In Search of the Silver Bullet: Communication and Our Students

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

Of the biggest challenges facing the relationship between post-secondary institutions and their students, communication seems to be one at the forefront. Do students know what resources are available? Do they understand the system and supports? Do they know when classes and exams start? How do we tell them so they will actually hear what we are saying, and listen?

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When I think back to my first foray into post-secondary education at Humber College, things were “simpler”. All communication was done by paper and sent through the mail. I was given an institutional email, but it wasn’t used for anything official. There were no smart phones, Facebook or Twitter, and the website had some information about services, but if you wanted to know something you needed to ask a faculty or staff member or go to an office. Things were much more face-to-face transactional in nature, but answers sometimes came slow and there wasn’t the ease and immediacy of information that is expected now (by faculty, staff and students). This experience was not 25 years ago. This was 2001.

By my second experience into post-secondary education, the landscape had changed immensely. In 2005 when I entered University of Toronto, knowing how to use CCNet (the precursor to Blackboard) was a must. Emails were used by faculty and departments to communicate information, and websites were more thorough. However, information about start dates for classes, fees, and course selection were still sent by mail, and this was when Facebook was in its infancy, and there was still no Twitter. Communication still happened mostly face-to-face or by phone, and email was still a hit or miss way to connect with certain staff and faculty based on their comfort with the technology.

As an undergraduate student at U of T, I saw this change dramatically in 4 years. Now as a staff member (and not that far removed from the generation of students just entering post-secondary study) I feel the gap in their needs and expectations of communication, and my understanding of how the institution “does” it. This is where the challenge, I believe, lies. Understanding how communication happens for a generation that doesn’t really remember a time before computers, has been on Facebook since elementary school, and has been using smart phones for years is different from my youth experience, and as a staff member I feel it is now up to me to figure out how to bridge that gap and how to communicate effectively with this group of students. I need them to know what I need them to know.

U of T started the process of hearing the voices of our students through NSSE and other focus groups and surveys. On May 16, using the previous work and knowledge to inform the conversation, U of T held a Communication Summit to bring together the different areas of the university along with its students to strategize the best ways to communicate with them – meeting both their needs, and the institutions.

At the recent Student Life Professionals retreat held at U of T, some of the results of this were discussed. Not surprisingly, students are looking for information to be as streamlined as possible, and want that information somewhat tailored to them. There are a few people who are more likely to have their emails looked at (such as the registrar’s office) and students are wary of being “spammed” by information from the university. They are also looking frequently to Facebook and Twitter for information.

From the conversations at the session, along with some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success study, the one thing that is clear is that there is no silver bullet for communication. Students are all getting information from a variety of sources, and all have preferred methods, which are probably far less uniform than they were years ago. Methods and means of communication are also changing rapidly, and institutions, staff and faculty need to be adaptable enough to meet new needs and incorporate new means of communication in accessible and meaningful ways. Students need to continue being a part of the conversation on how they are communicated with, because the solutions of today may not be solutions a year from now.

One of the pieces of the conversation that really stuck with me, however, is that one of the best allies in all of this is other staff. We need to be cognizant of how we are communicating with each other, and that we are being responsive to each other’s needs in regards to communicating with students. Do you have a cool event you want your colleagues to promote? Make sure you know their deadlines and distribution dates for e-newsletters and their listserv policies. Do they accept posters or only want text and links? Can the tweet the information or post it on Facebook for you? These are all helpful things to consider so that institutionally we try to cut down as much spam mail as we can, but also help each other out to be as responsive to student needs as possible.

We want them to hear us, and I think they want to listen. We just need to try to make sure that we are speaking the same language, and include them in the conversation so that we as professionals can stay in touch with new methods of communication, and how they are using them. It’s a changing landscape, and flexibility will be the thing that probably serves us best in the long term.

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