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Second Presidential Town Hall discusses going paperless

Second Presidential Town Hall discusses going paperless

Second Presidential Town Hall discusses going paperless
February 27
15:54 2020

President Neal Smatresk held the second presidential town hall on Wednesday where he spoke with faculty and a few students on how the university could convert to more paperless processes to better serve faculty and students. 

“The ultimate goal of today is to get us to better places with specific reference to our students and their experience here,” Smatresk said. “What we are here to do is gather as much as we can from [attendees] about where pieces of paper can confound our students’ interests, waste our time and cause inefficiencies we think we can eliminate.”

Smatresk opened the town hall by offering his own example of a paper process he feels is unnecessary — the Administrative Schedule Change Approval form required for students to change their schedules after the start of the semester. 

Smatresk said this form requires three copies of paper students must keep track of and requires the signature of the department and a dean, which they must obtain in one day. He said he believes an electronic process would make it much easier for students to keep track of the form and get signatures.

“I’m going to tell you if you can track down the department and the dean in one day, you’re doing an amazing job because I can’t do that,” Smatresk said. “There are certainly ways we could be able to conceptualize this document and maybe put it on your iPhone. We do have imaging solutions that basically scrape all the data off [the form] and send them elsewhere, and those are pretty expensive to utilize. But what if we built forms right to begin with or had a process that made it easy?”

Attendees then gave their own examples of frustrating and inefficient paper processes. Adrian Parks, an Academic Advisor for the College of Engineering brought up a student who was diagnosed with cancer and had difficulties withdrawing from classes because they needed to verify their signature on a paper form.

“During this whole process they were in the hospital and they needed to withdraw from their classes and couldn’t until they had a physical signature,” Parks said. “That can be a really daunting process. Even when they go to the registrar’s office saying ‘I don’t want to take summer classes, so drop me from my classes,’ students don’t fully understand why they have to go through that [paper] process.”

Smatresk said that while signature verification is important, he does not want that to inconvenience students who have circumstances keeping them from campus, like medical reasons, not living in Denton over summer or only taking classes online.

“That’s another one of those [situations] where you want some level of verification,” Smatresk said. “But you also don’t want it to be a painful obstruction for a student who is experiencing a bad situation. I don’t know what the right balance of that is. That’s not really a paper problem, but maybe [we are] opening this [discussion] up to ‘Where do we have to sign or provide evidences that could be done easier?’”

Emily Bilcik, the We Mean Green Fund project coordinator, also brought up concerns about lawn signs around campus that advertise for upcoming events.

“These are printed daily by the hundreds and they are laminated, which means they can’t be recycled and they’re going straight to the landfill,” Bilcik said. “Our grounds team are constantly having to mow around those and take the ones that expired. They’re impactful for students and they can learn what things are going on on campus to engage in, but I think there’s a new delivery method that would be more effective.”

While it is not a paper process, Smatresk also addressed the impact of Canvas on student experience and how it cuts down on paper use. Smatresk said around 60 to 70% of professors use Canvas.

“Not all our faculty use Canvas even though students reported overwhelmingly that they like using Canvas and stuff being available and appreciate its features,” Smatresk said. “Many different folks say we ought to make it mandatory for at least larger classes. If students are facing faculty members who don’t want to use it and some that do, we’re not simplifying their lives, we’re complicating them.”

One student who attended the town hall, Devon West, who is blind, took to the provided microphones and said he had concerns about how going paperless might affect students with visual or auditory impairments.

“There’s a disproportionate impact of going paperless that affects students with blindness because we rely on electronic forms for so many things,” West said. “Especially knowing there’s a large hearing-impaired and visually-impaired population on campus, I think it’s very important to get feedback from the people who use this technology to fill out these forms.”

Smatresk said he spoke with West prior to the town hall about his concerns and the university would work to ensure students in need of accommodations had access to them.

“If we go paperless, one of the things we have to be able to do is make sure that you have fair and equal access to it,” Smatresk said. “With 700,000 pages, of which 125,000 or so are active, we’ve got a giant triage of processes to do, which we’re going to begin here in the near future and then we need to find what universal design and accessibility means for those web pages. It’s something that is part of our consciousness now.”

After hearing the feedback from attendees, Smatresk said administrative staff would make a list of issues to address and start working on solutions for them.

“I heard at least ten pretty interesting cases around things that impact the student experience of how the experience is creating a mountain of paperwork for [faculty and staff],” Smatresk said. “We ought to be looking at a fairly high priority for this. We’re going to get to work on this. It’s probably worth putting a student focus group or two together and some random paperless surveys.”

Featured Image: UNT President Neal Smatresk points and laughs while interacting with audience during presidential town hall on Feb. 26, 2020. Image by John Anderson

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Brooke Colombo

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