- This case study shares recommendations to narrow the communications gap between students and student program administrators about opportunities outside the classroom and increase student engagement in co-curricular opportunities.
- If administrators of co-curricular programs are supported with adequate tools, data, and marketing expertise, they will be able to better target their outreach to positively impact student engagement
- Recommendations begin with considering the context of the student, without which any proposed solutions might fall short of meeting student needs.
Like many institutions of higher education, the University of Washington (UW) offers its students co-curricular opportunities such as study abroad and leadership skills training to help launch them into the world ready to pursue their passions and make a difference. But often, students on large campuses struggle to learn about these opportunities in a timely manner. Part of this struggle results from the plethora of information channels now available: email, text, Facebook, Snapchat — the list goes on and continues to grow. Students are not the only ones who struggle, however. According to our most recent research, student program administrators lack sufficient understanding of how to most effectively promote their opportunities to students. Adding to their challenge are complex administrative workflows and insufficient targeting mechanisms.
While this case study presents information about specific communications challenges at a particular university, our findings and recommendations can provide insight for any institution of higher education that seeks to better engage its students through opportunities beyond the classroom. In this article, we share our findings, methods, and recommendations to narrow the communications gap and increase student engagement in co-curricular opportunities.
The Husky Experience Initiative, begun in 2013 through the UW Provost's Office, gathered campus leaders and area employers to talk about what constitutes a 21st-century education. Their answer was "a major… and more…[an education that] includes learning experiences inside and outside the classroom that help students discover their passions, become independent thinkers, and gain skills that lead to meaningful and rewarding careers." Many of these experiences are delivered through what we refer to as co-curricular opportunities (or co-curriculars), such as leadership skills training, service learning, study abroad, and more.
The authors of this article are a group of analysts in the university's information technology department (UW-IT) who joined the UW Provost to explore better ways to support — through tools and technologies — student engagement with co-curricular events and opportunities.
Our first step, in 2014, was a study to learn about general student participation in co-curriculars. In that study, students reported the two biggest obstacles to participation: lack of time and lack of information.
While the finding about a lack of time did not surprise us, we were puzzled to learn that students encountered a lack of information, since the student program administrators we spoke with reported using a wide variety of information channels to reach students. In order to understand this apparent discrepancy, we needed to better understand the full information ecosystem in which students and student program administrators exist.
During 2015 and 2016, we surveyed and spoke with students and student program administrators to understand how students consume and how programs disseminate information. We hoped to learn how the UW can improve student engagement with co-curricular events and opportunities. Our methods, findings, and recommendations follow, with information from research with students first, followed by research with student program administrators.
The goal of the research with students was to understand how they consume information about UW-related events and opportunities. To that end, we conducted in-depth interviews with 25 students from all three UW campuses. Interview participants included women and men, freshmen through seniors, from a range of academic disciplines.
Interviews focused on understanding students' information ecosystem by investigating how students find, receive, process, and use information about UW-related events and opportunities. We sought to identify students' general information consumption behaviors (how they seek and receive information), their preferred information channels, and the factors that influence consumption (e.g., information design and format, timing). In addition, we wanted to understand how students determine whether information they receive is relevant to them, what role information plays in their planning and decision making for larger opportunities (jobs, internships, etc.), and what improvements students would like to see in information channels overall.
The goal of this analysis was to understand how program administrators connect students with co-curricular events and opportunities. We interviewed people from 25 administrative offices in one-on-one and small-group interviews. The staff interviewed represented programs of varying sizes, from the offices of Undergraduate Academic Advising, Student Life, and the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity across all three UW campuses. Interviewees were asked to describe their end-to-end process for managing co-curricular events and opportunities, including how they planned for, advertised, conducted, and evaluated them. We also interviewed staff from four academic departments that represented a range of academic competitiveness, size, and resources to support student engagement. Because program administrators rely on the advising community in connecting students with opportunities, we also conducted a series of focus groups with advisers, with participants representing pre-major advising, departmental advising, and the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity.
Among the findings from research with students, the model of an academic career and phases students describe within it, the model of student journeys toward co-curriculars, and the graphic depiction of student information consumption in context represent critical discoveries for understanding the information ecosystem
Students' information consumption behaviors change as they move through their academic careers and their goals and interests become more defined. We identified four stages of a student's academic career in which these behaviors differ; when they are:
- First transitioning to the UW
- Exploring majors
- In their major
- Transitioning to the professional realm
These stages roughly align with class standing, but may overlap. We found that students in each stage were consumed with a particular goal, and that these goals in turn affected students' attitudes and behaviors and, ultimately, their information consumption (see figure 1).
Icons by Takao Umehara under Creative Commons BY 3.0
Figure 1. Academic career: a student's context
The data we gathered about student involvement in co-curricular activities was remarkably consistent, allowing us to map a typical "journey toward co-curriculars." Regardless of where students were in their academic career or which co-curricular experience they were talking about, they described the same progression of phases. It was common for students to be at different phases of the journey for different co-curricular experiences, as outlined in figure 2.
Icons by Takao Umehara under Creative Commons BY 3.0
Figure 2. Journey toward a co-curricular
It is important to emphasize the importance of social interactions and relationships in helping students move along in their journey. Students may get involved in any number of co-curricular activities during their time at the UW, but information in and of itself is not enough to inspire their participation. Rather, in our research we found that interactions with experienced participants were necessary precursors to making any information about a co-curricular relevant to students.
3. Within a student's context, the design and source of information greatly influences information consumption.
Three factors — where students are in their academic careers, where they are in their journeys toward a particular co-curricular, and their mindset (goals, attitudes) — appear to be the most important in determining whether students find information from a student program useful.
Two additional factors — the design of the information (its presentation) and the source (sender) — greatly influence whether students consume the information. Figure 3 illustrates how these multiple factors play out at a moment in time for a particular student.
Icons by Takao Umehara under Creative Commons BY 3.0
Figure 3. Student context and information consumption
4. Students use a variety of information channels for different purposes.
We asked students about their use of various information channels for finding information about co-curricular events and opportunities. Despite their familiarity with multiple platforms and information channels, students clearly expressed that they did not have an information channel that they preferred. Instead, they use a variety of information channels and platforms for different purposes, and they will likely continue to do so.
Student behavior is influenced in part by the information available in each channel, by channel features (e.g., good information design, notifications), and by a desire to clearly separate social and academic communications. In addition, we found that students change how they use different information channels over the course of their college career, due to changing goals and mindset.
For example, Facebook allows students to easily scan postings for critical event information — name, time, and location. It also allows students to easily drill down to find additional details if needed. Students also appreciated and frequently relied on the notification feature in Facebook and the ease with which they could share information with others by forwarding or tagging.
On the other hand, students told us that information such as UW department events tend to get buried in their Facebook feed. They would prefer to get this type of information through email. They also appreciated email because they can keep it separate from their social communications.
For learning about co-curricular events and opportunities, the most popular methods were:
- Department websites
- Text messaging
- Sandwich boards
Notably, in general the students we spoke to did not find redundancy of information (information seen in more than one channel) to be a problem. In fact, they most often welcomed redundancy. Students reported that information cross-posting, as well as event reminders, signaled to them that the event was well planned.
Despite the absence of a preferred information channel, students want a central, comprehensive listing of events and opportunities. Students reported that they sometimes do not find out about opportunities in time to act on them, and they are aware that they do not hear about all UW co-curriculars. Students want a central resource that they can filter or personalize based on their current interests and academic career phase, one that they can continue to use as their interests and needs change.
Even when students were interested in events they heard about, multiple factors influenced whether they would — or could — attend: timing of event, timing of information, and the likelihood of being able to attend with companions. Events scheduled in the evening are difficult if not impossible to attend for commuting students or those with heavy job schedules.
Conversations with program staff revealed work processes and tools that need to be streamlined and centralized and skills that need to be updated (e.g., marketing, program evaluation, data collection). These conditions are likely typical of those at other institutions of higher education.
The group we interviewed identified 70 mostly decentralized online and desktop tools they use to manage their programs. These tools require significant maintenance, redundant work, and a great deal of staff capacity. Program administrators reported inadequate staff to handle outreach and support for students and expressed concern about scalability of their programs as enrollment increases.
Scheduling activities also takes significant administrative capacity. Scheduling activities can range from one-on-one advising to selecting dates for events of all sizes and arranging event space up to several years in advance. Currently, staff use 20 unintegrated calendar systems, requiring them to manually enter scheduling information in multiple places and resulting in redundancy, complexity, and mistakes. Due to the unnecessary complexity of the tools and processes available, what should be a routine administrative task requires significant effort, strategic thinking, long-term planning, personal relationships, and tenacity.
Program administrators lack the data they need to target the appropriate student audience and understand the counts and profiles of those who do participate. Targeted messages are more effective overall, but program administrators generally reach out to the entire undergraduate population via numerous channels and without precision. Many student attributes are known and available in existing systems, but access is problematic.
Weak attendance-tracking at events is another missed opportunity for gathering student data. A handful of programs use a system that lets students swipe their Husky card (the official identification card for members of the UW community). This provides some student data, which is most frequently stored and managed in Excel spreadsheets. Without a card swipe system at larger events, attendance must be estimated. At smaller events, a paper sign-in sheet might be used, then manually entered into various systems.
In many cases, staff do not have the data to determine whether they are engaging students. Even when they do know they are engaging students, they often do not have an accurate picture of how many students they reach and if those students are their target audience.
UW program administrators know they can provide outstanding programs. Unfortunately, the current workflow requires them to spend more time publicizing opportunities than designing and delivering programs. By their own admission, publicity and marketing are generally not their strengths (particularly social media), making these efforts even more of a drain.
These staff use 27 unique channels to promote their offerings, often with a shotgun approach and without data supporting their choice. For example, nearly all staff we interviewed reported the advising listserv as a primary channel for getting the word out to students. However, advisers reported that they do not forward the majority of messages they receive. In general, most staff are not yet considering evaluating the effectiveness of their outreach efforts. At this point, they focus more on getting their messages out than on effectiveness of that effort.
Program administrators want to evaluate and improve the impact and effectiveness of their programs, but they have trouble defining learning outcomes or collecting the data necessary to measure student progress. At this point, most evaluate programs based on attendance or participation, yet — due to data gaps and access issues — these participation numbers are often merely estimates.
In addition to limited evaluation methods, program administrators report that students lack a thorough understanding of what can be gained by participating in Husky Experience programs. This points to the need for better education of students about these benefits.
Universities need to connect the right students to the right opportunity at the right time. Recommendations begin with considering the context of the student. Without this any proposed solutions may fall short of meeting student needs.
To increase student engagement with co-curriculars, the current communications gap between students and program administrators needs to be narrowed, if not closed. The current communications gap stems from two factors:
- Campus program administrators' struggle with multiple unintegrated technologies, data gaps, and marketing
- The previous lack of understanding of student behaviors around information consumption and motivations for engagement
Despite significant obstacles, it also seems clear that even relatively minor changes — for example, in information design, which is an important factor in determining whether students will read a message — could yield major improvements in the efforts and satisfaction of both groups studied.
In the long run, the communication gap can be more effectively narrowed by considering the student context and aligning campus program administrators' outreach efforts with known student behaviors around information consumption.
Our first recommendation is to focus on social catalysts in outreach efforts. A student's motivation to get involved in a particular co-curricular activity almost always develops out of a social interaction with an experienced participant rather than in response to a message sent from a campus program.
Our second recommendation is to make sure information can be found. What we're really talking about here is finding ways for student program administrators to disseminate information in alignment with student behaviors. We know that student program admins typically focus on broadcasting information, but our student research shows that once students are interested in co-curricular involvement, their first step is to search for more information, usually on Google. So just making information about opportunities and events search-engine friendly is a simple way to better serve students.
Another (more challenging) way would be to build a central repository of information related to co-curricular opportunities and make it easy for students to filter information based on their interests or needs.
These are two ways to support discovery of information, instead of focusing on outreach alone.
Currently, student program providers lack the tools and data needed to target students. Accordingly, students perceive the information they receive about co-curricular events as being "hit or miss" in terms of its relevance to them. Providing student demographic data (available in the university's student database) and using that data to target and personalize communications could increase the perception of relevance.
Tools and processes currently used by student program administrators limit their ability to effectively target and serve students. Their capacity is not sustainable as enrollment increases. Solutions must be investigated to streamline the multi-step processes used to manage mailing lists. Other suggestions within this recommendation include:
- Inform campus program administrators that advisers most often do not forward messages sent to the adviser listserv that are intended for students.
- Support a central calendar that administrators can use for planning events up to several years out.
- Provide a central solution for space reservation.
- Better integrate student and staff calendaring tools.
Staff report that students are unaware of the full benefits of co-curricular engagement or the extent to which involvement can shape their lives and/or careers. Some ways to address this:
- Clarify and market the strategic objectives and benefits of the Husky Experience.
- Help staff successfully define learning outcomes and collect the data necessary to measure student progress.
- Equip staff with comprehensive program evaluation tools and processes.
As a way forward with our findings, we have started meeting with campus groups to share what we have learned. We structure these meetings to create opportunities for discussion and exploration (rather than a one-way information download). Ultimately, the implementation of solutions for aligning information dissemination and consumption will rest with the staff who administer campus programs. They would be understandably overwhelmed if our effort stopped at producing a report. To help create solutions, it's critical to engage in conversations about the student information ecosystem and help them see students in context. In addition, it's vital to help staff re-envision their ways of doing things and to recognize the strengths they already have in creating change.
The sharing sessions have also been important in helping us learn about the knowledge and skills that student program administrators feel they need to implement our recommendations. In general, staff reported that the skills needed to execute student programming well have changed significantly in a short time and outstrip staff's current capacity.
The desire to adapt is evident; conversations during the research process made clear that staff want their efforts to be more effective. Our hope is that these initial meetings will serve as a jumping-off point for ongoing work within the staff groups.
In addition to these meetings, we are creating video "information sessions" for those unable to attend. Our intention in sharing the videos is twofold:
- To share the information about student context (such as the map of the academic career and journey toward co-curriculars, the preferences for receiving information)
- To provide groups with a way to begin conversations on their own about how they might reengineer their outreach and evaluation efforts
We hope to continue the valuable work of understanding how students consume information in an ever-changing information ecosystem. As student programs better align their outreach, new tools will continue to emerge and digital proficiencies will change. Our goal is to partner with campus units for the long term to help student program administrators build capacity in the area we have identified as critical: information design, program assessment, marketing, and search-engine optimization. To help students connect with opportunities beyond the classroom, schools of all sizes will need to address similar challenges and build capacity as digital tools and proficiencies continue to evolve.
Julie Crowley is a business analyst, Academic Experience Design & Delivery, UW-IT, University of Washington.
Abigail Evans is a research scientist, Academic Experience Design & Delivery, UW-IT, University of Washington.
Janice Fournier is a research scientist, Academic Experience Design & Delivery, UW-IT, University of Washington.
Taryn Pedigo is a business analyst, Student Program, UW-IT, University of Washington.
William Washington is a user experience designer, Academic Experience Design & Delivery, UW-IT, University of Washington.
Heidi Stahl is a web information specialist, Academic Experience Design & Delivery, UW-IT, University of Washington.
© 2017 Julie Crowley, Abigail Evans, Janice Fournier, Taryn Pedigo, William Washington, and Heidi Stahl. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.