Swindon College was awarded Grade 1 Outstanding status by Ofsted in 2013. In 2013/14 the college was rated ‘Top performing college in the South West for apprenticeships’ by the SFA. They have approximately 6,000 Further Education (FE) students (including 1000 Apprentices) and 400 Higher Education (HE) students.
In late 2016 Swindon College came to the decision that staff-student communications has moved on and their existing strategy of using a combination of email, texts and Facebook didn’t necessarily match the means of communication their students preferred.
In order for communications to further contribute towards engagement, retention and safeguarding goals the college expected of themselves as an Outstanding provider, they chose to implement a private social media network integrated with their MIS solution, ebs, with immediate and incredibly positive effects.
Seeking a Better Communications Approach
Despite 97% of students saying they would recommend Swindon College to a friend, the college recognised their communications strategy needed to move in line with the expectation and experiences of their students. When it came to things like dealing with absence or timetable changes, students weren’t responding to texts or emails, many students seeing email as no more than a means to simply access college systems. Staff realised some students didn’t like using Facebook for college interaction and Facebook also presented several concerns around student and staff safeguarding.
Caron Edwards, Head of CIS at Swindon College
“It ticks so many boxes; it’s a brilliant module and is the way forward for colleges – it has made a huge difference to our lecturers and students alike.”
Scattered Systems and Processes
As an ebs customer, Caron Edwards, Swindon College’s Head of College Information Systems, attended one of the regional User Groups and was introduced to ebs’ private social network tool, ontrack Buzz, integrating with the college’s MIS system. Because of the live link with ebs, Buzz is able to support real-time, relevant interaction between the college and its students, as well as improving engagement with class/college activities and individual learning programmes.
Instant Take-Up by Staff and Students
The college went live with ebs ontrack Buzz in February 2017 and quickly started realising the benefits as staff and student take-up exceeded all expectations. Within just 38 days 126 staff and 859 students were active on Buzz, setting up 1407 active groups for social and learning related topics, and sharing over 15,000 minstant messages. In the same period there were nearly 2,500 group posts, an indication that staff are already very engaged and achieving early productivity gains; the extraordinary volume of direct messages indicates strong levels of student engagement. The college branding of the tool as SC Connect was seen as imperative in order to help app download figures and engagement rates – research has already shown that over 60% of students want a designated college mobile app and over 70% would prefer one single app covering all of their college interactions.
Staff Unanimously Realise the Benefits
And the feedback has been just as glowing as the figures, commented Caron,
“We wanted lecturers to engage but we were surprised just how positive the feeling has been. And even those areas that indicated initial reservations were completely wonover as soon as they saw just how easy it was to realise the benefits.”
All Facebook groups were immediately closed down and SC Connect made the default communications method. One lecturer’s response,
“You can see the peer support happening straight away”,
typifies how well the move has been received, with another member of staff exclaiming
“It’s the best thing the college has ever done!”
Lecturers can now communicate instantly with their tutor groups, either en-masse or individually, and are automating the weekly sending of timetabling information pulled directly from ebs, meaning less admin time is required to keep students informed. Critical events like Functional Skills exams can have reminders about times and locations sent to relevant students to influence attendance and punctuality.
Students are also responding to absence notifications and Caron has already seen a positive effect on attendance and expects the same for punctuality and engagement.
Embedding Private Social Network Management in Quality Improvement Planning
Swindon’s adoption of Buzz is as widespread as the potential benefits. The CLT has already included it as a key feature of the college’s Quality Improvement Plan so they have visibility of engagement figures. It is also being rolled out as part of the college’s enrolment process, so every new student is requested to download the SC Connect app as part of their enrolment. “It will transform our communications and our College Experience Days,” says Caron. The college’s enrichment centre is already set-up to check if students have downloaded the app so they can influence engagement and retention and ultimately help their students achieve.
Responsing to Ofsted
Buzz is also contributing to the college’s ability to respond to Ofsted requirements, as it enables students to attach and send learning evidence via the app; it also helps promote peer-to-peer support, support learning outcomes as well as providing staff and students with a safe and secure place to communicate, something the college was all too aware was a huge failing of Facebook.
With SC Connect, the college is able to monitor groups as well as applying high level scanning techniques to direct messaging, thereby allowing them to bolster their Prevent response and provide a safe extended learning environment for their students and staff. It enables the college to enhance student support via a pro-active platform, especially important when it comes to more vulnerable students.
Engaging with Future Students
The next step for the college is to develop the solution for their full admissions process, something Caron is really excited about. “We’ll be able to engage with our future students as soon as they apply and communicate more effectively right from their first interaction with the college.” The college is also looking at extending usage to parents of their 16-18 learners (where permission is given) so they can flag things like non-attendance early-on with parents/carers.