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Communicating more effectively with students? There’s an app for that

Students who feel engaged with their courses and institutions are more likely to succeed and less likely to drop out; key considerations for providers in Australia’s competitive vocational and higher education sector.

So, how can providers leverage digital technology to keep the lines of communication open and connect with their students more effectively?

The digital era has thrown up a plethora of platforms and channels to replace old fashioned ‘snail mail’ and email missives, but research suggests a dedicated mobile app has significant advantages over other means and methods.

Drowning out the background noise

It was simpler in the not-so-old days. Wind the clock back a decade and online communication consisted of email and electronic notifications. Students may have been able to enrol from home and submit assignments online, but student support was still largely a nine-to-five affair. A rich, two-way communications experience characterised by immediacy of response was neither available nor expected.

Ubiquitous uptake of smart phones – 2017 research showed 95 per cent of Australians aged 12 to 24 own one – and the extraordinary rise of mobile computing has changed young people’s communication habits and expectations.

Letters, phone calls and emails are almost an anachronism, in an era where technology is at the heart of every transaction.

Today’s young adults are always ‘on’, using multiple screens, having multiple conversations and psychologically ‘downloading’ dozens of messages every minute.

The communication isn’t two-way, it’s multi-way, across multiple devices and platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Disseminating essential information and having it seen or heard amidst this clamour is an increasingly difficult task for education providers, particularly given students’ propensity to tune out communiques which aren’t in the medium of their choosing.

Teacher, leave those kids alone (on social media)

It might seem like they’re never off Instagram or Facebook – Australian men and women aged 14 to 24 spent 528 minutes and 822 minutes respectively on social media each week in 2018, according to Roy Morgan research – but that doesn’t mean they want to use the platforms to talk to their teachers or receive information about enrolments or coursework.

Au contraire. A 2018 Tribal Group survey of current students revealed social media was not the preferred method of communication for the majority.

Despite their generation’s collective reputation for oversharing personal information, millennials are uncomfortable about the prospect of opening up their private lives to scrutiny, if education providers are added as ‘friends’ or contacts.

It’s a blurring of the personal and professional that just doesn’t sit well. Institutions that attempt to use social media to bridge the gap between email and more instant forms of messaging run the risk of turning students off and being labelled ‘creepy’ into the bargain.

Text messages are an equally ineffective form of communication, according to the research. Students tend to view them as aggressive or spam, or they just don’t receive them reliably, courtesy of the fact that many change phone contracts and numbers on a regular basis.

Unwelcome or ineffectual communication is not something academics and administrators wish to engage in. A survey of education professionals by Tribal showed educators were keen to communicate with students in a safe and secure way that protected their own professional and personal integrity and increased their chances of being heard.

The app advantage

An app ticks many of the boxes for today’s tertiary student cohort. They’ve come of age in an era when apps are used for everything from dating to ordering take-away and booking accommodation.

Little surprise that it’s their favoured means of dealing with education providers for academic and administrative matters.

More than 70 per cent of those surveyed by Tribal stated a preference to be contacted via a single, dedicated mobile app, which covers all areas of their college or university life.

Institutions have much to gain from implementing cost effective electronic communication platforms to facilitate healthy collaboration and more effective student support.

Benefits can include:

  • the ability for educators and students to collaborate via persistent group timelines, where links, tips, hints and reminders can be posted;
  • being able to engage with students and provide near-immediate feedback that better informs them ahead of their next lecture or lesson;
  • more efficient communication, courtesy of the fact that educators and students can communicate one to one, or in groups, in real time;
  • the creation of collaborative spaces where students can learn and support one another with in-class activities and group work.

Getting with the program

In an era where businesses and institutions are judged by the quality of the ‘customer experience’ they deliver, Australia’s education providers can ill afford to leave immediate and effective communication to chance.

Harnessing the power of mobile computing to move communications with students from the transactional to the relational has the potential to pay rich dividends, in the form of increased retention and satisfaction rates.

Peter Croft is APAC managing director at Tribal Group.

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