In my time as a student and then as a student affairs professional, I have seen university communications increasingly move away from an IT and administrative domain. We are now seeing “student communications” as a professional field and function in its own right. Conferences such as #PSEWEB and HighEdWeb increasingly feature content on the “soft skills” of communications.
Institutions are establishing and devoting personnel and units devoted specifically to student communications, (myself included). What’s more, campuses are putting an ever growing and brightening spotlight on communications as a key factor in student success. The University of Alberta included recommendations on communications in its 2013 Student Mental Health report, writing that “students need to be at the center of our communication processes”.
To be honest, being student-centred while not being a student does at times take concerted, (albeit worthwhile), effort. Here are the 3 key ways I try to be student-centred in my communications work.
See Communications From Your Students’ Point of View
A student shouldn’t need to know how units are administratively organized behind the scenes in order to learn about services and resources. Emerging collaborative technologies, such as apps, have been very helpful in allowing universities to coordinate and consolidate communications without having to centralize units’ work or make their work interdependent.
Students also shouldn’t have to know in-group terminology in order to understand your message. This tenet is especially true for new students who might not be familiar with the postsecondary lingo. Be empathic. Make sure you are using words and describing services in a way that doesn’t require any pre-knowledge and doesn’t make assumptions about students’ baseline knowledge. Don’t avoid introducing important terms and distinctions to students; just make sure you are doing so in a way as to not ostracize or disorient them. Of course, no student will think and understand the same,(being student-centred in part means recognizing individual differences in students), but we can communicate in a way that simplifies our students’ navigation of the university system.
Meet Students Where They Are
Shift the focus from the administrator to the student. Communicate with students’ needs, interests, and tendencies in mind. Email, social media, posters, and many other mediums are all still viable communication platforms, but they are used differently and uniquely by young people and students. Students expect and should receive communications that meet their expectations and are intuitive. In tech design, we call this a “natural user interface,” and the concept is similarly applicable in communications.
We need to make it natural for our students to take in and understand our messages. And we need to develop native communications, that is, communications that are deliberately made for particular platforms. A poster cannot be used as a Facebook post, and a Facebook post cannot be used as an email, and an email cannot be used for a poster.
Bring In The Student Voice
Don’t bring in the student voice by posing as and communicating like a student. (Please don’t change your university motto to #learning4lyfe.) Instead, have the students at your institution help in the conceptualization, creation, and dissemination of your communications. Do this when and if possible.
There are many ways you can capture the literal or figurative student voice, including gathering successful practices through focus groups, hiring student staff, or having student partners review your communications strategy and plan. Get a comprehensive and in-depth sense of how your students communicate, and then trust your own judgments about what would align with your unit’s work. And make sure to check in with your students continually; new technologies and platforms are released daily and they can become quickly pervasive on campus.
These three tips are only, well, just that: the tip. Communications are entirely dependent on your message and audience, so I leave it to you to know best how to take from this what works for you and your unit.