Brian Kathman founded Signal Vine in 2013 and currently serves as its CEO. He has spent most of his career building technology companies.
Undoubtedly, this fall will mark a “brand-new start” in many ways for those in higher ed, and technology will take center stage. The pandemic makes every president’s decision feel more important than ever, with CIOs playing a critical role in ensuring schools can deliver on their promises, keep students safe and still deliver an education worthy of the institution’s name. It’s also a time for leadership to be strategic and seize opportunities for digital transformation as Diana Oblinger so eloquently laid out in EDUCAUSE Review.
Technology’s role will be crucial in making sure the brand-new fall semester is a successful one, whether the semester is online, on campus or both. At the core of pulling off this success is making sure campus communications with students, faculty, staff and parents are consistent, precise and timely. Avoiding confusion is obviously necessary, but well-executed communications and student engagement can ensure students show up, complete their coursework and get support along the way to have success in the classroom and toward their degree.
Areas Of Concern
Since the pandemic disrupted the normal operations of colleges and universities in March, I’ve had many conversations with higher ed leaders and students alike to talk about their biggest concerns as we gear up for the fall semester. These conversations tend to lead to similar identified areas of concern across the board:
• Health and safety for those who will be back on campus.
• IT support and internet access for those who will learn remotely.
• Scheduling to help students meet various requirements, such as completing labs.
• Financial aid concerns stemming from changes in employment, college/university fees and meeting scholarship requirements.
• Admissions requirements with a lack of SAT/ACT availability, as well as recent NACAC changes and students’ desire to stay close to home during the pandemic.
• Housing and dining availability and safety.
All of these concerns have a major commonality: To face them, students will need consistent, timely and relevant communications from their institutions. In turn, students will feel less stressed and more prepared to have a successful fall semester.
Technology lends solutions and best practices to help improve communication processes. As the CEO of a higher education artificial intelligence (AI) messaging platform, I’d argue that there are three approaches rooted in technology that higher education leaders should take to improve their outreach.
1. Leverage AI, But Don’t Forgo The Human Element
As Elana Zeide explained in EDUCAUSE Review, there are some distinct advantages to using AI in the setting of higher ed, such as increasing staff efficiency and data analysis to improve outcomes, both for higher ed institutions and students. One use of AI in higher ed comes in the form of a chatbot. (Full disclosure: My company offers a version of these.) These chatbots work to answer students’ questions, thus freeing up staff time and increasing staff efficiency.
This is a prime example of leveraging AI to improve the student experience. However, there are some situations in which students will require a real human to respond, help and listen — especially during a pandemic when emotions run high and students need to receive a little extra support from their college or university.
This is why, as I’ve written about before, I believe the best way to leverage AI is to see it as a partner. An AI-powered chatbot can help alleviate workloads and handle the more mundane tasks, such as answering students’ frequently asked questions. However, for those questions that clearly necessitate a human’s reactions and emotions, nothing replaces the interaction a student could have with a real person. By using AI, staff can save time by focusing on the questions of students who need extra support — and may be more likely to drop out without the right support.
2. Be Proactive, And Offer Bite-Sized Communications
Students don’t know what they don’t know. Students who want to know what they don’t know are sometimes too shy to reach out, or they simply don’t know where to go for help. For these reasons, institutional staff should become the proactive parties in their relationships with students. Regular check-ins and calls to action are key to ensuring that students have the information they need to have a successful academic year.
Bite-sized learning, or microlearning, is often more efficient at helping students retain knowledge, and I’ve found the same goes for communications with students. Students may be more likely to take action when they have one specific action to focus on at a time. It can be tempting to lay out all the steps a student needs to take to begin classes in the fall (e.g., speak with an advisor, file the FAFSA, etc.), but to get students to pay attention — and more importantly, to take action — it’s helpful to break up the steps into small, bite-sized chunks.
3. Communicate Through The Right Channel
Choosing the right channel to disseminate information is also important. These days, many communications with students happen digitally — via text, email, social media, a website, etc. Each of these channels has its own purpose, and you should choose one according to the goals at stake.
For example, if you need to personalize the communication for each recipient, such as when you’re informing students about their housing assignments, a website announcement or social media blast wouldn’t be appropriate. However, a personalized text message or email would work well. This is because different situations call for different channels. It’s of paramount importance to choose the right communication channel for the message at hand.
Remember: We’re All In Uncharted Territory
Much like the “four classes of first-year students” that will begin classes this fall, higher ed professionals are experiencing many firsts. These are situations that don’t have tried-and-tested best practices or go-to guides to call upon. Fortunately, those who work in higher ed are resilient, and technology leaders are innovative, and we’re well on our way to figuring out the best practices that will see us through the pandemic.
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