Many studies support a high-touch approach to faculty-student communication, citing how critical faculty engagement and relationships are for helping students value their academic experience.
But how does that work in an online setting? When people think about email marketing, they often think of it as a high-value channel for their internal marketing teams.
But could faculty better use email to personalize their outreach in the classroom setting?
Dr. Jeananne Nicholls (Nan), Professor of Marketing at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the value of faculty email marketing to engage and motivate online students.
Faculty Email Marketing as an Engagement Tool
“I see my role as being responsible for helping students to be successful,” Nan told us, “and what I want to be able to do is customize how I can help them to be successful.”
Some students can just catch on with very little guidance or additional instruction. They aren’t afraid to ask questions. But other students seem to fall behind quickly. They may lack confidence or just don’t seem to have initiative. For these students, email can be a successful communication tool, especially in online ones classrooms.
“I probably do less of the congratulatory in the form of email,” Nan said. “I have definitely sent out congratulatory emails or appreciation if somebody’s helped out in an online discussion. But more likely I use emails to reach out to students in our online format.”
Without face-to-face communication with their instructor, these online students may have questions or misread something in the syllabus. Therefore, Nan believes it’s her responsibility to try to figure out why those students are falling behind or are not as engaged as she expects.
“Sometimes if there’s a big group of students and I look back at my syllabus and I made a mistake, or whatever, I can go back in and I can encourage them to do X, Y or Z and you know, moving forward,” Nan said.
But that approach can leave a single struggling student falling behind.
Using email, Nan can reach out to those students who haven’t logged in or who aren’t submitting assignments on time to discover what’s gone wrong and if there’s something she can do differently to make sure that student can be successful.
“It’s really focused on a student’s success,” Nan told us, “and because it’s not face-to-face, I want to over communicate and use email as a way to make sure that I’m trying to reach out and giving that student every opportunity to either engage in the class in the way that I’ve suggested or reach back out to me and let me know what’s going on.”
Student Response to Faculty Email Outreach
On the whole, Nan’s students have appreciated her approach. Most of the time, the problem lay in a simple misunderstanding or general forgetfulness.
But one graduate student communicated afterward that she thought it was kind of demeaning for the instructor to remind students about assignments or let them know when they are falling behind.
“I think that the student population, you know the experience and sometimes the age of the student, might be part of the reason why that would be a concern or an issue,” Nan said.
Segmenting and Personalizing Email Communications
Nan can see if a student is participating in online discussions — when and how they’re logging in; if they’re turning in assignments; and if they’re turning them in on time.
“I can set all of those parameters up, and that’s what I pretty much use to guide, almost like a dashboard to look at and see what it is that I need to kind of catch up on or have students try to catch up on,” Nan said.
Her first checkpoint falls two weeks into the semester. The first week is getting everyone up to speed, after all, but by the second week, people need to be engaged, caught up, and on time with assignments.
“If somebody turns stuff in late I can see it, it’s flagged, and I can reach out to them,” Nan said. “For example, I sent a person an email yesterday and said, ‘You know you needed to log in earlier in the week. I’m not sure if you just misunderstood, but you didn’t log in until the very last day and it was supposed to be a discussion.”
This approach allows for back-and-forth conversation, and Nan can get personal and specific about her expectations and concerns.
Advice for Institutions Pursuing Faculty Email Strategies
“My bias is going to be from a marketing perspective and marketers are all about relationship and relationship management,” Nan said. “I really don’t see much of a difference when it’s moved into the classrooms.”
You’re building trust so that a student can come to you with a concern or a problem, if they’ve forgotten to do something, or if they just screwed up.
At the same time, you’re establishing an environment where you can be sure students understand your expectations, what it takes to meet them, and which excuses don’t fly.
“The best advice that I would give would be to try to figure out a way to create a relationship,” Nan said.
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