Most of the conversation around digital tools in Canadian higher education has been limited to the classroom, marketing and fundraising. But, according to Hamza Khan, there’s one department that’s been noticeably missing from this discussion: student affairs. Mr. Khan is working hard to change that as coordinator of Ryerson University’s recently unveiled student affairs creative team (he was digital community facilitator in the office of student life programs at Ryerson until this month) . The 26-year-old is an evangelist for a comprehensive, engaging digital strategy in student life offices. He tells University Affairs why the future of student affairs is online.
UA: Tell us about Ryerson University’s student life digital strategy.
Mr. Khan: In 2009, Glen Weppler, then director of student community life at Ryerson, said: “We need to allocate full-time resources towards making sure that we’re able to anticipate this fully digital student – the digital native.” So Ryerson created the digital community position. What’s unique about my [former] role is that, traditionally, social media, marketing and communication roles have been housed within university advancement, alumni relations, undergraduate admissions and recruitment. Never has there been a position like this hosted within student affairs.
UA: What does the digital community facilitator do?
Mr. Khan: The digital community facilitator portfolio exists to help students better connect to the institution, to connect with each other, to find co-curricular opportunities. To do this, we decided to meet them where they are. The average student spends about 12 to 13 hours a day online; by the time they wake up and arrive at Ryerson, they’ve already interacted with 200 different digital touch points. They’ve flipped through Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, LinkedIn, email, text messaging – you name it.
UA: What’s the main vehicle for reaching these students?
Mr. Khan: Through our digital platform RU Student Life, which is meant to be the voice of students for students. It’s made up of one full-time staff supervisor (Tesni Ellis, digital community specialist) and me overseeing a team of student staff that can be as small as one person over the summer to as many as 20 people in the fall and winter semesters. They hold a combination of social media and multimedia positions from photographers, bloggers, videobloggers and event associates. These are part-time, work-study positions. I think, for many students, we’ve become synonymous with the university. They don’t see us as administration but as engaged students helping other students. The voice is authentic, genuine and relatable.
UA: How do you measure the success of your strategy?
Mr. Kahn: When I started in 2012 I was told it was just a four-month contract and they were going to shut down the digital community portfolio if we weren’t able to demonstrate some wins in that time. I was able to demonstrate enough traction, enough support and enough of a demand from students for the type of work we were doing to keep it going. Every platform that we were on was steadily increasing in terms of community but also in the types of conversations and interactions we were having with followers. We were able to measure in real-time the success of events, campaigns and build relationships with the students.
UA: What do you think convinced the administration to keep the portfolio open?
Mr. Kahn: We told them that not only will they know who their students are and what they think about you, but you’ll have a two-way communication with them. It won’t be just you shoving the message down the student body’s collective gullet. They’re talking back to you. This is valuable information you can use to shape strategy.
UA: Can you give specific examples of how this digital platform engages students in ways we haven’t seen before?
Mr. Kahn: At the end of orientation week, we ask students for feedback. Before social media, we would only get a small sample response, maybe 200 to 300 students out of 3,000 to 4,000 who attended. Through social media we were able to get a larger sample size and were able to collect information that was much more dynamic. We were able to see specifically which moments during orientation students were reacting to.
UA: Tell us about some of the projects you have going on now.
Mr. Kahn: We’re trying to do something more meaningful and substantial with all the attention we now have from the student population. How do we help their development, expose them to new ideas, and connect to one another? And, ultimately, how do we drive retention? How do we ensure that students that graduate have the best possible experience and become evangelists for the brand? That has turned into a simple strategy for us: hand over the keys to the students. Take our Instagram feed, for example. It’s largely pictures we’re curating from the Ryerson community. We’re searching the Ryerson hashtag and our Ryerson followers and we post the best picture we find every day. On Snapchat, we rotate every week who owns the account, under the premise of “A Day in the Life of…”
UA: Are you doing anything aimed specifically at new students?
Mr. Kahn: We’ve selected five incoming students coming from high school to document every single day before they come to Ryerson University. They’re all using #RoadtoRyerson to post blogs, Vines (Twitter videos), Instagram photos and tweets that are providing other incoming students with a snapshot of who’s coming to the university. You can see the transformation, the emotion and excitement. It gives our students a tangible, emotional anchor to orientation because their experience becomes a shared experience.
UA: Do you work closely with the university’s communications department in executing these projects?
Mr. Kahn: Not at all, for better or for worse. The minute we start doing that, we start to bend towards the mandated communications style of the university. Everything we do is done in a voice that feels natural to students.
UA: Do some of your initiatives flop?
Mr. Kahn: I’d be concerned if we didn’t fail sometimes. A perfect example is Facebook. We’ve invested heavily – in time, money and human resources – into the management of our Facebook account. But our numbers continue to go down. In 2011, something like 90 percent of all students said they connected to orientation via Facebook. Our projections for 2014 are only 23 percent. In trying to salvage the page, we disproportionately allocated time and effort to it when we should’ve spent that time developing our presence on something like Vine or Tumblr. We’re making up for lost time now.
UA: Where is digital student life going?
Mr. Kahn: The places we’re investing in next are Snapchat, and apps like Whisper and Yo – ones you don’t hear about in the mainstream because that’s where 13-to-17-year-olds are.
UA: Have you seen this kind of student affairs digital strategy at other Canadian schools?
Mr. Kahn: Yes and no. In the U.S., the student affairs profession is so far advanced. One school will have 12 people like me at the institution. That being said, we’ve started closing the gap with our U.S. counterparts, in part through PSEWeb (Canada’s university and college digital marketing conference). It’s become this amazing community of like-minded individuals at universities. We talk all the time and take pages out of each other’s playbooks. It’s so collaborative.
UA: What are some of the essential things a student affairs department should invest in to launch their own digital strategy?
Mr. Kahn: First, they have to adopt a mentality that enables the students to do the work for them. Then you want to create content that adheres to these principles: is it useful? Is it informative? Is it amusing? Is it inspiring? Ultimately my suggestion is just to start. Shoot first and beg for forgiveness later. Otherwise, you’re going to get stuck in some Kafkaesque limbo. You have to be able to take an entrepreneurial approach.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)