The 2019 Online Conversation Benchmarks for Higher Education: A Campus Sonar Social Listening Study opens with “[t]he internet is real life,” and continues with a discussion of how institutions of higher education can use the internet to connect with their communities. It goes on to say, “...the reality is that their online presence is a combination of what they say about themselves and what others say about them.” As soon as I read that, I realized the importance of this study. The combination of what institutions say about themselves and what their community says, if we remove the online part, is also known as educational or campus ethos, which is the story, narrative, or mission institutions build around themselves but don't directly control.
I first encountered educational ethos when reading about nontraditional student populations, but when I talk about it to other higher education professionals, it’s hard to describe. The concept is rather intangible. But Adrianna Kezar (2007) describes it perfectly: “Ethos, the fundamental character or spirit of a culture, connects individuals to a group; it expresses a particular group’s values and ideology in a way that creates an emotional connection” (p. 13). She goes on to explain how once an ethos is created within a culture or community, it’s “further embedded through the process of co-creation” (p. 17). This is a great description of educational ethos, but it doesn’t help us figure out how our online presence contributes to something we can’t control.
Steven Graham (1998) dives deeper into defining educational ethos and provides a more clinical explanation. He takes George Kuh’s (1992) description of educational ethos and describes it as five characteristics:
- Students are involved in their school’s academic and social life.
- Accessible officials take teaching and learning seriously.
- Students interact with peers whose values and aspirations are compatible with the institution’s educational purposes.
- Students are exposed to effective teaching.
- Students feel they belong and are valued.
These five characteristics are very positive—things that improve brand advocacy and drive recruitment, growth, and enrollment. But they’re also things institutions can’t directly control—it’s hard to quantify them in a tweet. The characteristics are built around events, interactions, and actions an institution performs, but they’re all soft, squishy things. Bradley and Graham (2000) describe how quality faculty interactions contribute positively to educational ethos, especially for nontraditional students, but we can’t force all faculty members to tweet about their daily interactions with students. And there’s no manual on how institutions can use these five characteristics authentically in their online interactions to co-create an ethos.
Bradley and Graham (2000) studied educational ethos and its impact on nontraditional students. Their findings provide the beginning of a roadmap on how an institution’s online presence contributes to its ethos. “Educational ethos is basically a scale of how good the student felt about interactions with persons (particularly faculty) who represent the campus” and that “perhaps more successful experiences involved a certain type of quality interaction ... as opposed to simply increasing the interaction with the campus ...” (Bradley & Graham, 2000, p. 500). How do the people who interact with an institution online, feel about that interaction? Was it positive? Did it feel like a bot searched for a certain word or phrase and responded with a canned response? Or did it feel like a real person on the other side of a Twitter account actually cared enough to interact? Whoever is in charge of that Twitter or LinkedIn account can control the quality of their interactions, instead of just looking for hit counts and engagement numbers. The educational ethos and online conversation research prove that social media teams should spend more time actively, creatively, and considerately engaging with their campus community members.
Study author and Campus Sonar Research Manager Amber Sandall wrote: “...a single mention can represent an opportunity to meaningfully interact with a student or better inform alumni outreach.” This should be mind-blowing for institutions. They can change the way a community member thinks of them, with a single mention. Just one. Think about that power!
A single, quality interaction plays into what we know about educational or campus ethos. Kezar (2000) wrote: “Campus ethos usually centers on core themes that relate to the human experience, such as family, community, caring, student-centeredness, civic leadership, and responsibility. These themes serve as an anchor for students to connect with as they enter a new community” (p. 13–14). This thought connected with what I read in the benchmark report. How many tweets do we see, retweeted by institutions, of students getting accepted, headed to orientation, or packing up for their first day? These events can serve as anchors and institutions can take the opportunities to meaningfully interact with students who are experiencing these changes to show that they have a caring, student-centered culture. The campus ethos theory also connects with parents of prospective students. If institutions think of parents as partners, they can share their ethos by embracing parent concerns and showing how they work with new or incoming students to meet their needs—something parents of college students want to know.
A particular student quote from Kezar stuck with me, demonstrating the theory that institutional connection or educational ethos matters.
"The connections I feel to faculty and staff on the campus have made me succeed as a student. When I came to campus, I was a below-average student and no one in my family thought I would succeed. But I felt something here that I have never felt anywhere else, and it is a sense of caring that makes me want to learn. And it is not just one person saying that but the entire campus environment [that] makes me feel this way."
Thinking about that pull—that sense of caring and community—combined with the research in the benchmark report, allows us to show our ethos with every online interaction. Every time a prospective student or family mentions us, institutions can take the time to show they care and literally change the world of that student.
A study by Graham and Long Gisi (2000), which included looking at the effect of educational ethos, found that the educational ethos of the institution, including how much they cared for students, mattered more than just the amount of time a student spent participating in campus activities. The educational ethos that the campus community builds, that faculty and administration further embeds, and that the students describe when talking about their success, can start or be contributed to with every single, engaging moment on social media. Just one meaningful interaction can impact a student’s success, how an alumnus talks about the institution, and how a prospective student connects.
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