Challenges of student engagement

Earlier today, I wrote an essay-length comment over at John Peart’s website.

John made a keynote speech at the Quality Strategy Network’s Student Engagement Symposium on 9th December at Ashridge Business School and he kindly published the speech on his blog the next day.

The speech is about the challenges of student engagement in an age where the student population is so diverse, many have to work to supplement their income, and large numbers are part-time or distance learners.  The argument goes that in order to engage a hyper-diverse community, a hyper-diverse approach is required:

“…engaging students is never an easy task, but students’ unions need to continue to challenge themselves. No one method alone with cut it when you’re dealing with a student population that is so diverse.”

If you have time, I suggest you read the entire speech.

photo by Christopher Saccaro

photo by Christopher Saccaro

It’s important stuff, which is why I wrote an essay in response.  And it’s why I’m posting my reply on here too:

My comment on John Peart’s blog

Hyper-diversity is difficult to achieve, despite being necessary. Just as you describe students as having wildly varying needs, different circumstances, must take on jobs, and so on, students’ unions are also isolated from influencing and helping students as much as they’d like to because of their increasing range of commitments.

Can a modern students’ union be truly representative of all students? It can get close. And I agree that officers and volunteers need to be active both online and offline. However, this further stretches them for time.

Your mention of 21% of undergrads feeling uninvolved in shaping their course and 21% of undergrads also wanting to be actively involved is interesting. How easy is it to become actively involved? I wonder how many students who don’t feel involved have tried to involve themselves further (and indeed, had the time to do so effectively). That’s a key issue for students’ unions, who are there to help in instances such as this. And while many unions are stepping up their game each year with great success, I’m still concerned that it’s difficult to make truly dynamic moves with such limited resources.

Many years back, unions could get support and engagement from students and vice versa by “being where the students are”. As you say, something like wallpapering corridors may have brought a good turnout. To an extent, that’s still the case. Trouble is, the students are absolutely everywhere and being bombarded by issues. So how do you spread out in order to reel everyone in to a particular cause, whilst demonstrating that their engagement would benefit them?

Obama’s election campaign worked well through the Web, since he had a strong presence on many services. But this took a lot of money and resources to make happen convincingly. Obama seemed to shock many people recently when he said he’d never used Twitter. But is that really such a surprise? Obama’s web presence must have been almost entirely worked on by other people, unless he’s a comic superhero with the power to stretch time to get everything done so well…

The big challenge in my mind is to help students realise how important it is for them to engage and campaign effectively. But here’s a little story that shows the difficulty of the situation:

When I had the pleasure to meet you a few weeks’ back at the Reading Town Takeover, the first person I spoke to on campus didn’t want to talk to me. I was looking for the students’ union and said “Excuse me?” to someone walking toward me. She kept her head low and pretended not to hear me, but clearly knew I was trying to get her attention.

I carried on by saying, “Sorry, I only want to know where the SU is please.”

She then looked up, smiled, and said, “Oh, you just want directions. Oh right, good, fine.”

After showing me the way, she walked off happy to have helped. I mentioned this later at the SU and was told that it’s no surprise as she’d probably been concerned that I was ‘yet another’ person out campaigning about this cause or that, trying to get her support. I was told the campus can get quite busy with people wanting your attention on all sorts of issues.

So do we increase engagement by being less engaged? Of course not. But this highlights the challenge faced on so many levels.

Still, it’s a challenge worth pursuing.

photo by gnackgnackgnack

photo by gnackgnackgnack