It’s not exactly breaking news that today’s students have access to different forms of information than many of us did during our own college years. From apps to the Internet to eBooks to tablets … the list is seemingly endless and likely to change rapidly and unexpectedly.
One of the challenges for those of us in higher education is not only reaching students through these mediums, but also knowing what students are looking for. Although I worked in student affairs for nearly 10 years, I now work as a freelance education writer. I’m the College Life Expert  on About.com, had an education blog at US News & World Report, have a book (“College Stress Solutions”) coming out in April, and am launching The College Parent Handbook, a website aimed at parents of college students.
Each of these endeavors aims to provide information and resources to students (and their parents) who are curious about or struggling with the challenges of college life. And while my readers see the information I publish – an article that, for example, lists eight ways to better manage one’s time in school – I see what information my readers are accessing the most.
Google provides tools that allow me (and anyone, really) to research what kinds of phrases people are entering into their search engine. Site stats also let me see which articles, blogs, newsletters, and the like are the most popular. I can see what is skyrocketing in popularity and what doesn’t seem to warrant a click-through to the second page of an article. I can see how many people clicked on a newsletter link, how many people posted an article URL to Facebook, how many people recommended something on Twitter. I can watch emerging trends that track what students are starting to worry about, and if that trend is similar to or somehow different than what the stats showed last year.
So how can this kind of information – information about information, really – help us better meet the needs of students? For me, it helps me understand the gap between what students know and what they want to learn. My About.com “What to Do If You Fail a Class ” article, for example, consistently ranks among the most popular at the end of every semester. To me, this indicates that students aren’t really sure what happens if they fail a course. What are the consequences? Whom do they tell? Where do they go for help? What might happen that they don’t know about yet?
One of the main goals of my writing is to connect students back to their institutions. I am an educator at heart, after all. I always try to include information about which offices or people on a campus can assist students or provide institution-specific support. I want to encourage students to connect back to their college or university, even though they are searching the vast void of the Internet for information they have thus far not found (or been too shy to ask for) on their campus. And while I believe I’m a trustworthy source, not everyone online is.
For institutions, learning what students are searching for online can better inform what kinds of campus-specific resources are made available. If I fail a class on your campus, is there information somewhere that tells me what happens? What if I don’t think my professor is very good? If I need money in an emergency? If my meal plan runs out two weeks before classes end?
I can do my best to provide information to students looking for these kinds of topics. I know that, for many students, the Internet is the natural place to look for the answer to a question or problematic situation – especially if asking for help feels awkward or embarrassing, or if a student is unsure about where to go for help in the first place.
My grand hope, however, is that institutions and I can indirectly work in partnership, so that students use what I write to complement and reinforce what they’ve already learned through their own college or university. Finding help in what I publish is great; finding support at what one’s own institution has published is even better.
After working in student affairs for nearly 10 years, Kelci Lynn Lucier now works as a freelance education writer. She is the College Life Expert  on About.com and previously wrote "The College Experience " blog for US News & World Report. She is launching The College Parent Handbook , a website for parents of college students, and has her first book ("College Stress Solutions ") coming out in April 2014.