Director of digital student life Tom Wright tells PublicTechnology about how the university’s approach to social media is led by students
Credit: cubechris/CC BY 3.0
When this reporter first arrived at university an unspecified number of years ago, the initiatives that could loosely be grouped in the category of ‘student engagement’ pretty much began and ended with a desultory tour of the town that pointed out the local branch of Bargain Booze, and the competing kebab shops that bookended the high street.
Having been armed with that – admittedly very useful – information, we were left to fend for ourselves.
While I imagine that cheap beer and chilli sauce still play an integral role in the undergraduate experience, the other ways in which universities try and engage potential, new, and current students have, thankfully, moved on. And digital platforms can now play a key role in helping freshers settle into student life, and engage with their studies and the social scene in their new home town.
Two years ago, the University of Lincoln created a position in its vice chancellor’s office as director of digital student life. Tom Wright, who formerly served as head of digital at the University of Nottingham, was hired to what he tells PublicTechnology is a “fairly unique role in the sector”.
Our marketing department is increasingly using our content, and we did a series of videos for them. We took the student-led approach where we get students going out and talking to other students about their work.
Lincoln’s use of social media and digital channels is based on the principles behind the flipped learning model – in which the focus of teaching is, essentially, switched from the tutor to their pupils. Wright oversees a team of students and graduate interns, who are chiefly responsible for creating the content for various ‘UoL Student Life’ channels – including a blog, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
“One of the things that attracted me to this role is that Lincoln have got a reputation in the sector for doing a lot of work with students,” Wright says. “A flipped classroom is where you get students involved in shaping the learning. We are taking that approach of working closely with students, and starting to apply it to other areas.
He adds: “The students will work on a variety of things – videos, social media content, blogs. We are also doing some work with students on web design.”
For the undergraduates that work on the student-life channels, it provides valuable experience and examples of published work that can boost their CV and post-university employment prospects. The students that read or view the content they produce, meanwhile, benefit from the advice and guidance of peers who have recently been through the same experiences as them.
Videos posted on the YouTube channel include posts from second- and third-year students offering tips for studying, nightlife, house-hunting, cooking, and budgeting. There is also a regular ‘Meet the Neighbours’ series, in which students meet and interview the permanent residents with whom they share Lincoln’s west end.
“Often, in university cities, students get up what students get up to, and there are issues when they are out in the community,” Wright says. “The approach from universities tends to be a bit finger-pointing. But we get students to go out and work with residents… and it seems to have worked. The resident communities seem a lot happier, and complaints have died down. And it just promotes awareness among students that the residents are real people.”
Number of followers of the UoL Student Life Facebook page
University of Lincoln’s rank in the recently published Guardian University Guide, an annual rise of 25 places
Amount of students who were educated at state school – the highest of any university in the Guardian’s top 25
Number of views of a virtual tour of the university that is UoL Student Life YouTube account’s most popular upload
Wright and his team have also worked with live online video streaming, including a video last summer which offered incoming students a virtual tour of the halls-of-residence bedrooms that awaited them. This was followed by a Q&A in which viewers posed questions about the facilities – such as available storage space, and whether or not coathangers are provided.
This, and other videos, were hosted via Facebook Live. And Wright says that, contrary to reports of the site’s waning popularity among young people, it remains the primary social media outlet for his team’s activities.
“We use Facebook a lot. Increasingly Instagram too, although it is tricky to get the content right,” he says. “With Snapchat there are still a few question marks, and we do not seem to be having conversations much on Twitter. Facebook is still the most important – partly because we see conversations develop amongst students.”
But while social media provides opportunities for students to engage with each other and with the university, it also presents a number of pitfalls. The University of Lincoln tries to help students understand the potential impact of their online identities, according to Wright.
“I work very closely with the Digital Education team here, and they have developed a tool called ‘AmIHired.Lincoln.ac.uk’ that takes students’ social media profiles and pulls in what is publicly available, pulls it together and shows the students what a potential employer would see,” he says. “We have promoted it internally to our own students, and that has had quite an impact in helping them understand what is out there – it may be a profile name, or a picture that could be problematic.”
In the newly published Guardian University Guide, Lincoln places 22nd – a rise of 25 places on last year. It scores strongly on student satisfaction with courses and teaching, and also has a higher percentage of state school-educated students – 97.4% – than any other institution in the top 25.
Wright adds that its approach to digital student life is also becoming an attraction for prospective students, as well as a benefit for those that are already there.
“Our marketing department is increasingly using our content, and we did a series of videos for them on the university’s research programme,” he says. “We took the student-led approach where we get students going out and talking to academic researchers about their work, and that does build into a selling point and a differentiator.”
Wright adds: “It is not a paternalistic approach – it is a partnership. There is respect there for our students, and that hopefully fosters a sense of community. We have faith in them.”
You can hear more about Tom Wright’s work at the University of Lincoln at the upcoming Public Sector Social Media Conference, where he is a speaker.
The event – which features an array of speakers from local and central government, education, law enforcement, healthcare, and transport – takes place in London on Wednesday 20 June. Click here to find out more and book tickets.