Category Archives: writing

Why I’m deleting ‘no cellphones’ from my syllabus

When I started teaching Media Copywriting in fall 2005, the syllabus included a simple “cellphones should not be seen nor heard” line in it, with accompanying mini-lecture in class, that has remained. Until now.

tweetsStarting this semester, I’m fine if students use smartphones in class. I even hope they sometimes use them during class.

It’s a trend popping up other places, acknowledging smartphones as participatory instruments. I’ve never been a big fan of the classroom as one-way lecture megaphone. Yet the establishment position among academia resisted the inclusion of laptops and personal devices in classes. But we’ve long since reached a point where, to borrow a great line from education expert Mark Greenfield: “The question is no longer whether laptops belong in lecture halls, but whether lecture halls belong in universities.”

Consider this: My intern Alyssa (of Alyssa Explains It All fame) takes notes on her iPhone. At an astonishing rate, no less. It takes my stubby, uncoordinated fingers minutes to write a text, yet today’s students like Alyssa could compose a short essay in that time. Who are we to discriminate on what media they use for note-taking?

But smartphones can be worked into feedback and learning as well. I’ve previously given homework assignments asking students to tweet examples, responses and opinions — often with video links — on the #brc328 tag to set the tone for the next class. Why not ask them to tweet in class in response to questions or to use it as another regular feedback and discussion channel?

I’m not saying the first semester doing this won’t be a bit sloppy, and that it won’t require fine-tuning. Will students abuse the privilege and not pay attention while playing games or whatever on their smartphones? Maybe. Their loss. If they aren’t paying attention in class or taking good notes, it becomes apparent after a while and the consequences come naturally in their ability to do assignments and pass the test. I’m giving them responsibility and seeing how they use it. From my experience, I expect students to respond accordingly and receive the grade they deserve.

In any event, I’ll let you all know how it goes.

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Higher ed getting iTuned, and customer service’s role.

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In 2000, Apple’s release of iTunes revolutionized the user experience in music and marked the beginning of the end of record companies’ outmoded model of complete control of recordings. Could a similar shift — decoupling content from a long-established distribution method — do the same thing to higher education? Poor customer service by not treating or students and stakeholders  like important parts of the equation could speed us down this path.

If you bought music before the turn of the century, you did so totally on the terms of record companies. You’d hear a good song and either could buy the single (with a B-side that was usually a throwaway track) or, if you were like most consumers, pay $16.99 or some inflated price for a CD or album. Maybe the album was great, perhaps another decent track or two helped you rationalize the purchase, or the rest of the album could be junk. Chances are you couldn’t listen to the album to know for sure, so you shot blindly and hoped for the best. Musicians were almost completely at the mercy of record companies, signing exploitative contracts that Steve Albini ably covered in the eye-opening essay The Problem With Music.

iTunes changed all that. You could listen to samples of all the songs on the album and, if they were all killer/no filler, buy the whole album. If everything outside of the single sounded awful, you could just download the track you wanted for 99 cents — saving time, expense and mental anguish. Some record companies battled this development, but the power and partnerships of Apple meant they brought enough players to make the model viable … and those on the outside could only hold out for so long. In the succeeding years, the tide has turned as bands have created their own distribution models, the most radical in 2007 involving Radiohead releasing “In Rainbows” online and allowing consumers to pay what they wanted. Today, many bands use models such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic where fans fund their recordings and help mold the musical experience.

In all the discussion of massive online open course (MOOC) education, the hope, hype and hyperbole converge to paint a potential picture not unlike iTunes for the future of higher education. In the best-case scenario, MOOC promoters see a world where consumers are in charge of where, what and how they learn, with some body, alliance or institution aggregating the courses taken into some kind of credential or degree. Courses, professors and colleges become commodities where the best offerings attract students while market forces marginalize inferior professors or obsolete coursework.

And while some critics seem exceptionally gleeful about the end of the higher ed world as we know it, I don’t buy into all the doom and gloom. College is about growth, self-discovery and independence perhaps morseo than the credential. The world will always have parents who will want their kids to get an education and take on greater self-sufficiency (read: move out of their house and learn how to do laundry). Every semester, I write an article about what our students are doing after graduation and things like internships, learning to work in teams and getting involved in campus leadership roles come up over and over as helping them get jobs. The current college climate can still provide a superior environment for success. But …

… and it’s a big but: Colleges that do not provide good customer service for students and potential students will dig themselves the biggest holes. Perhaps even graves. If you work at a college and don’t realize that poor customer service has caused you to lose students, and is making some other students consider transferring, you’re living in a fantasy. If you don’t care about it, you’re part of the problem. Sure, admissions offices may be great at getting students in the front door, but subsequently treating students as numbers instead of humans will end up a negative on your enrollment balance sheet. Just as the record companies didn’t foresee or address the conditions of a market where consumers are in charge, colleges that value a position of power over students instead of a partnership approach will face an uphill climb as student mobility becomes ever greater.

Brace yourself: The future is coming. Fortune favors those who adapt, and who realize emerging models will place a greater priority on serving and satisfying students. When consumers can shop around more, the market favors those with the best goods and services. How would your college fare?

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Living in silos: Blindness, elephants and higher ed customer service.

Few poems or fables seem to describe higher ed dysfunction better than “Blind Men and the Elephant,” best known via John Godfrey Saxe’s 19th-century translation of a story from the Indian subcontinent about intolerance. Yet the tale in which six sightless men encounter different parts of the pachyderm and make assumptions about what it is (a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope) also aptly describes one of the biggest elephants in the room hurting higher ed customer service.

Around the time Saxe was penning poems (and even stopping in Oswego long enough to marvel over the public library being built), educators like Edward Austin Sheldon were looking to fix education via radical methods that fused ideas based in science, experimentation and hands-on learning. In founding the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School in 1861 (the forerunner of SUNY Oswego), Sheldon saw transmitting the best techniques and content as the key to success — training teachers even as they took active roles leading classrooms of young students in the then-booming city of Oswego. The passing of knowledge was active on-the-job work that aimed for a seamless experience. Of course, he didn’t have big admissions, student affairs, alumni relations or other staffs … in part because the first training school class only had nine students, who took their pedagogy lessons in a cloakroom.

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego's Penfield Library Special Collections

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library Special Collections

But the development of specialty roles and the profusion of offices didn’t occur until much later in the 20th century. I’ve mentioned before the remembrances of Oswego legend Jimmy Moreland, who passed away in 1950. Jimmy — and that’s what he asked students to call him even in the more formal time — was a man of many talents for the school:

He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community. … Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.

Flash forward 60+ years, and I cringe at the runaround students receive today — passed from one office to another when no one has an answer or because another office needs to approve something that should be common sense. Of course, colleges and their populations are much bigger, regulations more complex, services required and requested more extensive, technology constantly evolving and structures so different than the 1950s or the 1860s.

But if different offices can’t find a way to work together to help students, we’re not doing our jobs. Period. An army of specialists who can do one or two tasks but cannot help a student with the big picture — of college, and of life — does students a disservice. Higher ed is not an assembly line; it should be more like a community barn-raising where everybody does whatever necessary for success. The Admissions Office isn’t the English department which isn’t Career Services … I get that. But when a student has to run several obstacle courses just to register, pay their bill and deal with the hurdles we throw up as organizations — and anyone can only help with one piece of the puzzle — then a bigger army really isn’t better.

Moreover, do employees think of themselves as supplying customer service or just another cog in the machine? This is a management issue and an attitude more than a staffing issue. If a freshman at your college has a bad experience, rest assured hundreds of other colleges would happily take her on as a customer. Portability is an increasingly popular feature of the college experience — especially with educational disruptions where students can learn anytime, anywhere from any institution — so for any college to think they are the entity in the control, as opposed to students controlling their own destinies in increasing ways, is an arrogant and archaic attitude.

Another problem is see is in the array of software “solutions” students have to conquer like levels on a video game. Colleges use an array of “solutions” to create separate communities or systems for potential students, freshmen, registration and academic progress, student organizations, internships, career plans, alumni activities and myriad other pieces. With the number of software programs they’re asked to learn, accounts they’re asked to create and communities they’re impelled to join, it’s like we make them change planes seven times to get from Syracuse to Schenectady. All these “solutions” tackle various specialties and tasks, some better than others, but it’s miles away from even approaching a seamless, customer-friendly system.

The answers don’t need to be rocket science: Cross-training more employees. Collaborating. Communicating. Solutions (true solutions, not software “solutions”) could offer many benefits. If offices get together to create that online community or install that software package that solves problems across many areas, functions and student tasks — instead of everybody running out to buy their own niche “solution” — not only will they save money and increase efficiency, but they can provide a better student experience.

But more than anything, it’s a mindset. An attitude. A willingness to work with others to truly put students first. Jimmy Moreland figured out how to do that more than 60 years ago without consultants, vendor pitches or sophisticated software. What I wrote after reading about his amazing life speaks toward how his positive, people-based attitude transcended the system we’ve set up in the decades since, yet could guide us in our future plans:

I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.

You wonder indeed how we’ve made something simple as good customer service so complex. We can’t see the elephant in the room unless we think as a team.

Next time: Higher ed getting iTuned, and the role of customer service

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The trouble with personal branding.

In the film “Miracle,” the story of the underdog USA hockey team that struck gold at the 1980 Olympics, there’s a running theme where coach Herb Brooks asks his players their name, their hometown and who they play for. For the latter answer, they say “University of Minnesota,” “Boston University” and so on, to Brooks’ stoic consternation.

After a lackluster performance in an exhibition, Brooks has had enough and has the team skating suicides for hours, to the point where they’re exhausted and heaving. Finally, eventual captain Mike Eruzione yells out his name and where he’s from.

“Who do you play for?” Brooks asks.

“I play for the United States of America!” Eruzione replies.

Brooks has finally heard the answer he wants, and tells his players they can finally call it a night.

Now this scene comes to mind every time I hear a college (mis)use the term “personal branding.”

If you mean “personal branding” as making sure a Google search first finds the good things you’ve done, your LinkedIn profile and positive impressions — instead of just photos of you at a frat party — then I agree. If you mean “personal branding” in terms of finding things you enjoy and can do better than just about anybody, and trying to figure out how to do that for a living, then I applaud.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 9.14.25 AMIf you mean “personal branding” as the equivalent of “make sure everything you do puts your own marketability and brand first,” then you’re doing students a disservice. And in the process, you’re contributing to the customer service shortcomings facing the higher education industry.

The fact of the matter is unless you go straight from college graduate to running your own startup (a very tiny percentage), ultimately you’re servicing someone else’s brand. Whether you’re a pro basketball player, reporter or cashier, putting your own need for branding ahead of your team or employer is not a successful formula. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t infuse personality, but ultimately you’re a part of a bigger brand.

In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Your Brand is the Exhaust Fume of the Engine of Your Life,” Nilofer Merchant perfectly explains that “the brand follows your work,” not vice versa. Any brand is what you do, who you work with to make it happen and what you care about. Creating a “personal brand” is a byproduct — not a determinant — of doing things the right way.

The “personal branding” interpretation is especially a challenge at many institutions where every school, department and office wants to “express themselves” and in turn hire graphic design students they encourage to “express themselves.” They run off and design logos that don’t use the right colors or fonts … or even the name (or right name) of the institution. (And they often are quick to design logos and slow to design useful content.) The main identity of the college is lost in countless subbrands that distract and confuse, diluting and contradicting the idea of working across the institution to better serve students.

Often departments will contact us to say they’ve hired an art student to “redesign their page” (we have a CMS and an aim for a common look and experience across oswego.edu), and ask how they get started. Besides training, we tell them to start with content. An awkward silence tends to follow. Signing up an art student to “make a website pop” without a content strategy is like repainting a restaurant without giving any thought to what’s on the menu. I don’t go to a restaurant because of its design, I go because I want a good meal. (I also feel like the “any art student can build a professional website” is demeaning to the industry. I wouldn’t tell the art department to just hire an English major to teach their courses because he must be good with words. This isn’t a dig against art students but a statement: Web communication is about subject matter and knowing how to tell your story, not merely making pretty pictures.)

If you’re looking for the ultimate example of the personal brand damaging the institutional brand, look no further than Syracuse University’s Twitter account earlier this year. At the end of the final regular season home game, a mysterious tweet under the university account appeared to be coming up with one of the biggest sports scoops of the year:

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The link was to a blog by a local community college student full of speculation but empty of reliable sourcing. At that and just about every subsequent news conference, Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim repeatedly and with increasing exasperation denied he planned to retire, and he hasn’t. Why would the SU account — an official and popular representation of the institution — start a rumor so wrong and detrimental? Is it possible that someone trying to make a name for themselves in the business saw this as a great chance to put over their personal brand? Even if it was at the expense of the university trusting them enough to gain this valuable experience?

When I hire student bloggers, vloggers and videographers, I encourage them to show personality and honesty, because our students are our top brand ambassadors. But they ultimately understand this opportunity is also about supporting and enhancing the college brand. I would hope all of our employees at every level are about helping our students more than their own “personal brand” or creating a “personal brand” for a department or office that runs counter to what we’re trying to accomplish across campus. Helping students should be a core part of any college’s brand in the first place.

So ultimately: Who do you play for?

Next time: Blind Men and the Elephant, or how silos destroy customer service

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A customer relationship management (CRM) tool is NOT customer service.

Technology is good. It enables connections, conversations and communities. It can fulfill business and personal goals. It can solve problems. But not by itself. Never by itself. Any technology or software “solution” is nothing without competent and caring people.

So I bristle when I hear about a college or company purchasing a customer relationship management (CRM) tool and declaring it a customer service solution. Because it’s not. A CRM tool, however sophisticated, is a cookbook. Without someone to do something with all the ingredients, there’s no meal.

It’s interesting to see what colleges do with their CRMs, which usually key on databases with tracking and reminder ability. Almost no institution I know of has ever set up all the expensive features in their “solution.” Some do a pretty decent job of tracking and interacting. Some limp along and do a passable job with their sunk-cost albatross, not notably improving the student experience. Others give up entirely when — surprise — the CRM actually requires them to do a whole bunch of work they thought it would obviate.

Put simply: If you’re not committed to customer service, don’t buy a CRM.

The best customer relationship management you can have is the willingness to interact with your stakeholders and help them along the way. It’s not about software, it’s about soft skills. If you’re helpful, responsive and flexible, you will provide better customer experiences, period. Sure, a CRM can tell you who’s inquired about your college, how far they’ve made it in the inquiry process, their student status and maybe their degree progress. But almost every student encounters questions and challenges along the way, and if you’re not there to help them (and no, an FAQ page full of questions no one has actually asked doesn’t count), then your “solution” doesn’t really solve anything.

(On a related note, those who use HootSuite or other social media tools only to blast their audiences with messages but don’t listen and respond to posts on their colleges or brands aren’t really taking part in “social” media. Anti-social or perhaps sociopathic media is more like it. But I digress.)

And while CRMs can allow you to collect data about students and their progress, are you using that data in some way to make the experience better? If not, then you’re not thinking about customers, relationships or management. In my blog series quest for how colleges can better deliver customer service, I know CRMs can play a role. But only if used in tandem with humans dedicated and driven to provide real solutions.

Next time: The trouble with ‘personal branding’ at colleges

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Top SUNYCUAD takeaway: When nobody’s job is everybody’s job.

If you work in social media for any organization and you’re passionate about it, you die a little inside when you read a tweet or a post by somebody who had a poor experience with your business.

Much like having a delicious meal at a restaurant ruined by poor service, colleges invest millions of dollars in staff and software “solutions,” yet too often don’t seem to care when their own employees leave a bad taste in students’ mouths.

Simply put, this is unacceptable.

And it was the top takeaway I had from the fabulous speakers at the recent SUNYCUAD conference last week on Long Island. Especially from powerful presentations by Sree Sreenivasan of Columbia University and Fran Zablocki from mStoner.

Columbia’s chief digital officer, also known through contributions to CNET and numerous appearances as a media expert, Sree provided a headline talk and a breakout presentation with plenty about tools and technology but rightly cut to the most important factor behind how successful any institution is: its people. Good work in social media reflects a culture of caring and prioritizing the right things, he noted. If you (as an individual or an institution) are awesome in real life, you’ll likely be awesome in social media. But if you’re awful in real life, you’ll ultimately be awful in social media … because the best social media manager or PR firm can’t make a business that offers a bad product or treats people poorly into something everybody will love.

Sree’s presentations had a surprising amount of overlap with Fran’s session, “Break Down the Silos for Lifecycle Engagement.” I’ve become a fan of lifecycle management, which is something too many colleges don’t do well enough. Much like the famed poem about the blind men and the elephant (who each encounter a part of the beast and think it is a rope, a fan, a spear, etc.), too many offices at too many colleges only seem to see the part of the lifecycle that matters to their job duties — prospective student, freshman, senior, alumni, donor — and fail to provide a seamless transition where everybody takes a stake in a what is a lifetime experience. By making students sign up for so many different social media communities according to their status and by forcing them through so many software “solutions,” we essentially make them change planes four times to get from Rochester to Syracuse. We make what should be a beautiful journey into a long, strange trip.

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A college move-in crew is a great example of customer service. Why can’t we be that helpful every day?

It’s not our job, but it is

But the phrase about lifecycle management Fran used that stood out more than anything else was brilliant in its simplicity. Ensuring students have a successful college experience is nobody’s job … which means it should be everybody’s job. In other words, colleges don’t have chief experience officers (CXOs) who oversee customer experience, so no one is in charge of this. But because this is no one’s responsibility, it should be everyone’s responsibility to make sure that students have positive experiences — or at the very least, productive “teachable moments” — whenever they come into contact. As colleges, we’re only as strong as our weakest link.

I know colleges as customer service models aren’t a perfect fit. Just because a student walks into your classroom and demands an A doesn’t mean he should get an A. But if he works for that A and a professor decides for some personal, petty reason not to give them an A, that’s wrong. Or if a student comes into our office and asks for something illegal or unethical, that doesn’t mean we should say yes. Yet how many students at various colleges get bad or indifferent service from some offices or employees and yet nobody does anything about it … even though everybody should be concerned.

One thing repeated at the conference is that when students have a bad experience, they (and their parents) don’t necessarily compartmentalize it to one office or individual. They see their school, in large part, as one entity. If they have a problem with their college experience, they have a problem with your college. Period. And even if they tweet or post about having a problem with one part of their college experience, it reflects poorly — particularly to their friends and followers — on their whole college experience, and on your college. Period.

I don’t have hard and fast answers to this conundrum, but I do have some thoughts about how colleges can be their own worst enemies, how we mistake small software “solutions” for bigger human solutions and how we can do things better. I’ll share these in future blog entries. And, along the way, I hope maybe others will join the fight for better customer service on college campuses … and anywhere and everywhere else in the world. It might be nobody’s job, but the more bodies who get involved, the better everybody’s lives will be.

Next time: A customer relations management tool is NOT customer service

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SUNYCUAD ’13: More than a fairytale of New York

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“I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true.”
— “A Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl

Next week’s SUNYCUAD conference — June 5 to 7 at the Hilton Long Island Huntington — features a dream lineup of headliners as well as leaders, visionaries and practitioners in various fields of higher education. Dreamers and doers, if you will.

While we don’t have The Pogues, we may have gone one better with headliner David Pogue, tech columnist for the New York Times, Nova ScienceNow host and CBS Sunday Morning contributor. He’s pretty good on a piano too. I’ve heard rave reviews about his live presentations, and with nearly 1.48 million Twitter followers, he’s clearly a well-regarded authority on technology as relates to everyday life.

Our headliners have amazing depth and breadth, also including SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Columbia University Chief Digital Officer/CNetNews contributor Sree Sreenivasan and design firm Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. Any of the above would headline our conference any year, but this fab four, a veritable Mount Rushmore of brilliance, really supercharged the 2013 lineup.

But our breakout sessions are marvelous and will pose many hard choices for those in such fields as alumni relations, communication, development, publications, public relations, social media, web and everything in between. I’ll even have the honor of presenting with two of our talented students, Heather Casey and Alyssa Levenberg, on what they’ve done for us in video and blogging. Oh, and there’s even a clambake at the Crescent Beach Club on the north shore of Long Island.

If you can’t make it, we hope to have helpful bits posted up on the #sunycuad Twitter hashtag, and Lisa Kalner Williams of Sierra Tierra Marketing (@sierratierra) has assembled a list of Twitter feeds from conference speakers.

So much awesome in one place seems like a fairytale, but in truth it’s a fair sampling of what the minds of New York (and beyond) have to offer. We’ve dreamed big for this year’s conference, and we think the result will prove a truly great and fruitful time for all.

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