Trends in students online – Not such digital natives?

A study of trends in student digital use has confirmed the need for universities to deploy a range of tools in communicating with prospective students. Laura Bridgestock, author of the report just published by university rankings body QS, warned institutions not to “underestimate the importance of traditional communication methods even in the Web 3.0 era”.

Most students surveyed rated online and offline resources as equally important components of their research, but rather astonishingly in this digital area, many still preferred phone calls or even writing old-fashioned letters when communicating with universities.

This continuing demand for offline channels was clear even among the youngest respondents, with a number of them stressing the importance of opportunities to speak to university representatives directly – in person, by phone or by using instant messaging services like Skype.

Titled Students Online: Global trends 2014, the study gathered 2,215 responses from 49 cities in 35 countries across Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America and Africa.

The aim was to uncover more information on how students use the internet during research on tertiary institution options, how they prefer to communicate with universities, which types of online platforms are most popular, and which information is the most challenging to access.

The study was in response to an earlier, concerning finding that one in five surveyed prospective students had crossed off a college from their list because of a bad experience on the institution’s website.

And more recently, the ever-growing emphasis placed on universities’ online presence has inspired a series of rankings of United States colleges performing best on social media, launched earlier this year by

What the students said

The students surveyed typically said they used official university websites to research courses, applications and funding: rankings websites were the leading resource used to compare universities.

A majority rated official university websites as “essential”, and university rankings websites were most likely to be classed as “very important”. At the same time, most applicants placed at least some level of importance on a broad spectrum of online resources, including forums and social media.

Online resources were seen as indispensable for most when researching higher education options, but offline resources were almost equally crucial.

Respondents in Africa, it was found, were most likely to prioritise online resources, and men were more likely to choose this option than women. Quite surprisingly, the youngest respondents were least likely to prioritise online resources.

On which devices were most commonly used for researching universities’ courses, laptops accounted for almost 47%, followed by the smartphone (22%), desktop (17%) and tablet (15%). This trend was fairly consistent worldwide, although respondents in Africa were more likely to use smartphones (32%), and less likely to use tablets (8%).

Most notably, while online contact forms and social media are both currently used by significant percentages of prospective students to contact universities, far fewer identify these as their preferred methods.

Undoubtedly, the internet has become an indispensable resource for most higher education applicants, but this has clearly not diminished demand for more traditional sources of information and advice.

Applicants highlighted the benefits of the more personalised guidance gained from speaking directly to university representatives, with many also saying they still valued printed prospectuses and advice from friends, family members and alumni.

Social media usage

The study’s authors said the relative unpopularity of social media might be surprising, particularly as so many universities are investing heavily in developing social media channels, in some cases even viewing this as a replacement for older forms of communication, like e-mail.

But as one United Kingdom-based student pointed out, students might increasingly use Twitter for “quick queries”, but often only because universities don’t respond to e-mails fast enough.

On which social networks were most popular, Facebook won hands down worldwide with all age groups: LinkedIn was the second choice. And in every region except Africa, YouTube was the third most-used social media platform for researching universities, after Facebook and LinkedIn.

Respondents most commonly perceived social media as useful to “get ideas and inspiration”, and this was fairly consistent across all age groups and regions.

In most world regions, the second most common usage was to compare universities, with the key exception of Latin America, where respondents selected information about courses as the second most important function for social media.

Communication problems

However, the report warns universities not to make snap assumptions about the ‘younger digital native’ generation: the trends by age group revealed by the survey intimated that institutions could benefit from spending more time considering what applicants really want before making drastic changes to their communication strategies.

For example, an increase in queries received via social media may reflect frustration over slow response times to e-mails or phone calls, rather than a real preference for communicating with institutions using social networks.

Almost 40% of respondents had experienced difficulty when trying to source information about scholarships and funding, while almost 20% identified student visas as a problem area.

Information about course content was a particular priority for those in the United States and Canada, while those in Latin America and Europe were most likely to battle finding information about applications and admission requirements.

So while e-mail remains the preferred method of communication, it is imperative that response times are speeded up to keep pace with social media’s new expectations and immediacy. Website contact forms are generally used reluctantly, and the demand still remains for more traditional and offline means of communication like phone calls and letters.