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Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing: March 20

Student Voices Surface in Media, on Reddit

We made a few changes to our query to capture all relevant conversation. We’re now including “the rona,” an emerging slang reference for coronavirus, mentions of cancellation or postponement of graduation, and new hashtags that refer to the virus (e.g., #BoomerDoomer, #BoomerRemover, #coronapocalypse).

Blog post image for Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing: March 20Today’s Briefing analyzes publicly available online conversation about coronavirus and higher education from March 17–19. In this analysis of volume, topics, sentiment, and key audiences, we highlight the most popular topics, continued negative sentiment, emerging patterns of media publishing student experience stories, and insights from student posts on Reddit.

If you’d like to receive each Briefing in your inbox as soon as we publish it, sign up at info.campussonar.com/covid19. You can also review all prior Briefings. Because of the changing nature of social media data and our understanding of the conversation, each Briefing covers a distinct point in time. Comparisons among Briefings may be helpful, but we can’t draw correlations like we could if we were using other datasets such as surveys or historical social media data.

Download a slide deck with the data from this post.

Online Conversation Summary

Conversation Volume Remained Elevated

Daily conversation volume is similar to Tuesday’s Briefing (which covered Friday 3/13 to Monday 3/17). So far this week the conversation peak was Tuesday, although graduation postponements and cancellations may result in increased conversation today and into the weekend. 

There were just over 610,00 mentions of higher education and the coronavirus March 17–19, ranging from 157,000–260,000 per day. This is in comparison to at least 19 million daily online mentions of the coronavirus, which Turbine Labs is tracking in a free daily executive briefing focused on the impact of the pandemic on business, government, and the economy. Of the 610,000 mentions, 35 percent were higher ed-focused.

Nerd Note that shows All Mentions Captures every online mention that includes terms related to coronavirus AND the higher education industry. Higher ed may be just a small part of the mention (e.g., a news story discussing the impact of the coronavirus in a metro area with a mention of campuses that closed). Higher Ed-Focused Mentions is a subset of All Mentions. It captures when a campus or the industry is the focus of a mention about coronavirus (e.g., a headline of a news article or in a social media post).

Forum and Blog/Tumblr Conversation Increased, Particularly from Students

Sources of higher ed-focused mentions were very similar to all mentions in our analysis. Social media is still the predominant source, but forums (including Reddit) and blogs/Tumblr each account for at least 10 percent of the conversation. Student conversation shifted much more dramatically than general conversation. About half of mentions were on blogs or Tumblr (largely driven by viral posts such as this and this). Remember that due to data access restrictions, we aren’t including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, or LinkedIn in any of our analysis. Your campus social media manager is the best source of information regarding conversation on those networks.

3.20 Content Source ComparisonSocial media, including Twitter, was still the dominant source of industry conversation. These are the three most tweeted links related to higher education.

  1. Cambridge University Press’s announcement that all 700 textbooks in the Cambridge Core would be free in HTML through May 30. At the time of this writing, their announcement changed to, “Due to performance issues caused by unprecedented demand and reported misuse, we have had to temporarily remove the free access to textbooks. We apologise for the inconvenience caused and are working to address these concerns to reinstate free access as soon as possible.”
  2. The Imperial College London paper, Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand.
  3. An FCC press release about Chairman Ajit Pai’s Keep Americans Connected pledge. Many of the related tweets mentioned the phrase “remote learning.”

Topics Evolved Throughout the Week

The following topic cloud illustrates higher ed-focused topics that started to fade as the week progressed and emerging topics as of Thursday. Earlier this week, a Tumblr post was trending that encouraged students to write about the good things that happened recently (in an “ongoing daily list of good shit”) because they were “tired of all the corona talk.” Students would quote the post and add other good things they’d observed. During the middle of this week, graduation ceremonies started to be cancelled, and some campus communities started circulating petitions to receive refunds for room and board since students had been asked to move off campus. On Thursday, March 19, news continued to circulate that Stephen Schwartz, a professor in the University of Washington Department of Pathology, passed away due to the COVID-19 infection. Also on March 19, Bernie Sanders tweeted that “we must cancel all student loan payments for the duration of this emergency,” then tied it to his long-term free college proposals.

Topic cloud showing how higher ed focused topics started to fade throughout the week and new topics that emerged.

Spring break remained a common topic. Some of the mentions referenced extended spring break or campus decisions that took effect when students returned from break. Others referenced students on spring break not taking the pandemic seriously. An Ohio student on spring break in Florida told Reuters, “If I get corona, I get corona.”

Negative Sentiment Increased as Students Discussed Personal Experiences

Sentiment for all higher ed-focused conversation was 26 percent negative and 8 percent positive, with the remaining mentions displaying neutral sentiment. For a crisis situation, this isn’t a surprising sentiment distribution.

Campus community members discussing the coronavirus while also mentioning their identity as a student, family member of a student, prospective student, or alumnus displayed negative sentiment more often (36 percent). When students discussed their experience on Reddit, half of their posts displayed negative sentiment.

Audience Insights: Focus on Hidden Voices of Students

When the conversation is this large, it’s hard to find the individual voices. While over 186,00 individual accounts contributed to higher ed-focused conversation, only 6.4 percent of the mentions were first-person accounts from individuals who identified as students. These hidden voices represent lived experiences that provide valuable insight as you craft your communication and service delivery.

First-Person Student Narratives Appeared in the Media

The disruption students are experiencing in their college experience is unprecedented, and the media is interested in publishing their stories. They’ve appeared in both local and national news outlets.

  • College Magazine, whose website gets 200,000–500,000 visits per month, published College Students Reflect on COVID-19 on March 19. They shared first-person accounts from students attending SUNY New Paltz, Emerson College, Wheeling University, the University of Florida, Mizzou, Simpson College, DePaul University, Iowa State, and UCLA. 
  • On March 17, a senior at Howard University published I'm a Senior at Howard University Leaving Campus Because of the Coronavirus. Here's What That Looks Like on The Root, a site focusing on Black news, opinions, politics, and culture that receives between 6–8 million monthly views.
  • Memphis Magazine published COVID-19 Cut Short My Senior Year, written by a Rhodes College student, on March 17. The magazine publishes a readership of 60,000.
  • On March 18, an editor from The New York Times tweeted that she was looking for a college senior to write an op-ed about their experience.

Writing can be cathartic for your students. This may be their first chance to publish on a highly visible news site—a valuable opportunity as they establish their careers. Be prepared for more examples like this and support your students as they express themselves.

Student Insights from Reddit

In this Briefing, I’m focusing on what students are saying on Reddit. Reddit is a rich data source that allows for anonymous, large-scale interaction without a character limit. We identified almost 3,000 Reddit posts from March 17–19 mentioning coronavirus and higher education. Students discussed the impact the pandemic response has had on their entire lives, mentioning time, school, work, and people—in that order. These discussions are represented in the following topic wheel. The inner layer is the topic that ties all mentions together (i.e., our COVID-19 query). The middle layer displays the most common keywords by volume (larger slices of the wheel represent words mentioned most often). The outer layer shows the verbs associated with each keyword. Note the verbs associated with semester: pass, end, fail, announced. Students were already thinking about the impact of this semester on their future, and struggled with important decisions they’re being asked to make right now.

Topic wheel showing student discussion of the impact the pandemic response on their entire lives, mentioning time, school, work, and people—in that order. The inner layer is the topic that ties all mentions together (i.e., our COVID-19 query). The middle layer displays the most common keywords by volume (larger slices of the wheel represent words mentioned most often). The outer layer shows the verbs associated with each keyword. Note the verbs associated with semester: pass, end, fail, announced.

Students Have a lot of Questions about Online Classes

It may seem like we’ve been working on this issue for a long time, but many students will be starting online classes in the next week or two after an extended spring break. This week, anxiety was high as students prepared to resume their coursework. Thousands of posts on Reddit revealed the types of questions they have; here are some of them.

  • How will I be able to focus since my environment drastically changed?
  • Should I still ask my professors questions? Maybe they need more space because this is hard on everyone.
  • I needed the study groups, tutoring, etc., in addition to the lectures for my STEM classes. How will I get that now? The class was already hard with that support—am I doomed to fail?
  • I’m supposed to be registering for next semester soon. How on earth am I going to be able to take my next sequence of courses if they’re all online? What if I don’t do well in a prereq course?
  • Should I switch my classes to pass/fail? Will that hurt my chances of grad school admission?
  • Should I just withdraw from my hard classes? 

Consider this perspective as you prepare your messaging for the last week of March, and prep your instructors and support staff with answers to these questions. 

Students Used Social Media to Share First-hand Accounts of the Disease and get Medical Advice

Students are going to contract and spread the coronavirus. Hopefully fewer will because of the actions campuses have taken, but the spread to your community is inevitable. Some students (and others) will go online to self-diagnose their symptoms and get advice—this is a generation that grew up with WebMD. A 20-year-old student contracted the virus while studying in Italy and confirmed it via testing after her return to the United States; she shared her experience on Twitter. Another student worried her roommate was showing symptoms of the virus after returning from spring break and posted her concerns on the COVID19_Testimonials subreddit, a forum created on March 12 as a “podium for patients of COVID-19 to share their experience, symptoms, and best practices. The goal is to provide an open and honest forum of truthful and accurate testimonials that will help the general population prepare for COVID-19.” On the afternoon of March 19, the subreddit had 343 subscribers. This afternoon, March 20, it’s closing in on 500. It will be interesting to track the growth of this peer-to-peer coronavirus sharing outlet.

Make sure your students know what actions they should take if they suspect they or a family member have COVID-19. Point them to reliable sources.

Summary and Recommendations

Conversation continued at an elevated level. The places where conversation is happening are changing; some shifted to blogs (including Tumblr) and forums—especially when students were posting—although social media remained the dominant conversation source. Topics are varied and include remote learning/online courses, cancellation of events like commencement, an early COVID19-caused death of a faculty member, and political responses. While negative sentiment is about as expected for a crisis at the industry-level, negativity increases as mentions become more personal. Student voices have started to be amplified in both traditional and social media; as they spend more time at home and react to graduation cancellation announcements, which will most likely increase.

Although it may seem like the last two weeks lasted two years, this conversation—like the pandemic—is likely to continue as students begin online courses, start to think about their future, and receive notice of additional operational changes from their campuses. Here’s what you can do for students right now.

  • Don’t be surprised if your students publish their pandemic experiences online or in news outlets. Writing can be cathartic for your students. This may be their first chance to publish on a highly visible news site—a valuable opportunity for them as they establish their careers. Be prepared for pieces like this to appear and support your students as they express themselves. If they have negative things to say about your campus response, listen and use their feedback to inform your future actions.
  • Recognize that students have a multitude of urgent concerns right now, including their schoolwork, loss of employment, change in living arrangements, isolation from friends, and general anxiety about the future. Don’t try to address it all at once, but recognize how campus units can work together to support students holistically. If you’re not resourced to provide that support, provide referrals to complementary resources.
  • We’re still in the early stages of transition to online learning for most campuses. Consider the questions students are asking online as you prepare your messaging for the last week of March, and prep your instructors and support staff with answers to these questions. If you’re engaging in campus-specific social listening, seek out additional questions students are posing on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Tumblr.
  • Don’t overlook the most pressing issue for you and your students: our part in collective action to stop the spread of the pandemic. Medical information should take precedence over any campus announcement. Make sure your students know what actions they should take if they suspect they or a family member have COVID-19. Point them to reliable sources.

The Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing is new territory for Campus Sonar. If you find it valuable, please let us know (tweet us at @CampusSonar, email info@campussonar.com, or comment on this post). 

Do you have additional questions about the conversation you’d like us to consider for a future briefing? Let us know.

We’ll be back on Tuesday with our next briefing. As you hopefully have some time off this weekend, remember to step outside and grab a breath of fresh air. Shelter in place doesn’t necessarily mean shelter inside. Take care of yourself.

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Subscribe to NewsletterThe post Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing: March  20 originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog.

Liz Gross

Liz Gross is the founder and CEO of Campus Sonar. A recognized expert, data-driven marketer, and higher education researcher, Liz specializes in creating entrepreneurial social media strategies in higher education. She is an award-winning speaker, author, and strategist who was named a 2018 Mover and Shaker by Social Shake-Up Show and a finalist on GreenBook’s 2019 GRIT Future List. Liz has more than 15 years’ experience in higher ed and strategic social listening programs. She received a Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education at Cardinal Stritch University, a master’s degree in educational policy and leadership from Marquette University, and a bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

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