The world changed in spring 2020. Most American universities closed their campuses and went to online instruction and student interaction for the better part of the semester, following state and federal guidelines in response to the COVID-19 virus. Overnight, daily work and learning patterns were disrupted. Face-to-face, peer-to-peer and student with faculty interaction was abruptly halted. Everyone scrambled to get class content online. Family members were getting sick, some dying, some losing jobs, facing furloughs, or perhaps more stressful, many were frontline first responders, “essential workers” who could not stay home but faced a pandemic with possible infection every day.
Looking back, we see a patchwork quilt of responses to delivering all course content in an online environment. Some faculty rose to the occasion and were rock stars; students said it was one of their best and most empowered semesters. Most did not feel so engaged. Faculty struggled to deliver typical lectures in a recorded format with occasional email tests. There have been many stories and articles written about the extreme dissatisfaction students experienced with how many colleges responded. Some of the complaints have grown into lawsuits demanding tuition refunds (Dickler, 2020).
Students, who were juggling life, work, family, and school were distracted and disoriented. Learning was relative and so was the assessment of learning. Some days it was enough to log on to Zoom, sans video and sans microphone, because it was just too hard to be seen or heard.
In the School of Business at New Jersey City University, deep in the heart of one of the epicenters of the coronavirus in Jersey City, New Jersey, we began to grapple with how to keep students engaged in learning when their world was falling apart. It went beyond the classroom. In the past year, we had insisted that all faculty who were or were planning to teach online become Quality Matters certified. We had also just moved to a fully digital e-text program throughout the curriculum in the School of Business. These small measures set up the infrastructure to pivot to online delivery marginally more smoothly than some. This allowed us to shift our focus to outside the classroom engagement for existing students and for potential incoming freshmen or transfers.
The goal was global and somewhat amorphous– retention, recruitment, and inclusion. What would that look like and how would we know if we were successful? There was so much we did not know.
The one thing of which we were certain however, from anecdotal text messages from students, Zoom meetings with faculty, and from the daily media bombardment, telecommuting and virtual learning meant that high school and college students, parents, and working potential graduate and adult students were significantly increasing their screen time (Andrews, 2020). It was not the time to “go dark” but to find non-traditional ways to engage with social media and digital programming. Many were spending more and more time online and seeking out trusted sources for consumption of their news, information, and ideas.
In the Dean’s office, staff stepped up with ideas and creative responses. The result was what we have come to call a digital platform for “Career, Class, and Convos.” It would be a platform to meet the needs of existing students, the needs of the community, and the needs of potential students. The founding principle of the engagement would be to “Build Trust.” With a cacophony of news, blogs, political messaging, and rampant disinformation or wrong information, we wanted our outreach to be the calm in the chaos. We were further influenced by data from the Pew Research Center from January 2019 about Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins that says, “…Millennials (defined as ages 23-38 in 2019) are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in the nation’s history. Yet the next generation – Generation Z (ages 7–22 in 2019) – is even more diverse,” (Dimock, 2019). Further, Dimock (2019) says, “Social media, constant connectivity and on-demand entertainment and communication are innovations Millennials adapted to as they came of age. For those born after 1996, these are largely assumed.”
And, so, the format was designed to get out in front of our target audience (students, prospective students, alumni, local corporate partners, family members) and control the narrative around the NJCU School of Business brand. We would adapt to the current situation, using long-form content and maximizing social media. Our Assistant to the Dean for Enrollment Management, Leonard (Lenny) Williams, a millennial himself, suggested the framework. It would go beyond hard-core recruitment and focus instead on providing good quality content about current topics of interest (i.e. what stocks to consider when the market crashed by NJCU’s Student Investment Management Group). The programming would start with some of our relatively new young faculty who are passionate about their subject matter, looking at some of our new degree programs or those that might need a boost in enrollment, while thinking about how to weave in application of the program content relative to the pandemic crisis, and record the output.
The programming evolved into a virtual talk show format, with a host, (Lenny Williams) who provided the set up and questions, faculty who could answer questions about real world application, students who were involved in the programming and/or industry professionals with their take on the current environment, and our career services director talking about the impact on jobs. We chose the long-form content format that has been supported by a number of bloggers in respected circles of the social media universe (Sukhraj, 2016; Ahmad, 2017; Baker, 2020).
We used a combination of Instagram Live and Zoom (recorded and archived). Marketing was a push through the School of Business Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and reinforced by staff and faculty Zoom sessions, Blackboard (our student learning management system) messaging and WhatsApp. There was a regular time slot – Thursdays at 12:00 noon and 12:30 pm for the programming so viewers would know when to log on and join the conversation.
Some of the topics included:
- The Power of Credit Budgeting and Credit – NJCU 2020 Graduate and Wells Fargo Service Manager
- How to Build a Website and E-Commerce Tips – NJCU 2020 Graduate and Employee Common Thread Collective
- LinkedIn and Personal Branding – NJCU Director of Career Services Essentials
- Contemporary Issues in The Hospitality Industry- NJCU Hospitality Faculty, Expedia and Hyatt
Through the “Career, Class, and Convos” themed programming, the NJCU School of Business gradually became a new trusted source for content and thereby a trusted place for continued education. Where colleges had long erected hurdles to applications and enrollment with SAT minimums, GRE’s or GMAT’s, and other firewalls to the education found behind our academic walls, we were starting a conversation. We became a resource for the students looking to take a gap year to wait out the COVID-19 while still accessing free knowledge and developing an organic relationship with NJCU.
We created a landing page for archiving digital recordings and making them on-demand for anyone who missed them (specifically linking to high schools and community college partners to share with their students or recent graduates). Each link allows anyone to access information for a more personalized Virtual Coffee Chat or even an Instant Decision Day. Added to this archival web page, is a virtual tour link for prospects.
Some statistics collected between April 9 and June 11, 2020:
- 63% increase in Instragram followers
- From 0 to 760 Instagram Live Viewers
- 220 Zoom Live viewers (still counting because the archived videos will have additional viewers moving forward)
There was one other aspect to the platform. Many of the programs exemplified inclusion by featuring guests, speakers, industry professionals, alumni and friends of diverse backgrounds in race, ethnicity, gender, industry profile, and economic standing. The faculty and student body, already diverse in many ways but still reeling from the recent protests and unrest, highlighted different faces, different perspectives, and different language but highly reflective of our target audience. The platform has evolved and developed a following.
What have we learned in a very short time? Words matter. Messages matter. Creating a quiet space for learning, speaking, and engaging is one way the NJCU School of Business is making a difference.
Ahmad, I. (2017, December 07). Why Long-Form Content Performs Better and How to Create it [Infographic]. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/why-long-form-content-performs-better-and-how-to-create-it-infographic/512337/
Andrews, T. (2020, March 24). Our iPhone weekly screen time reports are through the roof, and people are ‘horrified’. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/24/screen-time-iphone-coronavirus-quarantine-covid/
Barker, M. (2020, January 31). Meet the brands exploring the potential of long-form content. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.marketingweek.com/long-form-content-social/
Dickler, J. (2020, May 06). Demand for refunds intensifies among college students. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/06/demand-for-refunds-intensifies-among-college-students.html/
Dimock, M. (2019, January 17). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/
Sukhraj, R. (2020, February 07). Long-form content vs short-form content. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.impactbnd.com/blog/long-form-content-vs.-short-form-content