Improving communications with students

A review of student communications across the University has led the Academic Administration Division (AAD) to think again. Starting "with us, not them..." Read about some of the approaches that should meet the needs of all students so there's a better chance of getting the message across. Words by Dan Selinger, AAD.

Students studying in University Parks in the sunshine

Image Copyright © Oxford University Images Rob Judges Photography - all rights reserved.

How often have you listened to colleagues complaining that it is impossible to communicate with students because they don't open their emails? Or that they don’t check the updates you post online?

It's something that I've heard a lot of since joining the University earlier this year. However, after a number of months researching our communications, it's clear that students are not the problem.

We are.

Channel proliferation

Upon taking up a role with Oxford in April, I was asked to conduct a review of student communications across the University. A simple task, I told myself.

I was wrong.

The research project was conducted by Kira Brayman, who started with what we thought would be a simple task of counting the number of channels with students as a primary audience.

When the total reached 350, we realised it was futile continuing to count. The channels were seemingly endless - websites, social media channels, face-to-face briefings, emails, posters and more. They covered a plethora of different topics from careers to course-guides; sub-fusc to sustainability. And they came from a host of different of senders; colleges, faculties, departments, divisions, the central University - all clamouring to get a bit of air time with students.

With all this noise, it's unsurprising that students switch off.
Dan Selinger, Head of Communications for the AAD

Information overload

Busy students at a coffee shop

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

With all this noise, it's unsurprising that students switch off.

In the focus groups we conducted, students told us that the stream of uncoordinated messages they received resulted in information overload - and that there was no one place to find what they actually need. They said that they wanted information consolidated in one place; with a range of topics ranging from academic to social activities - and in a tone that resonated with them.

The dry operational notices they received simply weren't hitting home.

Addressing the issues

At a complex, collegiate university like Oxford, streamlining and co-ordinating our communications is never going to be a simple task. However, there are five strategies I believe could be adopted to help improve the current situation:

  1. A holistic approach
    Rather than sending individual ad-hoc notes as they come up, we need to develop more joined-up methods. By bringing together a range of operational, educational, and wellbeing communications together in one place, we can cut through the noise and provide students with strong channels that they trust.
  2. Student-centricity
    Students are used to companies giving them a personalised service, with relevant content served up to meet their specific needs. We need to stop blanket-sending irrelevant information to all students, and focus on what is pertinent to individual users at specific times.
  3. Technology
    We have to be better at using technology to meet our communications goals; and that doesn't mean just setting up yet another social media account. Adding another channel won’t necessarily increase your reach, but it will add to the noise. It's about being smarter about the technology we choose; using mailing list solutions to target content to specific users, adopting online portals with consolidated messages, and using analytics to measure our communications. Only then can we be sure that students will get the content they are looking as efficiently as possible.
  4. Student voice
    Students are naturally curious about their fellow scholars, and it’s been proven time and time again that they respond more effectively to their peers than people in positions authority. Wherever possible, bring in the student voice to boost engagement and pique students' interest.
  5. Collaboration
    Last, but by no means least: work together. The next time you go to send an email, set up a website, or start a social media channel, wait. Ask yourself whether someone else is already doing the same type of activity. If you can tap into existing channels, you'll be helping to reduce channel proliferation, and increase the chances of reaching your audience.

Creating engaging communications that meet the needs of all students is not an easy task. But I believe that if we can consider some of these approaches, we'll be in with a much better chance of getting our message across. Only then can we legitimately complain that students just don't read their emails.

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