March 7, 2014
SXSW Round-Up: Welcoming China
Hello there! If you've been following my Twitter feed you'll have seen many goings-on at SXSW Edu, such as a rousing speech to teachers from newly elected Texas Governor Wendy Davis, and many impassioned discussions on the future and utility of MOOCs.
I've discovered that many of the sessions will be podcast later on and I look forward to sharing a variety with you soon: especially this panel. Dr. Denis Fred Simon (VP International, Arizona State); Sid Krommenhoek of Chegg; and Kai Jia, a Chinese national student at Davidson College, discussed the international admissions and integration process from different sides of the experience - with a focus on China.
This panel's subject matter has really captured my attention during the last four days: there have been several talks about the needs of Chinese students, why they come to Universities in America (and other countries such as Australia); how they find their place in the West (or why they don't); and how different Universities try to make their experience truly worthwhile.
According to the panel, a full third of international students in the US are from China, and the numbers are only growing. In China, education of a family's (typically) only child is a family priority. Parents work hard - and expect their child to work hard - to find an edge in a vast and highly competitive workforce.
How are these families choosing Western Universities? First up: students themselves get very little information at all. There are no high school career counsellors in Chinese public schools, though private educators may offer this. Mobile phones and other devices are usually not allowed into schools. Then, students work what Aussies would think of as impossible hours in order to pass a series of make-or-break exams. What time is there, then, for a student to sit on the 'net and dream about University options? In the few spare hours left to them, they're more likely to play Flappy Bird. I would, too! Often the information search is more parent-driven.
Since it's not very relevant to their parents' decision making, Chinese students often just aren't aware of the extracurricular opportunities that await them. Or they may not see the point of them. Some students, particularly those whose English is very poor when they arrive, feel very isolated and/or only socialise with others from the same background.
This is true of their online lives just as much as their on-campus experience. Many students never use an account on a social network used by their English speaking peers. Compounding the issue, important information can become misinformation when it's (mis?)translated and spread peer to peer online.
Kai Jia described his 'shock' at discovering the American 'Greek' system (at first he could see no point in it: over time he's discovered a wealth of friendships, new cultural experiences, and networking opportunities - and his English is increasingly strong as he practices with American friends).
So, how did Kai get information? Is there an opportunity for social media professionals to help, either before departure or after arrival? That was what I wanted to know.
- He watched video online, in Chinese (or dubbed into Chinese)
- He used online forums, mostly text based
- He spoke with alumni of his high school who had traveled for study
- He went to education fairs with his parents.
- He trawled through Chinese social media sites looking for other students' experiences, and
- Eventually, once in America, he joined Facebook: but this took time, and he acknowledges that many of his peers never do this.
- He still stays connected via Chinese social networks and talks to peers back home and in America, in Chinese.
So how can social media professionals working in Universities do better to help international students integrate in Australia and have a rewarding time? Typically for a social media professional in Australia, I don't speak any Mandarin or Cantonese. I'm out of proportion proud of my ability to pick out the characters for 'beef', 'noodles', and 'spicy' (three of my favourite food groups) but that's only going to get me so far!
The situation is compounded in China where most of the places I and my team work (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) are not available. At the end of last year I still had high hopes for Instagram, which is not currently blocked, but it seems to me that the network hasn't found much of an audience there. They may be able to find it, but they are busy elsewhere. It may be possible for Admissions staff to point them in that direction, but it won't be organically discovered.
What I can do, then? Here are some ideas - I'm keen to hear more.
- Create video content that is relevant to Chinese students, and share it with staff who can speak the language or organise translations. Ensure that this content gives a realistic and informative glimpse into campus life. Keep in mind that for many students, this will be all they see of campus before they arrive.
- Further, transition videos could be made by us, or by students, about life in Melbourne and what to expect
- Learn more about Chinese networks and how to optimise content for them
- Encourage current international students to share information back to their friends and family: they are often the most important sources of information
- Even if you're not participating, make sure you have some way of knowing what's being said about you. This might be as simple as asking another staff member to keep a weather eye out.
- Help our wonderful in-country officers out with as much material as we can, and include them in all our social media professionals discussions (we're lucky enough to have a strong network at UoM), and
- Start a group of students and staff who have an interest in the welfare of Chinese students. Help them connect Chinese speakers with good information.
We've just welcomed our first Chinese-speaking member of staff to the team, albeit part time. Fei is one of our two student interns. She is an experienced forum moderator and we look forward to working with her and others to establish positive and helpful relationships with our students - and prospective students.
Returning to SXSW... the oddest thing, to me, is that this panel was very badly attended. Great for those of us who were there, as we were able to have a wonderful, open conversation, but strange. As an Admissions expert in the audience put it, "Next year I think you'll have a line out of the room". We'll see: what seems more clear is that any University which can ensure each international student knows what they're getting themselves into, finds a place, and graduates an expert in two worlds, will truly be a University of the future. Social media professionals should be trying out new ways to help their University globalise.