Are Gen Z students allergic to the phone?

I recently re-read a copy of White Dwarf games magazine from my youth (mid-1980s). For me, one of the most interesting pages was the personal ads. Amongst requests to swap rulesets, or sell fanzines, there were lots of personals ads. The ads were nearly all from young men and were about meeting other gamers to play table top games, and occasionally trying to meet young women.

The most striking theme though was that they nearly all ended with “Dave 01257 2521**”. The primary means of getting in touch was the phone. The small ads literally invited anyone from anywhere in the country (or the globe) to just ring out of the blue and ask what your views were on creating a character in Traveller (or if you were really lucky to ask you out on a date). There was no intermediary step, no twitch, no Whatsapp, no DM, no private message, just a call from a total stranger. Now granted you had the perfect filtering device: Mum or Dad, but they’d most likely just call upstairs “Dave one of those wierdoes wants to know your views on creating a characters in Traveller.” but it’s quite striking how open the whole thing was.

I think we tend to have the view that, apart from knocking on the front door, the phone is still the ultimate way of breaking into a students’ consciousness. However, we’ve discovered something really interesting this year: students really, REALLY don’t like answering the phone. So how do students want to be communicated with?

It’s all about email (no seriously)

Each year we conduct a first year transition survey with our students. In 2019, as part of the OfLA project was asked students about their communication preferences. This is part of our work on what we do once our learning analytics system has identified that a student may be at risk of early departure or some other problem. We asked “If an alert was generated, how would you like to be contacted?” Students told us the following

  • By email to your university email address – 83%
  • By text message – 58%
  • By email to your personal address – 51%
  • By letter to your term time address – 19%
  • By phone call – 17%
  • By letter to your home address 7%

So that’s conclusive right? Email is the answer.

We’re not so sure.

I don’t think many staff feel students are very responsive to emails. I’m sure there’s a case where early emails from a personal tutor are very effective, perhaps particularly at the start of the academic year, but we’re not convinced that email is generally very effective. So why did students choose email over other forms of communication? Possibly because we deliberately didn’t choose social media. We aren’t sure that it’s appropriate to message students through messenger/ whatsapp etc., so we didn’t ask. Secondly, we felt that it was due to the nature of email. How many unread messages do you have? How many emails are flagged for future action that you’ve not yet acted on. We suspect that our students wanted to be emailed about an alert because they would be able to control how and when they responded to it.

So if it’s not email, what is it?

In 2021, we asked a different question about communication.

The Student Dashboard lets NTU know when a student appears to have disengaged from their course for 10 or more days. After 10 days, we will email students, and then a team will reach out to offer help and support. What do you think is the best way to contact these students?” This time, students told us

  • Text message – 32%
  • Phone call from an NTU call centre – 18%
  • Microsoft Teams chat – 13%
  • Phone call from a mobile phone – 12%
  • Microsoft Teams video call – 12%

This time the answers are a little different. We didn’t offer the same list as before as we’d made decisions about the appropriateness of the different media. We weren’t going to use letters due to time and resources involved in our call centre work and we had excluded email as that was our baseline communication. All students already received an email, we wanted to explore the communications around the next step, the call centre phonecall. We also knew that we had the option of using MS Teams and wanted to see how students would respond to it and we’d heard an interesting idea from colleagues at another HEI: students apparently answered calls from mobile phones when they avoided calls from institutional numbers or other landlines.

So why such big differences? Possibly part of the answer is the changed nature of the question. This time we asked about how should we communicate with students at risk, not “how would you like to be communicated with?”. Students can often be very harsh critics of their peers, and so may have taken the view that nothing was worth the effort. Or they were reflecting that under the circumstances, they didn’t want to have their consciousness breaking into.

Unfortunately, due to the pressures of COVID, we weren’t able to trial sending students a text message before ringing them. That feels the right way to do. It does mean that in our proposed process, students would receive an email, then a text and then a phone call. But if we can automate the process sufficiently, and if we can drive up the response rate, that feels worth the effort.

What is the right form of communication?the answers a

As we near the end of the project, we’re not sure that there is a definitive answer. We believe that there’s real benefit from quick communication via email or the VLE at the start of the year, but its effectiveness almost certainly falls away as students inboxes fill up. The most effective communication is a balance between being time/ cost efficient and impactful. Email is time efficient, but easily ignorable, a student may receive the message, but it’s easy to only lightly engage with or put it off. A telephone call is relatively expensive (doubly so if you have to ring more than once), but we’d argue that actually talking to the student is more impactful. Despite the greater cost involved, there’s something different about a conversation with a real person.

But if we’re ringing, we need to put some steps in first, because Mum or Dad aren’t there to filter and who knows what this call is about?

Find out more about our findings at our free end of project event

Wednesday 14th July

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