Stefan Drew

FE excels at communications. It’s an imperative in education. If we can’t communicate, we can’t teach. Teaching demands good communications; it is how we impart knowledge and get students to pass exams.

It is also key to marketing, recruitment, admissions and student services.

But how well do we communicate?  Do our prospective and existing students understand what we are trying to tell them?

For the last six years I’ve been surveying the questions students ask providers. It is a good indicator of how well we are communicating. On the surface we look good at communications. We have websites, prospectuses and leaflets full of information.

However, providing information isn’t communications.  Communications is a two-way process and there is strong evidence that indicates that we are failing to get our message over to thousands of young people every week. We are providing messages but, they either aren’t received or, they are not understood.

The Late Summer Communications Bottleneck  

The end of August and beginning of September is a particularly busy time of year for providers. It’s also a good time to survey the questions students are asking.

Our survey is based on the questions that have been sent to three colleges via email and an online Chatline in the last two weeks. Clearly data from three colleges isn’t a representative sample from across the country but, from experience, I believe they are indicative of the situation in many colleges and private providers.

FAQs About Providers, Courses and Student Life

The following questions are taken verbatim from the 8000+ questions asked during the time frame we surveyed, they also give clues about the way the respondents communicate.

We see a lot of questions that are about the jargon and abbreviations used. Here is a typical question. “what is P/T RELEASED?

We assume that terms like “part time” are common sense and that everyone will understand the abbreviation as well. But this question, and hundreds more like it, indicate we are confusing prospective students and need to explain ourselves better. A simple website glossary with a hyperlink from all terms used would help. A webpage explaining modes of attendance (oops I’m using jargon!) would also help. And how about a simple document explaining selected FAQs in plain English that could be turned in to a newspaper or web article for your local community?

We assume that the community understand FE. The reality is many find it confusing and intimidating.

The next group of FAQs are about information we may believe is in the public domain. It is the information we fill our websites and prospectuses with.

For example, a question posed on a college website’s Chatline asked “Wot coruses u offer”. Despite being on the website the questioner was asking what looks like a question the site answers very well. But clearly they couldn’t find the answer.

It might be laziness on the part of the questioner or it might be that the website is harder to navigate than we think. Many websites are not easy to navigate. We assume that they are intuitive and logical, but that is easy to say when you know your own website. The real measure is when you put it in front of people from outside of education and see how they respond. Testing it with existing students isn’t a good measure. They have already found their way through your site and application process.

Go on to the streets and see if a typical NEET can understand your site. Maybe they are NEET because they find FE websites impossible to comprehend. Maybe a lot of people just give up on FE and FE websites and we have no clue of the magnitude of the problem.

Another typical question is “When is nxt open day“. You might think that your website adequately answers this question. But here is a questioner, that is on the website, and is a “warm” prospect. So why can’t they find the answer?

I can offer no help with lazy people that don’t look, except to say the Chatline we recommend has built-in AI assistance that can point them in the right direction without your staff having to answer every call. It is also easy to export the questions and analyse them.

There are also other ways to measure the efficacy of your communications, especially your website and other online systems. Simple surveys like the one we have just completed provide an incredible insight and can help boost recruitment and fill classrooms. 

Current Applicants are Confused

Moving on from warm prospects let’s look at those that have applied and are still confused. You may believe your joining instructions are clear, but applicants seem to find some instructions very confusing.  Take the next question.

“When will I know my timetable? Because iv been told I start on the 18th but nobody has said what time or where I should be going. Thanks.”

This student has been told the start date but has no idea what time they should arrive or what their timetabled start time is.

The following nine questions are of a similar nature.

“How do I find room D17, can u send me a map plse”

“Does my timetable stay the same every week”

“when will i get my timetable”

“Good morning ! I'm Sally and I would like to confirm if my lessons will star on 11th next Monday”

 “When does Induction Day start after enrolment?”

“What is induction?”

“How long are induction lessons”

“When does collage start”

“hi do know when induction week start”

In the last few weeks we have seen hundreds of questions like these. Clearly communications are not as good as we might believe. Joining letters are among the most important communications going out from any provider. Frequently they are written by an administrator and not someone from the Comms team. My suggestion is that these letters should be written by a professional copywriter that works to plain English standards.

Communicating with Current Students

It would be easy to imagine communications with current students would be much better. This question from a second-year student makes me query if this is the case.

How can I create a moodle account? I'm a 2nd yr student and would like to view my timetable."

The provider concerned has been using Moodle for years. So, I wonder why this student doesn’t know how to use Moodle.

Questions are an Opportunity

An interesting question I spotted this morning was one that needs more than one answer.

“I want to do hairdressing it says £730 .. im 17 and have a baby do I have to apy”

A few providers quote a price for all courses. Even when the typical applicant will not have to pay. Why they do this I’m not sure as this seems to confuse prospective students, and in one case, I know of a provider that promotes the fact that courses are free simply because their competitor puts the price on their course page. This tactic works as applicants often say they would have gone to the competitor but they are expensive.

But there is a second part to this question. It isn’t as much as asked as implied. It is about childcare. Interestingly the college that replied to this question didn’t mention the government Care to Learn initiative. Apparently, the Care to Learn scheme is dealt with by Student Services and the course enquiry team knew nothing about it!

How FAQs Help Providers

FAQs are a blessing. They allow you to understand what students and prospects are thinking and struggling with.  Of course, only a percentage of those that need answers will actually ask your help; most just drift off to your competitors or become a NEET statistic.

But if you analyse your FAQs it is possible to increase recruitment by ensuring the bottlenecks that FAQs represent are nullified. Think in terms of how you communicate, what you communicate and where you communicate.

For example, if you get frequent questions about term dates ensure they are easy to find from EVERY page on your website.

If the questions are about timetables then review how you send this info out. Perhaps you should post the timetable for every course online, with a link from the course page. It sounds complicated but isn’t so difficult if you automatically upload from your MIS. You probably do this for courses already ….. so replicating this for courses isn’t beyond any well organised provider. Once it is online then a social media and email campaign can be used to raise awareness. Automating your Chatline with a Natural Language Sequencing algorithm can be used to answer those that are still asking the question. It will work 24/7 and cut down a load of admin.

In most cases managers don’t know what FAQs are being posed. So accommodating the answers is not a high priority. Get this right and a lot of money can be saved. It addresses the Underfunded Education issue by addressing costs. 

So How Well Does FE Communicate with Students?

I’ll leave you to answer this one. Is it a “Could do better”? Or are you happy with your performance? When did you last monitor it and communicate it to your team?

About Stefan Drew: FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US. LinkedIn

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