Communicating with Distance Education Students: Do’s and Don’ts

March 28, 2019 Kyla Farroll

In last week’s Appirio blog, we highlighted factors and tools related to creating a communication plan to support distance education students. As a follow-up, below are some best practices for using different communication channels, including do’s, don’ts, and use case scenarios.

Email

DOs

  • Make it personal. Always address students by name, and write emails in an engaging and encouraging style. Make it personal on the staff side as well, and include the sender’s contact information.
  • Provide thorough content and clear direction when necessary. Email is the best method of communication to convey information such as step-by-step instructions, but it needs to be clear and concise. 

DON’Ts

  • Simultaneously send multiple emails from different departments. This will result in confusion and may even cause students to ignore emails containing valuable and time-sensitive information.
  • Have multiple, unverified email addresses on file. Using incorrect email addresses can send messages into a black hole, meaning the students will never see the information. Take every opportunity to verify primary email addresses with students to ensure the lines of communication remain open. 

Use Case Scenario

Students who are struggling with attendance or academic performance may receive SAP or attendance policy violation notifications. These are typically official, formal communications from the school based on regulations, and should include policy-specific information. However, notifications like these also provide an opportunity to make the communication personal and to build rapport with the student: 

  • Offer words of encouragement to get the students back on their feet and provide reassurance that through school support, they can get back on track.
  • Use the student’s first name throughout the email when appropriate. 
  • Provide direction on how to resolve the issues. Clearly state if an appeal is required, what the deadlines are, and any other necessary information.  

Instant Messaging (IM)

DOs

  • Have quick access to links, articles, instructions, FAQ pages, etc. Anyone who will respond to student IMs needs to have links and other documentation readily accessible, so students receive an immediate response with information they’re seeking.
  • Include the name and photo of the staff member engaging with students via IM. This makes the interaction more personal.

DON’Ts

  • Engage in a lengthy conversation on IM. If it appears the exchange is going south or needs a more formal discussion, switch to a phone call for better results.
  • Have the school website’s IM tool active after hours. If staff are not available to respond, it would be a bad experience for students to send IMs that go unanswered for long periods of time.

Use Case Scenario

Students will most likely IM with school website-related questions: how to navigate, completing paperwork, or finding specific information. To provide quick and concise answers, have a library of FAQ responses available to all IM responders for easy copy and paste action. Organize the information based on a specific page, topic, or keyword for ease of discovery and to quickly send to the student.  

Telephone

DOs

  • Call students regarding sensitive situations. Academic advising, finances, or student conduct policy issues are topics best suited for a phone conversation. 
  • Leave messages, always. If it’s a delicate issue, be vague but reinforce the sense of urgency for a call back. If it’s general information, be succinct but detailed. 

DON’Ts

  • Call to deliver a quick message about something optional or relatively unimportant. These messages are best delivered using another medium, such as texting.
  • Ignore time zones. Call students only during appropriate daytime and early evening hours.

Use Case Scenario

Strong academic performances that suddenly begin to decline significantly can be a sign that something is wrong in the student’s personal life. If grades continue to slip, an advisor or instructor may want to send a quick text or email encouraging the student to make contact and talk, but a phone call is probably the most effective and personal communication method for situations like these. 

Although some students may prefer not to talk on the phone, getting a voicemail and hearing someone’s voice expressing concern and support could make the student feel better, or may even spark a callback. If the staff member is lucky enough to actually reach the student via phone, a personal conversation can be the best option to find out what is going on, and provide support, sympathy, and resources to help the student deal with personal issues.

Texting 

DOs

  • Keep messages short and within the 160-character, single-text limit.  Using more characters breaks the message into multiple texts and could reach the student out of order.
  • Add links to more information. This is especially useful when sending a time-sensitive alert that requires the recipient to access additional information.

DON’Ts

  • Schedule messages when staff are gone for the day and unable to respond. This defeats the purpose of the quick and timely exchange texts are best for. Students are likely to respond to texts right away, so ensure staff are available to engage in that one-on-one exchange.
  • Send negative messaging. When sending important alerts regarding tuition balances or attendance violations, show a sense of urgency but also use encouraging language, so the student will contact staff. Alerts should have a link to the situation’s details.

Use Case Scenario

During the enrollment process, students must jump through a number of hoops and are likely to lose track of what needs to be done, and which paperwork is due when. Help students meet deadlines with quick text messages reminding them what needs to be done and when. Be sure to add links to more information.

Text messages like these may spark additional questions and immediate responses from the students. Make sure staff are ready and available to respond even if these messages are scheduled in a blast.

These do’s and don’ts, which are based on best practices and experiences, are not an exhaustive list. Keep in mind every school is different, and it’s important to use the tools and messaging techniques which best fit the nuances of your own institution to ensure they’re the best fit for your teams and students. The primary goal is to effectively communicate with your students one-on-one in a personal way to maintain that relationship and help guide students toward success, so whatever you come up with is better than nothing!

About the Author

Kyla Farroll

Kyla Farroll is a Senior Consultant with Appirio after spending over two decades in higher education. Kyla has been a leader in Academic Advising, Financial Aid, Recruiting & Admissions, and Student Services, as well as championed student success initiatives and led system implementations. As part of the Digital Experience Strategy team, she helps guide higher education institutions to realize their transformational visions. Kyla is 3x Salesforce certified, is a Trailhead Ranger, and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and Master of Arts degree in media communications.

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