Devil from the Machine

Current students are widely perceived as ‘digital natives’, with unprecedented technological proficiency and a love affair with all things shiny and electronic. Acronyms like MOOC have become sexy catchphrases in educational policy, and some universities even try to bribe prospective students with free tablets.

So why are our associations, clubs and societies so inept when it comes to anything remotely technological? Since 2011, ANUSA and Woroni alone managed to spend at least $28,000 on web development for sites that no longer exist (although to be fair both have finally settled on highly adaptable and dirt cheap WordPress options). The Union’s website has been hacked on multiple occasions because of appalling password choice.

Many organisations have different websites from multiple years that are all still online (e.g. the International Students’ Department’s (ISD) 2011, 2012 and 2013 sites), and there’s no shortage of sites that have not been updated for months or even years (Debating Society, Queer* Department and Chocolate Appreciation Society). Most club websites don’t have online membership forms and many feature outdated versions of the ANUSA logo or fail to feature it at all.

I’m not trying to pick on the organisations that I’ve mentioned. In fact I chose them as examples because they’re some of our community’s most well-regarded, active and engaging groups – and despite this they still don’t prioritise web presence, perhaps reflecting a common ANU perspective on the issue.

Considering perpetual agreement among students about the need for “greater engagement”, the obvious importance of maintaining an online ‘shopfront’ to market events and attract members, and the ease of building a website nowadays, I just cannot understand why web is such a low priority. Some may argue that Facebook has filled the gap, however the nature of Facebook’s ‘social’ search algorithms fundamentally limits exposure to the website’s target market – i.e. prospective members, prospective sponsors and the media who aren’t in the same Facebook networks.

The struggle doesn’t end on the internet. Even with online ticketing, ANUSA required students to physically collect wristbands for its O-Week events this year. Walking through Union Court on Market Day, one notices the ridiculous sight of membership details being collected on paper, requiring committee members to manually digitise them later. The insistence on cash is similarly baffling.

Every year, the same thing happens: the ATMs run out of $20s, the bank runs out of change, and groups can’t deposit their money at the end of the day because it’s after 4pm. People will pay more for membership if they can pay by card, and when you can get a card reader for your smartphone (e.g. PayPal Here), it’s a no-brainer. Banking and bookkeeping is also a big problem, with some societies still using cheques (or even cash) for expenses despite the wide availability of internet banking and business debit cards. Free, open-source accounting software is too often snubbed for poorly constructed Excel spreadsheets.

If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking that the issues I’ve listed are little more than minor inconveniences. In fact the biggest side-effect of technological indifference is the loss of institutional history and resulting duplication over time.

When I worked at ANUSA last year, I only had digital access to documents dating back to 2009 to draw lessons and ideas from. Except for a few boxes of files, there is no accessible record of the other 48 years at all. Public accessibility of what does remain is dire – even important 2012 documents such as the Housing Review Report have already been deleted from the website.

Most groups on campus run the same kind of events, submit the same kind of forms and face the same kind of difficulties year on year and it is imperative that all look to long term solutions such as Dropbox and Google Drive.

Thankfully, strides are slowly being made. In 2012 ANUSA moved all club and society administration documents and applications online, and opened an online shop for second-hand books and ticket sales. 2013 saw some great O-Week videos and an innovative Instagram competition.

Woroni deserves to be commended for its commitment to radio, and recent steps towards video. The Law Students’ Society never fails to impress with its website, mobile card terminal (which it’s had for years) and barcode ticketing at Law Ball. Other notable innovations have included the extremely impressive GPS tracking used for Inward Bound, and the use of Facebook ads for student election campaigns.

On the whole however, we’ve been living in the dark ages for way too long and change is well overdue. It’s time for all ANU student organisations, big and small, to get their act together – making life easier for themselves, their members and their future committees as well.

Dallas Proctor was President of ANUSA in 2012.