What a lot of brands are learning is that it’s not always necessary for an app to do something useful all the time. In fact, utilitarian apps are kind of boring. That’s not what consumers want from a brand they engage with.
It’s the eerily quiet week of the year for Australian universities. Across our campuses the Christmas decorations are being boxed up. It’s easier to park, and harder to find coffee.
But even though it all looks like a bit of a blank canvas, the customer engagement units are limbering up. This is the week that potential commencing students (and their families) adjust to the reality of the high school results that were released half-way through December. It’s a really difficult time for many who thought they were headed in one direction and find themselves spun around and pointing in another. And for the same reason, it’s a tough time for universities who are trying to convert offers into accepted places and work out exactly who’s coming and who’s not.
Most academics stay low and use the offpeak season to catch up on research and writing, but a lucky few are drawn into internal planning for the keynote customer engagement events that will launch the academic year, still a month away. More and more these show up the flaws in our fragile arrangements for shared governance of university culture, as marketing and recruitment departments, co-opted academics and hired student helpers each try to come to terms with what the others think the university experience ought to look like.
Orientation Week is shaping up to be a particularly awkward moment. At one level, it’s when new students are walked through practicalities about how to read the timetable, select classes, buy books, and access support. Boring and utilitarian? Probably. But also essential if everyone’s going to get to where they need to go. There’s always a bit too much PowerPoint, but student helpers do a great job in cheering everyone up: they provide exactly the kinds of advice, encouragement and survival tips that new recruits need, and that neither marketers nor academics can credibly provide.
Student orientation has also always had another element, however—a sort of sideshow alley of food, entertainment, clubs to join, with a dash of student politics tossed in. Although the specifics vary from system to system, the role of the midway is to reassure students that it’s not all about classes and cramming for exams; being a college student is also about making friends, joining in, and having fun.
We know these are key dimensions to the student experience, and in general we all think it’s good that students lead whatever balanced lives they can wrestle from the juggle of paid work, commuting, study and family responsibilities. If they want to meet up with other students who abseil etc., we can help; and in 2012, Australian universities are back in the game of being able to charge a flat fee for campus services and amenities including those that can make a real difference to student welfare — child care, financial advice, food services.
You’d think that as we’ve done all this pretty well up till now, we’d leave it alone. But all of a sudden we’re taking an approach to student-focused events that includes the kinds of hired facilities and activities you might expect to find at children’s parties or, as someone pointed out to me this morning, on cruiseships. Jumping castles. Donut [sic] eating competitions. Dunking machines. (And if you doubt the potential of a dunking machine to represent what university life is all about, this video will set you straight.)
Even though research on student engagement clearly locates this in the classroom (or online) within the practice of actually learning, it’s getting harder in universities to tell the difference between student engagement and more conventional routines and instruments of customer engagement: marketing, loyalty programs, feedback loops. So perhaps we need to get back to first principles on this engagement business, as this is slippage of real significance.
When we say we engage with students, what we mean at a commonsense level is that we listen to them, and think about them, and get to know them quite well. In terms of more formally understood definitions of learner engagement, we try as hard as university policies and our workloads permit to create opportunities that foster their imagination, develop their resilience and reward their independence. We know that the most engaging experiences are the ones that are genuinely challenging, not just entertaining in the short-term. We really value what Michael Feldstein calls “assisted stretching”, that he places at the heart of his convincing argument that the “zone of proximal curiosity” is where real learning occurs.
So we have a legitimate investment in the tone that universities set for student engagement, and it really would be worth consulting us before going any further down the It’s a Knockout path. We can tell you about the kinds of students who will come away from these managed-fun experiences feeling bored, alienated, nervous or irritable. And it’s very important to us that the values that are displayed at orientation events are aligned with what and how we teach.
The alternative is that we keep quiet, and tacitly agree that it’s OK to subordinate the whole enterprise of higher learning to a style of customer engagement that underestimates the intelligence and diversity of our students, and makes it look like we found our brand personality* on Wipeout, or perhaps Funniest Home Videos.
* And if you’re not sure what brand personality is or how far-reaching its aspirations within current marketing practices, here’s the definition from Tourism Australia, who have the breathtaking responsibility of managing the brand personality for the whole country—which is high spirited, down to earth, irreverent, welcoming, since you ask. No, really.