Relationship Management: Communicate, communicate, communicate

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Compendium of Good Practice in Relationship Management in Higher and Further Education, written by myself and Lou McGill. The Compendium will be made available shortly, but I thought I’d post up a few samples to whet your appetite.

Increased and improving use of electronic communication tools across a wide spectrum give the greatest number of contact opportunities for the widest number of students, representing increased capability.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Communication is at the very heart of relationship management and is linked strongly with both staff and student well-being. Staff working in student support services, for example, recognise this, but do not always have the resources to provide effective support to everyone. It is not only communication between the institution and students that is important, but also communication between different departments and staff roles. Some processes, such as recording mitigating circumstances where emails are triggered at different stages, can be quite complex.

Students prefer a single communication channel to multiple emails and sources for accessing support services. When developing digital resources for student support, consider how students will interact with them and how communication with the support service will be handled; for example social media is ideal for presenting bite-sized pieces of information tailored to student requirements. Therefore:

  • resources should be designed to work on both computers and mobile devices, eg tablets and smartphones, so that students can access them any time, anywhere
  • self-check facilities, such as psychological assessment questionnaires, should be made available to help frame the context for support issues for both staff and students and personal online feedback should also be provided once any self-check questionnaires have been completed
  • social media services, such as Twitter, Facebook and even email can help engage and inform students about support services; for example, the University of Sheffield’s Well Connected Twitter stream is followed by over 200 students
  • SMS (Short Messaging Service) texts can be used to send key information to students about their course or institution, as well as personalised information relating to bursaries, for example
  • consider the terminology being used; for example, both staff and students may have differing interpretations of words such as ‘placement’, ‘work experience’, or ‘internships’.

Feedback has shown that students favour using digital media for accessing student support services and information. They value resources that have the backing and authority of the institution as it can be trusted to provide dependable advice. Offering support services online can provide the following benefits:

  • Cost saving: For example, the University of Nottingham uses Mahara to communicate with students on placement, because it’s more efficient than sending individual emails to students; it also enables visibility and tracking of what has been communicated to students
  • Informs potential students: online information, such as blogs, can inform potential students and can be reused by staff for guidance, marketing and recruitment
  • Provides a channel for communication for staff-student and student-student online conversations
  • Promotes sharing: staff and students can share information when it is all in one place.
  • using web based social and professional networking tools can reduce challenges around data ownership and institutional support requirements and takes advantage of systems that students and alumni may already use for career and personal development

When developing digital resources for students, internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive. One way to ensure this is to include representatives from a variety of backgrounds (such as faculty, IT, Student Services, Registry, Statistics Units, Students’ Union etc) and talk to stakeholders on their terms. This approach can strengthen collaboration across departments (and even across institutions). It will also encourage ownership, stimulate creativity and provide multiple perspectives and solutions.

Digital resources that provide student support can be marketed to students using a variety of formats from conventional posters and flyers to messages sent out through social media, such as via Student Union Facebook newsfeeds, which can reach thousands of students. Timing is important, so it is important to focus on times when students need this information most, for example at the beginning of the academic year and exam time. Institutional branding is important as students view any university branded support service, as comforting, supportive, reliable and trustworthy.

Institutions can work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment, particularly in the role of mentors, who can offer recent experience of the transition. This can alleviate some of the burden of student support provision from within the institution, but still requires appropriate management. Alumni can also act as important links in professional networks by introducing students to employers and other professionals.

Professional networking, particularly that with a strong discipline focus, can be supported by institutions to maintain connections with alumni and help to consolidate links with employers. Integrating this aspect into student modules also serves to connect students to important networks before they leave and helps them maintain links with the institution once they have graduated. For example, Aston University has integrated:

“…business engagement content into the new website. Stakeholders can now get direct access to relevant business contacts, case studies, and partnership opportunities.” (Pymm, S. (2012). A Report on the implementation of AstonConnect+. Aston University)

How to approach communication and networking

  • Internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive
  • Talk to stakeholders on their terms
  • Consider how students will interact digital resources for support and how communication with the support service will be handled
  • Tailor information and the communication method to student requirements
  • Consider the terminology being used
  • Design resources to work on computers and mobile devices
  • Use self-check facilities and provide personal online feedback once completed
  • Use social media services to engage and inform students
  • Focus effort on the time of year when students need particular types of information most
  • Institutional branding is important
  • Integrate professional networking into the curriculum
  • Work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment

Further information

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