Should we focus on student experience or student engagement?

By Posted in - Higher Education & PR Practice & Social Media & Strategy and Planning & Student Marketing & Uncategorized & University on November 22nd, 2012 0 Comments

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It’s a gloomy day in Newcastle today, but we have an eye on the Twitter back channel from today’s Enhancing the Student Experience 2012 conference to distract us from the clouds and rain. Looks like some interesting conversations taking place from folk down in that there London (check out and join in with the tweetchat here or search #hexperience12).

An interesting tweet just popped up prompted by Craig Mahoney’s speech (Chief Executive of Higher Education Academy) asking the question whether we should focus more on student engagement than student experience. Good question, methinks and I wish I was there to hear the full speech.

We’re in the business of helping education organisation with this mystical thing called ‘engagement’, so it’s a subject dear to our hearts. “How do we get better engagement?” is a question that we’re often asked. And our response? “What does engagement mean to you?”. In the context of the work we do – focusing on communications through digital and social technologies – the responses that we most often hear back are something like this:

  • “liking our Facebook page”
  • “following us on Twitter”
  • “commenting on our content”
  • “sharing our content”
  • “clicking through to our website”

But I always find myself asking the question, is this really engagement? Really? How do we actually distinguish between what is communications and what is engagement? When does the act of communicating become engagement? The two go hand in hand but they are very much not the same thing. And where does ‘experience’ fit in here?

I think we have a problem with the word engagement. And so I welcome the sentiment of this video on student engagement produced by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Here they define student engagement as:

  • getting involved
  • raising views
  • feeling empowered
  • shaping education

For me, the first two are communications. They have an element of ‘engagement’ in them, at least if they occur then we can consider that there is some form of ‘engagement’ taking place and we’re on our way but the final two really hit the nail on the head. True engagement in the education sector cannot be a meaningless exchange of media rich content designed to grow page fans or follower numbers. It must lead to something. It must do something. Something must happen as a consequence of that. In this case that shift is a feeling (they feel empowered) and an action (they shape education). And here’s the thing… if the people with whom you are trying to ‘engage’ actually recognise and realise that as a consequence of their involvement something will happen and change then they are more likely to engage. And so this also becomes an issue of leadership and, yes our bag again, communications.

And so this is why we cannot ask the question should we focus on student engagement or student experience, because the two things absolutely go hand in hand. Perhaps a student having an excellent or a terrible experience is more likely to be engaged. And perhaps an engaged student is more likely to have an excellent experience. That experience is probably the thing that will drive their level of engagement, so we need to improve both, but we need to improve both hand in hand, not independent of one another or sequentially.

One of the reasons that we are often asked to help develop strategies for student engagement is because there is an aim from greater advocacy online from students. If they’re not already empowered by their institutions to have a voice, then they are certainly already empowered by social technologies to have that voice. This is both at one and the same time worrying and exciting for universities. Underpinning this is the need for reputation management. But no matter how good we may be at our jobs in advising on ways to achieve positive online advocacy and engagement (ha – blowing our own trumpet there, sorry *sheepish face*), there is only one thing that can truly achieve this and really make this happen, and that is a fantastic student experience. And so to achieve a great student experience and student engagement I think we need a number of things:

  • leadership that knows how to listen and facilitate change
  • a culture of listening, engaging and responding to individual needs
  • staff with passion and who genuinely care (my advice: if you don’t tick both these boxes then please get out of education)
  • investment in communications that is founded on continuous audience research and true understanding of our audience wants and needs (this cannot, and I mean cannot be achieved through an annual student survey – it is so so much more than that)
  • communications professionals with a seat at the top table

Crack these, and I think we can foster excellent experience and engagement hand in hand.

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