "hashtag," "selfie," "big data," and "social networking." You’d be hard-pressed to call any of them new. Dictionaries are dated by default.

Once the words "computer" and "calculator" referred to people, those who performed mathematical operations. (While today computers are strongly associated with men and male engineering, more often than not, those people were women, as the cultural-studies scholar Anne Balsamo has pointed out. In the early 1970s, "computers," machines, were sometimes marketed as "calculators." By the end of that decade, the two terms would cease being synonymous. Imagine explaining to someone living in the 1940s that computers were handheld devices with nanometer-sized transistors inside, with which one could shop or play Flappy Bird while making a wireless telephone call. There’s no reason to believe we’re living through semantic changes that are any less profound. Words are a significant part of the drama of the social-media age.

A few weeks ago, I sent a bunch of Yo requests out to my social-media friends. Yo might well be the reductio ad absurdum of messaging apps. It allows you to send the two-character communiqué—Yo—to anyone you’re connected to. You don’t even need to type it. Suddenly, Twitter has become the long form at 140 characters—never mind SMS, practically epic poetry at 160. None of my friends has joined me on Yo. One mistook my request for a sign I’d been hacked.

It could be their refusal to Yo stemmed from social-networking fatigue. It might also have had something to do with words. Critics have scoffed at Yo, calling it a "fad," "annoying," and questioning whether it allows for bona-fide communication. But they seem to be missing the point. Yo isn’t about what’s communicated. It’s more about the fact that two people are interacting at all.

That "ritual" view of communication, as the late historian of technology James W. Carey dubbed it, stresses how engagement through words and symbols can reaffirm social bonds, regardless of the content. It’s why we greet friends in passing with a casual "How ya doin’?" and expect little in return. By the same token, getting the brush off can send you into a tailspin. The ritual understanding of communication had fallen out of favor in the late 19th century, when electronic media helped legitimize the idea that "communication" meant the transmission of meaningful messages across space. Is all the hubbub surrounding Yo an indication we’re starting to come full circle?

New technologies disrupt, but they aren’t the singularly disruptive force some would have us believe. Many of their purported disruptions result from their entering into contexts where language shifts are already under way, causing friction. Social media didn’t alter the meanings of "status," "privacy," or what have you. The meanings were already transforming. Social media just helped make the changes more visible, and maybe accelerated them. That is why Williams called words "elements of … problems." He recognized the vernacular was no less an engine of change than technology.

Ted Striphas is an associate professor of communication and culture at Indiana University at Bloomington. He is the author of  The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control (Columbia University Press, 2009).

Next Week: College Football Preview and the Jack Ass of the Month.

Until Next Monday, Adios.

Claremont, CA
August 18, 2014

#V-18, 227

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