Social justice and higher education information technology (IT) are two topics that are typically not associated or discussed. However, given the impact and the role of information technology in the daily lives of students (as well as prospective) and the campus community at large, social justice as a lens on how information technology are designed and implemented should be given more consideration. Social justice, in the context of this post, relates to distributive and procedural. Tyler and Smith (1998) define distributive justice as “distribution of limited goods and resources based on principles of equity, need, or equality” and procedural justice as the “influence during the decision-making process.” As information technology professionals, we have the obligation to ensure the systems we implement are designed in a way that promotes access to higher education and enables students to be successful in graduating and meeting their goals in attending college. We have the obligation to think beyond our privileges (race, ability, socio-economic background, education, etc) and think about the impact of the systems we provide may have on those who are from under-presented and disadvantaged communities.
As I think about my experience as a first generation college student in 1991, the process of choosing which school to attend,and how intimidating and confusing the admissions application (including financial aid) was back then, I only wonder how much more complicated the process is now for students and their families. Not only do they need to understand the application process in itself but they must also navigate through multiple websites to get the information they need to make the decision which school to attend, submit their application, apply for financial aid, reserve orientation session, apply for housing, and many more steps depending on their backgrounds. Even at our university, I must admit that we can and need to do better in consolidating/integrating our websites (currently with different navigation, design, information structure) so applicants should not have to access several websites during the application process. I brought up the situation above because it relates to the topic of access to higher education. I think about how many students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds with low digital literacy are disadvantaged by how confusing the systems are which could lead them to potentially give up or they provide wrong information which may lead to negative consequences in the future.
Another population that may be disadvantaged by careless design/implementation are students with disabilities. Websites that are not designed with accessibility in mind have negative impacts on these students. Imagine having a blind student complete an application form on a website that is not accessible. Not only would it be frustrating for the student but it also prevents them from completing the required process to be admitted to the university. In another example, what if a disabled student cannot use a website form to provide personal/medical information for accommodation (notetaking, proctoring) that may prevent them from receiving the services they need to compete and succeed academically?
With regards to procedural justice, I cite examples of judicial affairs and financial aid information systems to highlight the importance of information systems in providing a fair process. Students who are accused of academic and/or behavioral misconducts and must go through the judicial process are in critical moments in their lives. As such, judicial affairs officers and those involved with the case must have all the required and accurate information to make a fair determination of the outcome. Imagine a poorly implemented judicial affairs system that incorrectly presents wrong information about the student to the judicial affairs staff? What if that incorrect information was used to make the determination of the outcome?
I also mentioned financial aid information system as another system that may impact procedural justice. As it is with the judicial affairs information system above, financial aid officers must have the required and accurate information to make the proper decision on whether and how much financial aid to award to the students. Given the high cost of college attendance (tuition, room & board, books, etc), the amount of financial aid offered may mean the difference between a student even attending college or staying home. As such, every information available to financial aid officers must be accurate and readily accessible.
The examples provided are just too of many I can cite to illustrate the impact/role of information technology as it relates to social justice. As I mentioned above, social justice and information technology are often not discussed nor the association between them. However, as information technology professionals responsible for providing these systems, we must be aware of how these systems impact the students and to make sure they promote access to higher education and enable students to succeed.
Taylor, S.H. “The Impact of College on the Development of Tolerance.” NASPA Journal, 1998, 34, 281-295.