Shorter, sharper, more human – how Covid-19 changed student communications

In difficult times communications can enhance or erode student wellbeing. Sunday Blake talks to student welfare officers to learn the lessons of the pandemic for connecting with students

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The arrival of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 drove home the point that the pandemic is far from over. But this time, there’s a body of learning to draw from. And minimising the impact on students will rely, as it did before, not just on logistics but on effective digital engagement and communications.

In earlier waves, universities learned that messaging on social distancing regulations or on-campus mask use is the easy part. But universities also had to communicate regular and personalised information on how and where students would sit exams, the academic mitigation policies that would be in place across the course portfolio, where students could turn to for Covid hardship funding while putting mechanisms in place to address students queries and concerns.

It was, and still is, hard to get right. Inadequate detail risks exacerbating the frustration and anxiety many students felt, while long and complex communications can create overwhelm or worse, be ignored.

In the early days mistakes were made, but lessons were also learned. So I spoke to student leaders elected to represent the welfare concerns of their student body, on whether any of these lessons could be applied as universities work to learn from the experience of the pandemic.

I’m on overload in my head

The students felt strongly that communication and engagement strategies should be updated in light of the pandemic experience – not least as a way of acknowledging the difficulties students were experiencing. As one commented, “For students suffering bereavements or Covid anxiety, the last thing they could concentrate on was a wall of formal text.”

Where universities had sent out undifferentiated messages to all students without indicating which elements were relevant to which student groups, the result was that students switched off. In some cases students’ unions stepped in to provide concise “TL;DR” summaries of the points included.

Information overload leads to students either disregarding emails and/or key information getting lost in the noise. But worse, it gives the impression of a lack of services for students who are struggling, or creates confusion about where to seek support.

One officer suggested that seeking help in these circumstances can be a case of “throwing yourself at the services and seeing where you land.” Another suggested that there is an unfair perception among students that their university “does nothing” for student welfare – when in fact there are plenty of excellent services available.

Team work makes the dream work

In contrast, institutions that fared well were the ones that collaborated with their students’ unions on messaging, and made student communications a strategic priority. Aaron Campbell, Welfare, Community, and Diversity Officer for the University of East Anglia students’ union reported communication is now a standing agenda item for every university and SU meeting.

Whatever the topic under discussion, or the decision being made, it is followed by asking, “how will we communicate this?” According to the Aaron, this student engagement is working;

It’s a bit more collaborative – they’ll test statements with me – often I will ask them to remove words that are too complicated, very remote, impersonal, or language that I don’t think is appropriate.

The aim is always to render the communications more “human”. Aaron explained that students are more likely to feel a sense of connection and trust where there is a relatable human face that can be associated with a message:

I understand as an organisation the university needs to be professional but when communications lack personality it can be off-putting – it comes across as ‘we are an organisation talking about your mental health.’

Another officer mentioned that their vice chancellor now creates vlogs which is “already going a little way to give the university a ‘human face’ and students are liking it more.”

The tone of communications can also communicate a sense of care and concern – or otherwise. Dan Chevalier, Education and Welfare Officer at Winchester Students’ Union suggested that communications emphasising fun, and the on-campus experience could fail to acknowledge the traumas students had experienced, especially those who had been on the front line of the NHS during the height of the pandemic:

Many medical students saw Covid deaths first-hand, and many students went through their own traumas and bereavements. They are still recovering from this.

Dan praised the senior management team at Winchester who now hold regular drop-in sessions where any student can come to talk to them about any issues. This has created a sense of community in dialogue rather than the impression of an institution in “broadcast mode” only interested in garnering customer feedback.

Train comes I don’t know its destination

Emails aimed at specific groups, or any technological steps universities take towards analysing and categorising their students, can be met with kneejerk concerns about surveillance, and harvesting student data.

But the welfare officers told me that when student communications and engagement strategies take into consideration the diverse cultural values, background, and needs of the student recipients and customise their mailing lists accordingly, it increases feelings of belonging.

Universities in general are not getting smaller, and even the relatively small and specialised can’t rely solely on face to face contact to maintain a sense of student connection. If universities are to achieve that elusive “human” element in student interactions that officers tell me is vital for student wellbeing, institutions need to forge a marriage between the human and the digital.

It is a false dichotomy that universities can either be large impersonal bureaucracies or small institutions that can support wellbeing at an intimate, personal level – but it takes sophisticated use of technology to create the effect of one in the context of the other.

The real crunch is not the algorithmic technology of targeted messaging, but the human work that goes on beforehand to establish the understandings that programme such automation. We all know that coding contains bias, but the fixable flaws in advancing technology are no reason for universities to not embrace it. Programming starts with humans, and those humans start by having conversations.

For example, an officer at a London university explained that some Muslim students consider speaking about mental health publicly haram (forbidden), and so will not engage with wellbeing emails. Simply checking the read rates of these messages and re-sending key information will not generate larger click-throughs for these students. It will require framing information in different ways, and potentially working through trusted mediators to ensure students are not put in a position of having to choose between their faith and access to support for their wellbeing.

Understanding patterns of inequitable access to digital tools is also a consideration. One officer shared the example that during lockdown many parent students had children who were occupying the shared family computer during school hours, and so had to wait till after 3.00pm to access any resources.

A department could be forgiven for cancelling the weekly 1.00pm live wellbeing webinar with low attendance if conversations about diverse needs are not being held. And this example also speaks to the need for multiple channels for interaction, such as 24/7 chat, or on-demand resources, to reach all students and offer forms of engagement that meet diverse needs.

Communicating and engaging with students as an institution means a great deal more than ensuring essential messages are put across. At their best, university communications can create a sense that students are able to engage organically in authentic dialogue, and express their concerns and the realities of their experience without fear of backlash.

Student trust cannot be presumed, and it does not seem to take very much to erode it. But hearing from senior leaders as humans – with shorter, sharper messaging that’s more tailored and less aloof than it has tended to be in the past – improves their understanding and confidence in their university. And that’s likely to continue to be true as the sector grapples with the next wave of Covid and well into the future.

This article is published in association with Salesforce.org. On Tuesday 11 January 1.00-2.30pm we’re partnering with Salesforce.org on a free online event Sealing the cracks – connecting with students for wellbeing and success. Find out more and register to attend here.

2 responses to “Shorter, sharper, more human – how Covid-19 changed student communications

  1. The message that universities need to be more human in their engagement and communications with students cannot be overemphasised. I am grateful every day to learn from student leaders who encourage universities to act in this way. We can learn a lot, too, from academic and professional service colleagues, who have vast experience of fostering a sense of belonging and establishing a trusting environment for students.

  2. An article on shorter, sharper communication that is 4 pages long.

    Definitely needs the TL;DR version. 🙂

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