University of Mississippi student-athletes rely on technology to succeed in their studies, says Senior Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development Bob Baker.

Dec 01 2022

Universities Provide Technology and Support for Student-Athletes

University athletic departments provide tools to boost academic success.

When student-athletes arrived at the University of Mississippi this fall, each was given an Apple MacBook Pro laptop and AirPods — theirs to keep and take with them when they graduate. Distributing the technology bundles made Ole Miss one of the first schools to take advantage of an April 2021 Supreme Court decision (NCAA v. Alston) that gave colleges and universities the right to offer financial and other benefits, such as devices and tutoring, to support their athletes academically.

“We wanted to provide top-of-the line technology to all of our student athletes, whether they are walk-ons, on scholarship, on volleyball, track, rifle, football, you name it,” says Bob Baker, the university’s senior associate athletic director for student-athlete development. “Students are more tech-reliant than ever, and we want to make sure they have the right tools.”

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Digital Native Student-Athletes Still Require Training

College athletic departments have long provided computer labs and loaned devices to foster their athletes’ academic success, but the Alston decision gives schools more options for that support. Mobile devices that offer anytime, anywhere connections to academic resources are the most effective technology tools for student athletes, says Nicole Kraft, associate professor of clinical communications and director of the Sports and Society Initiative at The Ohio State University.

“These kids have to make space and time for academics within a tighter schedule than most of their peers,” she says. “They need devices that are small enough to haul around and use on a bus or in a hotel room, and that give them access to the notes and the books and the systems they need.”

Dedicated computer rooms can be valuable, in part because of the tutors and learning technology specialists that often come with them, but those facilities are becoming an outdated model for athletes who don’t have large blocks of time to spend in one place, Kraft says.

Regardless of the type of technology support a school offers, student-athletes need training on how to use the tools in an academic context. Learning how to operate a device and use all of its features is a start, says Kraft, but student-athletes also need to know how to use their university’s learning management system, access online materials, take notes digitally, use apps that will streamline their work and more.

“It’s a complete fallacy that all young people are digital natives; just because a person can operate a phone and use social media doesn’t mean that they know what technology can do for them from an academic perspective,” Kraft says. “We unfairly assume that something like using learning management systems will come naturally to students without training. Student-athletes are at an even greater disadvantage because they have more pulls on their time.”

Student-Athletes Prepare for Life After Sports at Ole Miss

At the University of Mississippi, the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the need to provide technology support for student athletes, says Baker. When students were sent home, many of the athletes didn’t have laptops, prompting the athletic department to scramble for loaners and to dip into an emergency fund to purchase more machines.

“Technology support had been in discussion for a while. It was important to the athletic director and the whole staff,” he says. “We knew that, moving forward, we needed to explore all opportunities to equip these student-athletes.”

The MacBook Pros and AirPods were purchased through the general athletic budget and are part of a larger program to support athletes’ studies, Baker says. There are four different computer labs in the university’s student-athlete academic center, with more than 80 Dell and Apple desktops. Tutoring rooms at the center are each equipped with at least one computer, and many have interactive whiteboards.

Student-athletes at Ole Miss also use an app that helps them create schedules that account for practice time and coursework, tracks their class assignments and sends out reminders of deadlines and exams, Baker says.

“The new laptops are one of the ways we want to provide an amazing experience for our student athletes and provide them with what they need to be successful, earn their degrees and prepare for life after sports,” he says.

Ivana Rich
We make academics as much a part of the routine for athletes as practice or working out.”

Ivana Rich Associate Athletic Director for Administration, Norfolk State University

iPads Serve Student-Athletes on the Road at Norfolk State University

A new Apple iPad device, keyboard and AirPods were waiting for all students at Virginia’s Norfolk State University when they arrived on campus this fall. For student-athletes in particular, the gift was a game changer, says Ivana Rich, NSU’s associate athletic director for administration.

“The iPads really expanded our student-athletes’ capabilities,” she says. “They can do their work anytime, from anywhere. On the road, the iPads give them access to all the resources on our Blackboard learning management system, and with the keyboard, they can even write papers.”

NSU also operates a dedicated computer lab and study room for student-athletes, equipped with Dell All-in-One computers and networked printers. Some first-year athletes and transfers are required to spend six to eight hours a week in the computer lab, which is tracked by time management software. The lab was recently upgraded, thanks in part to an NCAA grant, and is staffed by monitors to assist athletes with the technology, says Rich.

The athletic department uses another program for scheduling and messaging, she says. Students can also communicate with professors and academic advisers through the app.

Academic support of NSU athletes is paying off. Student-athletes are graduating at a higher rate than ever — higher than the general student body, Rich says.

“Over the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve seen the improvement that’s come from having these resources for the athletes,” says Rich, who has a doctorate in educational technology. “The university has given them tools and a place to come to study. We make academics as much a part of the routine for athletes as practice or working out.”

Sufficient staffing to manage the technologies and ensure that student-athletes know how to use the tools is crucial, she says. More important, however, is listening to students and collecting data about what academic resources they need.

“It’s all about digging into the real-life academic challenges the student-athletes are dealing with and identifying the technology that will help them,” Rich says.

33 hours

The median time per week that Division 1 athletes spend on athletic activities

Source: NCAA Research, “GOALS Study: Understanding the Student-Athlete Experience,” 2019

Georgia Tech Student-Athletes Focus on Time and Communication

Athletes at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta have two full-time jobs: as students at a rigorous university and as athletes in top-level college competition, says Christopher Breen, the university’s associate athletic director for student services. The athletic department uses scheduling and collaboration tools to help student-athletes manage their time.

“Time management has long been the focus of our program to help students transition from high school, and it remains the biggest issue for athletes through their careers,” he says.

Georgia Tech requires all students to have laptops, and the athletic department furnishes HP Pavilion devices to full-scholarship athletes through its general funds. The athletic center houses a 20-seat computer lab, though student-athletes are encouraged to use the many computer labs across the Georgia Tech campus to mix with the larger student body, says Breen.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred the athletic department to make a shift from in-person to virtual tutoring via Microsoft Teams. The convenience and flexibility of the remote sessions has led the department to make them a permanent option for student athletes, says Breen.

Last summer, Georgia Tech athletics adopted Student Success Hub for Higher Education (formerly Salesforce Advisor Link), a platform designed to help students cope with the varied facets of their lives. The solution also monitors for risk, including mental health, and provides students with direct links to all of their advisers, Breen says.

“We’re trying to increase collaboration with all campus partners so that student-athletes have the support they need for academics, sports and their well-being,” he says.

Photography by Brandon Dill

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