Keeping in contact with learners
Any unexpected and/or prolonged enforced absence from campus is likely to have a significant impact on the wellbeing of your learners. They may feel isolated, cut off from regular sources of information such as direct access to their tutors, and social ties and informal support they routinely get from interaction with their peers.
Clear, consistent and constant messaging is critical to help fill that void and ensure learners feel as supported and informed as possible.
Without this regular contact you are at risk of creating an environment for rumours and gossip, and learners seeking other, less reliable, sources of information. It is sensible to anticipate and prepare for increased online contact. Some more vulnerable students will need direct support, human contact, and personalised answers.
What are your usual communication lines with students? At the best of times, notifying students of key news, room changes and timetable changes is not easy.
The culture of too many messages seen at many institutions can blunt the importance of a notification or email in the student’s inbox. Being able to deliver an important message straight to the student is an effective tool that enables you to be responsive and agile when required.
From timetable changes for specific groups of students to organisation-wide emergency directions, how do you develop a robust and effective method of communication that both staff and students believe in?
Tools to consider
It is worth looking at the tools you have available to use in ‘out of the ordinary’ circumstances.
Platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts may already be used in teaching and learning contexts. If you haven’t already, now may be the time to consider opening up your Office 365 tenancy to students as well as staff. Students are often setup to receive notifications on their own devices when they have new messages or content to read. Key to keeping this effective, is to limit the posts you send from the institution - use other channels for more mundane messaging like events.
Virtual learning environments
The VLE is an effective platform for delivering session and teaching and learning content, but students rarely check it for live information updates. Being able to post emergency notifications in a highly visible box within the layout or a ‘pop-up’ can attract a user’s attention.
Email accounts are widely used at institutions. Although inboxes can soon get out of control and become less effective if students check them less frequently, clearly written subject lines will help get important information noticed.
Institution mobile apps
These can bring all the institution’s services to a student’s device but also provide a channel for important communications. It is wise to clearly define the use of the app during induction sessions to encourage all students to install it and allow notifications on their devices. These messages should be kept to a minimum to stop students getting annoyed by too many notifications and switching them off.
SMS text messaging
Services such as Janet txt provide a secure SMS messaging service to manage and distribute messages to individuals or groups. This means you can send bulk messages either to all students, or particular cohorts, ensuring timely and consistent messaging to a student’s own devices. This does assume you have up-to-date mobile phone numbers for your students so this is something that may be timely to check.
Your existing social media channels may also offer a direct conduit to your learners. However, it is worth bearing in mind that these will also be followed by non-students, thereby potentially broadcasting any messages to a wider, public audience.
Emergency notification tools
Another alternative might be to invest in dedicated emergency notification tools such as Everbridge, RapidReach, and PageOne. These can have the benefit of controlling who can send communications and so allowing for greater consistency of message.
Choosing and reviewing an approach
There may well be wisdom in deciding to adopt more than one of the above.
It can be risky to assume that adopting one channel, regardless of which, will provide the means to reach all students – whatever the expectation of management and staff may be of the reach of ‘official’ communication channels.
Regardless of the channels you adopt, it is also worth reviewing and clarifying the decision-making processes when it comes to who has authority to draft and send messages to students. There is a balance to be struck between ensuring consistent messaging emanating from a small and closely controlled central ‘corporate’ function, versus retaining flexibility, timeliness and the ‘human touch’ by allowing individual teaching staff to transmit their own anxieties out to their students. There will likely be a need for both, but there needs to be recognition of this; what platforms can be used for each and a consistent underlying message across all communications.
Depending on the scale and likely longevity of the incident it may be worth considering setting up a virtual ‘incident room’ with clear authority to both make decisions and to coordinate information flows and messaging.
Plans for how urgent messages will be agreed and disseminated in the event of an emergency or high-pressured environment should be made in advance. This will help ensure that the message is broadcast across all the agreed channels and that no area of cohort is missed out.
Keeping in contact with vulnerable students
In addition to the above, it is worth paying particular attention to the needs of any students who could be particularly vulnerable or at risk during an enforced absence from campus.
This might include:
- Students with disabilities who may not now have direct access to the support workers they rely on when on campus
- Students with known mental health issues or conditions which may mean that they are likely to be more susceptible to anxiety and stress due to enforced isolation and/or changes to their regular routine
It is important that relevant staff have online access to the sources of data on students who may fall into the categories above and that the communication channels being used are able to distinguish these students. Constant attention should then be given to whether additional information needs to be provided to these students, either to respond to their specific needs or to more generally allay any likely anxieties.
Where students have been assigned 1:1 study support or mental health mentoring, perhaps through Disabled Students Allowance, explore whether this could continue to be provided remotely using the student’s preferred mode of communication, e.g. phone, FaceTime, Skype, the VLE.
If you already have an online 24/7 student support service it is worth making sure that they are primed with the latest information regarding the incident and that this source of support is highlighted to students.
Establish a student services remote helpdesk
You might find it useful to set up a dedicated online helpdesk for the duration of the incident.
This can include up-to-date FAQs based on the kinds of questions that students are asking and provide links to relevant internal or external sources of information, eg to local or central government guidance on travel, personal safety or public health.
Providing a number for students to phone to speak to someone directly can help retain direct lines of communication with students above and beyond the provision of ‘self-service’ sources of information. The responder could signpost them to relevant source of advice, reinstate(reiterate) official statements, correct or rebuff rumours or forward their question to another relevant member of staff to respond to.
- Think about the platforms and communication channels you already have and how they can be used to deliver information to either all or specific groups of students
- Don’t rely on a single communication channel
- Think about how messages are going to be approved and sent and by whom to ensure a consistency of information
- Pay particular attention to vulnerable students and what additional contact needs they may have
- Consider creating a helpdesk to pull information together and to provide a means for students to speak to someone