• Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Title

Mix-and-Match Messaging

What if we marketed online classes in ways that reflect how students actually use them?

June 9, 2021
 
 

I don’t know if the story is true or not, but a while back I read that text messaging was developed after some scientists gave handheld phones to schoolchildren to see what they would do with them. The observers assumed that calling would be the most common use. But the children were fascinated by the letters on top of the numbers on the keypad and tried using them to type messages. After initially trying to “correct” the children, the observers slowly realized that the children were onto something, and it wasn’t long before texting was introduced to the world.

I wonder if our students aren’t doing something similar with scheduling.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of students who took online classes with us also took on-site classes with us. Although we publicly and correctly bragged about all of the entirely online degree programs we offered, very few students did entire degree programs online. Instead, they mixed and matched. The most common scenario was a couple of on-site classes early in the week, combined with an online class or two. (Weirdly, hybrid classes never caught on at scale. Instead, students built hybrid schedules out of classes that were one or the other.) The on-site classes offered routine, structure, human interaction and connection to campus; the online classes offered flexibility to work around paid jobs and minimized the damage from difficult transportation situations.

That pattern was frustrating from a space-utilization perspective, because the time slots students dropped in favor of online classes were the less popular ones. Prime time remained crowded even as overall enrollment dropped. In marketing parlance, the long tail got shorter.

But from a student perspective, it made sense. Mixing formats allowed a student to be on campus maybe two days per week but still take a full load of classes.

The pandemic broke the cycle, since nearly everything went remote for a while. But as we return to something much closer to normal, I expect that we’ll see the mix-and-match approach to scheduling come back. It fits the realities of student lives too well to expect otherwise.

As with the scientists and the phones, though, students are using our offerings in ways that we don’t advertise. When we talk about online classes, we talk about taking them from anywhere in the world, and we talk about how many different full degree programs we offer. Those are true, as far as they go, but they’re irrelevant to the vast majority of our students. The most common use case is to soften a schedule. But we don’t really market that.

It seems like a missed opportunity.

I’m just not sure how the mix-and-match schedule can be communicated simply. I suspect plenty of people would find it appealing if it were packaged for them, but instead we’ve reached out as if most students were purists one way or the other. Most aren’t.

Has anyone out there seen really good public messaging about the mix-and-match method? If so, what did it look like?

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