Student engagement is an increasing worry for universities

Press/Media: Expert Comment

Description

For our young Australians, beginning university is a life milestone — a crossover to adulthood brimming with a sense of accomplishment, independence, freedom, discovery, responsibility and the opportunity to (re)define who they are.

However for the class of 2020, distance learning, closed campuses, the “Zoom university” and course cuts are the new normal — and these massive changes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unprecedented disruption that COVID has caused in their lives.

Emptiness, boredom and disengagement may just be the corona trilogy of demoralisation for our tertiary students this year.

READ NEXT

Institutions that have been kicking the tyres on online education have crammed a decade worth of change into the space of a few months to keep pace with the shift to online. Universities, by necessity, have limited access to their campuses.

The pandemic pivot has initiated constructive discussions around pedagogy in the new era. But it also has opened a Pandora’s box of challenging issues facing the sector.

Every university globally has been left asking itself the same question: How do we engage and retain students?

Maintaining student engagement during this period of instability should be the top priority. However it is increasingly apparent that engagement is on the slide. Worse still, our students are disengaging and a hollowing-out effect of the university experience is occurring.

This is troubling because unlike student dissatisfaction, which is often vocally expressed, disengagement is an insidious, silent crisis. Disengaged students are dispirited and withdraw from university life. They are apathetic and uninvolved.

Worse still, they are invisible. They don’t turn up. They don’t interact. They are inoperative and if given a chance to opt out of learning and university life, they take it.

What we need to do to help students break out of disengagement is to meet their expectations, nurture their passion, motivation and goals, and shepherd them in the right direction.

The key ingredients for success are already there. Our students come to us with great expectations of an exciting, transformative experience full of vibrancy, freedom and independence. They come to us talented, motivated, inspired and driven to grow. They live for refectory catch-ups, social and intellectual events, intermingling with peers and with staff, advisers and mentors — the fabric of the university experience.

It is not the shift away from physical face-to-face teaching that is the problem — blended learning represents a critical opportunity to build a better, more flexible and agile tertiary experience. The problem is that the pivot to online learning has come at the expense of the maintenance of a deeply connected experience.

How do we then re-engage students in the absence of a powerful on-campus experience?

The answer lies less in reinventing the wheel, and more in rethinking and revamping it.

It is no longer enough to placate students by relying on empty brand mottos and league table results. Universities have to work harder to communicate and demonstrate purpose and differentiation.

The shift to online means that, now more than ever, our sector is competing globally in a saturated market. Unless we are an international powerhouse university with a monolithic intangible brand asset, we need to work twice as hard to develop a competitive strategy for student engagement, and a USP (unique selling proposition). Otherwise we risk falling by the wayside along with the other plethora of institutions vying for market share.

We also need to rethink community. In the past we have relied on the creation of community by default. Staff and students were on campus and involved with clubs, societies and events. Community formed organically with only minor institutional intervention and encouragement.

With restricted campus attendance this “auto-community” can no longer be assumed. Universities must actively re-engage students in university life. The student-university relationship needs to be nurtured through powerful, empathetic and narrative-based brand communication. Institutions also must develop genuinely co-creative activities that enmesh student identity with institutional identity.

The key to re-engaging disengaged students is in delivering meaning, belonging and community both on and off campus. When students feel connected to who we are as an institutional brand, when they are proud to proclaim membership, when their own values are aligned with our institutions — then they have adopted our brand as a badge of their own identity.

The top ranked universities of the world have achieved this identity loyalty. It is even more crucial for our universities, which need to build retention and reputation.

The ripple effects of COVID-19 on the student experience, without question, have been distressing and disruptive. It has clipped students’ wings, their freedom and the serendipity that campus life once offered them. But it also represents an opportunity to reassess strategy and initiate change.

COVID-19 has reignited debate about what universities should be and to whom.

It has forced us to justify value and to rethink how student expectations should be met.

Most important, it has compelled us to address the age-old existential question: how will we keep our students engaged now and in the post-COVID future?

Jana Bowden is chair of ethics, and associate professor of consumer behaviour at the Macquarie University Business School.

Period3 Nov 2020

Media contributions

1

Media contributions

  • TitleStudent engagement is an increasing worry for universities
    Degree of recognitionNational
    Media name/outletThe Australian
    Media typePrint
    CountryAustralia
    Date3/11/20
    DescriptionThe search for ways to engage students without the easy campus contact of pre-Covid days is preoccupying universities.
    7:40PM NOVEMBER 3, 2020
    5 COMMENTS
    For our young Australians, beginning university is a life milestone — a crossover to adulthood brimming with a sense of accomplishment, independence, freedom, discovery, responsibility and the opportunity to (re)define who they are.

    However for the class of 2020, distance learning, closed campuses, the “Zoom university” and course cuts are the new normal — and these massive changes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unprecedented disruption that COVID has caused in their lives.

    Emptiness, boredom and disengagement may just be the corona trilogy of demoralisation for our tertiary students this year.

    READ NEXT

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    PATRICK COMMINS
    Institutions that have been kicking the tyres on online education have crammed a decade worth of change into the space of a few months to keep pace with the shift to online. Universities, by necessity, have limited access to their campuses.

    The pandemic pivot has initiated constructive discussions around pedagogy in the new era. But it also has opened a Pandora’s box of challenging issues facing the sector.

    Every university globally has been left asking itself the same question: How do we engage and retain students?

    Maintaining student engagement during this period of instability should be the top priority. However it is increasingly apparent that engagement is on the slide. Worse still, our students are disengaging and a hollowing-out effect of the university experience is occurring.

    This is troubling because unlike student dissatisfaction, which is often vocally expressed, disengagement is an insidious, silent crisis. Disengaged students are dispirited and withdraw from university life. They are apathetic and uninvolved.

    Worse still, they are invisible. They don’t turn up. They don’t interact. They are inoperative and if given a chance to opt out of learning and university life, they take it.

    What we need to do to help students break out of disengagement is to meet their expectations, nurture their passion, motivation and goals, and shepherd them in the right direction.

    The key ingredients for success are already there. Our students come to us with great expectations of an exciting, transformative experience full of vibrancy, freedom and independence. They come to us talented, motivated, inspired and driven to grow. They live for refectory catch-ups, social and intellectual events, intermingling with peers and with staff, advisers and mentors — the fabric of the university experience.

    It is not the shift away from physical face-to-face teaching that is the problem — blended learning represents a critical opportunity to build a better, more flexible and agile tertiary experience. The problem is that the pivot to online learning has come at the expense of the maintenance of a deeply connected experience.

    How do we then re-engage students in the absence of a powerful on-campus experience?

    The answer lies less in reinventing the wheel, and more in rethinking and revamping it.

    It is no longer enough to placate students by relying on empty brand mottos and league table results. Universities have to work harder to communicate and demonstrate purpose and differentiation.

    The shift to online means that, now more than ever, our sector is competing globally in a saturated market. Unless we are an international powerhouse university with a monolithic intangible brand asset, we need to work twice as hard to develop a competitive strategy for student engagement, and a USP (unique selling proposition). Otherwise we risk falling by the wayside along with the other plethora of institutions vying for market share.

    We also need to rethink community. In the past we have relied on the creation of community by default. Staff and students were on campus and involved with clubs, societies and events. Community formed organically with only minor institutional intervention and encouragement.

    With restricted campus attendance this “auto-community” can no longer be assumed. Universities must actively re-engage students in university life. The student-university relationship needs to be nurtured through powerful, empathetic and narrative-based brand communication. Institutions also must develop genuinely co-creative activities that enmesh student identity with institutional identity.

    The key to re-engaging disengaged students is in delivering meaning, belonging and community both on and off campus. When students feel connected to who we are as an institutional brand, when they are proud to proclaim membership, when their own values are aligned with our institutions — then they have adopted our brand as a badge of their own identity.

    The top ranked universities of the world have achieved this identity loyalty. It is even more crucial for our universities, which need to build retention and reputation.

    The ripple effects of COVID-19 on the student experience, without question, have been distressing and disruptive. It has clipped students’ wings, their freedom and the serendipity that campus life once offered them. But it also represents an opportunity to reassess strategy and initiate change.

    COVID-19 has reignited debate about what universities should be and to whom.

    It has forced us to justify value and to rethink how student expectations should be met.

    Most important, it has compelled us to address the age-old existential question: how will we keep our students engaged now and in the post-COVID future?

    Jana Bowden is chair of ethics, and associate professor of consumer behaviour at the Macquarie University Business School.
    URLhttps://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/student-engagement-is-an-increasing-worry-for-universities/news-story/563f1001103a4a43254b527d2a85a6c5
    PersonsJana Bowden