Lines of Communication: Anticipating Student Preferences


communications.jpgThinking back, it’s probable that you can remember a time when you didn’t have a mobile phone or even a computer in your residence. A time when phone calls were made from land lines, and letters were sent by stamps and paper post. Phone booths were a common sight, and your mother probably reminded you to keep a dime in your pocket for emergency phone calls. 

My, how times have changed; most people in their teenage years and beyond now have easy access to multiple electronic devices and payphones are virtually relics. (I even took a picture of one to show my kids what they were the last time I saw one!) The last fifteen years have witnessed a frenetic pace of technological change both at home and on campus, and educational institutions have scurried to keep up the pace. In order to do so, colleges and universities across the country have worked to integrate technology, first into operational and administrative practice, and more recently marketing efforts, and ultimately in to the classroom. Their efforts have been, by necessity, mostly reactive. A global recession, marked unemployment,  a longstanding stalemate in U.S. Congress, along with mounting student loan debt and growing demand from all sectors for accountability have left Presidents, Boards of Directors and Administrators to sort out communication strategies for reaching perspective students and alumni as well as leveraging new technologies to stay in touch with their students on and off campus.

Back to the Future

In 2012 Amanda Lenhart, a researcher working on the Pew Research Internet Project gave a 71 minute presentation called “How do they do that? How Today’s Technology is Shaping Tomorrow’s Students”1 . The talk was, among other things, in Lenhart’s words “about the technological milieu of today’s teens and college students as they grew from children to young adults and the ways in which each major new technological development disrupted our previous communication strategies.”

Using a fictitious student named Elizabeth,  born in 1995, Lenhart illustrated the technological milestones both in place at Elizabeth’s birth, such as PC’s and email, and those that emerged during Elizabeth’s formative years. Elizabeth would be a first year College student in 2013. Take a look at the technology timeline of Elizabeth’s life:



Woah. During Elizabeth’s life, the rise of social media and the advent of mobile technologies have moved communications once handled through snail mail to email, social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and text messages, all in an effort to find the right channel for the right message.

Some data presented by Lenhart in her study2 regarding Elizabeth and her peers the year before entering college: 67% use email, 93% have access to a computer and 78% have a cell phone. As for internet use, 95% use the internet.

Here are some of Lenhart’s additional findings from her PEW “nationally representative” telephone survey of US adults and teens in 20121:

  • 70% use Wikipedia
  • 94% use social networks (Facebook)
  • 27% have recorded and uploaded video
  • 13% stream live video
  • 37% use video chat
  • 3% of K-12 students have experience with distance learning, blended learning, self directed learning
  • 270,000 youth go to virtual schools out of 55.2 million K-12 students in the US

Students now use Facebook to research schools and even pick roommates as they work to make “like” connections and build relationships even before arriving on campus. Students equipped with smartphones and tablets are utilizing these devices in class as well, according to the following data presented by Lenhart1:

  • 42% use the phone to look up information in class
  • 38% take pictures or record a video for a class assignment
  • 18% upload school related content to the internet
  • 11% text in class with teacher or other students as a part of a class assignment
  • 2% use an online cell phone platform like CELLY?

Looking back at how fast it all changed, it’s easy to see how colleges and universities could be little more than reactive as they strove to integrate new technologies. The pace of change in contrast to the deliberative and staid environment of traditional academia is a stark contrast indeed. That so much progress has been made in leveraging technology to reach the current generation through their preferred medium is no small achievement. But what does the future hold?

If it had been possible to poll teens fifteen years ago, would we have gained insight into their technology preferences? While the answer is obviously no (there were not many technology preferences to choose from!) - would a poll taken today provide us insight into the next generation’s preferences?  The real questions at hand seem to be these: Since the evolution of technology has exploded over the past 10 years, does that mean that students prefer electronic-only methods of communication? What gets their attention- and keeps it in terms of communication? This is exactly what a new survey published by Northeaster University attempts to uncover.  

The Latest Poll

Northeastern University has just completed a survey of 16 - 19 years old, entitled “Northeastern University’s Fourth National Innovation Imperative: Meet Generation Z”3. This survey covers a wide range of topics, technology among them. Conducted via cell phone, landline and online sources, the survey included a representative group of 1,015 English and Spanish speaking teens. Now, while this study does not get to the granular level regarding device and app usage as the 2012 research we examined earlier, several key technology questions were asked of the participants.


The responses to these questions have generated a certain amount of “media buzz” suggesting a change in attitude among young people to the pervasive role of technology in their lives and in the greater context of their education.

The questions around technology focused on a few key areas: social interaction, education, shopping, news access and video game usage. The most significant data focuses on social interaction and the place of technology in higher education. Perhaps the most startlingly finding is the fact that 61% of those surveyed had or knew someone who had been cyber-bullied. And while we’ve heard of stories of romances terminated via text message, only 12% claimed to have done such a thing with even less, 8% preferring to ask someone out online as opposed to in person. In fact, when asked if they prefer to interact with friends via social media, only 15% strongly agreed, with 66% somewhat or strongly disagreeing. When asked if they had posted things online that they wish they could take back, 32% agreed, with 50% somewhat or strongly disagreeing4.

Are higher education students beginning to change the way they look at things?

When it comes to technology in education, those administrating the survey drew the following conclusion: “Contrary to the prevailing narrative about today’s teenagers, the survey revealed somewhat modest enthusiasm for technology, particularly its use within higher education.4 The study cites that only 52% said an online degree will be recognized and accepted the same as a traditional college degree in the near future, compared to 67% of young professionals in 2012. And, only 27% said it’s important for colleges to provide more ways to attend classes, including online compared to 64% in 20124. Those are really significant changes in the course of how we look at and offer access to higher education.

These particular statistics, when tied back to the social interaction observations reflected in the data sited above, “that Generation Z still values the importance of interpersonal interaction,” might suggest that the preference for, or the reliance on, technology may be waning.

Translating data into a plan for the future of your school communications

So, this data can be pretty confusing. We’ve seen that students love their online resources, but seem to beginning to realize the importance of face to face interactions. Does that translate into a shift to paper communication vs. those sent via email and on social media outlets?

Really, it’s hard to pinpoint a changing demographics’ communication preference in totality. It’s important analyzing_data.jpgto look at the data on a whole. 

An alternate view to consider regarding these recent surveys would be that data is more a momentary blip, a cultural footnote, reflecting the media’s focus on everything from cyber-bullying to the initial failures of Massive Online Open Course or MOOC’s. There is little here to suggest that students will be ditching theirs phones, tablets and laptops anytime soon.  There is little to suggest that colleges and universities would, or should, change the direction of their communication strategies, without significantly more research.

 The fact of the matter is that these technologies are here to stay, and will continue to evolve. As we saw over the past 15 years, young people are notoriously early adopters. The next phase of innovation will see highly embedded devices such as watches and wearables that appeal not just to the geek in all of us, but to fashionistas as well. New apps will track academic progress at even more minute levels - much in the same way that health care apps are beginning to bridge the gap between doctors and patients - encouraging collaboration and ideally opening direct lines of communication between administrators, teachers and students. An individual study provides insights into a moment-in-time; it does not provide the long view. While we cannot see into the future, and completely anticipate student preferences, we would be remiss if we fail to learn from the past and the valuable data we have gained.

The future of communications:

stay_the_course.jpgBased on the information gained from the studies presented earlier, it’s easy to see that while students enjoy, and easily adapt to, technology, they are also seeing the value of non-electronic communications. They understand the ease of use of an online degree, but feel more value is to be gained by in-face, on-campus classes. They continue to use email and online social media as a means of communication, but value important information and interactions that occur in a more traditional manner.

What’s a school to do? Many institutions of higher education have adopted multi-faceted communication plans using both traditional and online communications to not only reach a wide audience of students and parents, but also reach them using multiple venues. While a single communication sent via email may be overlooked, if the student sees the same message in email, over Twitter and in their paper mail, it may get their attention as important. Staying the course with your communications, using multiple avenues to reach a wide variety of students and ensuring appropriate follow up is the key to reaching the wide variety of communication preferences that make up today’s student body.

Resources: see additional surveys regarding Gen Z’s communication preferences:

Bloomberg: Will Generation Z Disconnect?

Financial Review: What if Generation Z Switches Off?



1“How do they do that? How today’s technology is shaping tomorrow’s students”,





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