Learning by Listening: Reflections on ListenUp EDU

Last month, over 75 leaders from institutions around the country gathered in Chicago for ListenUp EDU, our first conference focused on improving how we listen to students and alumni and improve service and success, co-hosted with our friends at Campus Sonar (who are pioneering the the insights gleaned from social listening to inform institutions’ strategy). The gathering exceeded our expectations. We hope to live up to the assessment of Matt Duncan, Academic Digital Engagement Strategist at the University of Colorado Boulder, who called it “The future of higher ed conferences.” We’re hosting the next ListenUp in Portland, OR April 17-18 with Campus Sonar.

listen up exercise

What made it so different? Most sessions were designed not as panels or individual speakers, but interactive workshops, which inspired problem-solving, experiential learning, collaboration, and connection. It included the perspectives of leaders outside of higher education, as well as the voices of alumni leaders. “ListenUp is a conference that focuses on a competency skill—listening— and applies it broadly rather than just looking through a single function—like event planning, fundraising, or serving a particular segment of student or alumnus,” says Annie White, Director, Engagement and Career Advancement at Northwestern University.

Team Switchboard returned to Portland with a wealth of insights around how higher education could improve student success and alumni engagement. Here are my top three takeaways.

listenup discussion

Birds of a Feather: Traditionally, professional development in higher education has been divided into silos. There’s CASE for advancement and alumni affairs professionals, NACE for career services, and various events for marketing and social media. ListenUp attracted leaders from across departments. We often talk about increasing collaboration and improving effectiveness through cross-campus partnerships. This event embodied those principles by gathering those leaders in one room. “It was nice to discuss issues with folks from outside, as well as within, the advancement world for fresh perspectives,” says Robyn Stylle, Executive Director of Alumni Relations at Northern Michigan University.

 Daniel Flores graduated from Northwestern University in 2014 and the Kellogg School of Management in 2015. He shared his experience as a first-generation student with other participants at ListenUp.

Daniel Flores graduated from Northwestern University in 2014 and the Kellogg School of Management in 2015. He shared his experience as a first-generation student with other participants at ListenUp.

Lead with Lived Experience: We participated in an illuminating exercise the first evening. Each of us shared what the institutional data that our alma maters had about us would say about our individual student experiences, then compared that to what we were actually going through personally. There was a huge chasm between the two. We sat astonished by how little we actually know about students needs and struggles. “The common data we collect doesn’t get to what really makes a person tick,” said one participant. “Institutions know what. They don’t know why.” “Students might look good on paper but feel lost in reality.” “We often ‘dehumanize’ people/students by reducing their experiences down to data points.” From mental health issues to parenting or food insecurity, each of us faced challenges never known by the institution. “Outside of class is everything.” We polled the room and asked, “How many of you felt known and seen by the institution?” The overwhelming majority said they didn’t. Participants felt they were on their own without support or guidance. There was a lack of curiosity and missed opportunities to really listen to their needs. We learned that there were many instances of individual community members—faculty, staff, advisors—who were present, but, on the whole, we felt disconnected from the institution itself.

Switchboard Listen Up Chicago Conference 127 - By Bill Healy - 181017.jpg

Questions > Answers. Instead of finding answers, the goal of this conference was to better understand the questions we have. What don’t we know? What are we curious about? What’s undiscovered? Coming from a place of care and curiosity improves the campus experience. I’m delighted to share participants’ questions here, below. Some of my favorites? “How do we make students feel comfortable being forthcoming with their needs and identities?” “How can campuses learn why students are or aren’t successful, why they do or don’t have strong affinity, or why they would or wouldn’t want to do it all over again?” “What are we doing for advisors or mentors that can help them in their role?,” “How can we know when students are close to a critical juncture and might need help?” “How can we empower students to tell their stories to authority figures so they can get help?”

Now it’s your turn! What questions do you have? Email me at mara@switchboardhq.com and let me know, or register to attend our next ListenUp EDU in Portland in April. Let’s get curious!

Based on what you heard between the data collected and lived student experience, what questions do you have?

  • How do we build connections, coalitions across massive university systems to share data and information?

  • How can we help support students by helping faculty understand their experiences without breaching confidentiality?

  • How can faculty and staff learn enough about students to actually help them?

  • How do we make students feel comfortable being forthcoming with their needs and identities?

  • How can we “fix” the advising struggle? (Advisors/profs assigned large #s of students and the process is very process focused).

  • How can campuses learn why students are/aren’t successful, why they do/don’t have strong affinity or if/why they would/wouldn’t want to do it all over again?

  • Why is the disconnect still happening with all the tech and processes we have now?

  • Why don’t schools have personal check-ins and mentors paired with each student?

  • Do institutions know when a student is feeling lost? How do they find out?

  • What information is/are campuses capturing methodically (survey binders don’t count!) to impact students’ experiences?

  • Why are women making career choices to avoid math? Why is it hard to find “home” at college?

  • How do we get students to value advising and how do we make it meaningful?

  • How can we better educate/coach students to explore in a safe and supported way?

  • What are we doing for advisors or mentors that can help them in their role?

  • Why are there not financial literacy (for family) education programs as a required part of financial aid?

  • What important decisions are being made by lead stakeholders at colleges? Are they using this with institutional data?

  • What are common and less common barriers?

  • How can we know when students are close to a critical juncture and might need help?

  • How can institutions get to the “lived” experience and use these programs?

  • How can colleges serve any and all students equally?

  • How many alumni don’t fully realize what a gift/privilege college is?

  • How can we facilitate productive, authentic, and non-tokenizing dialogue across individuals that have very different backgrounds?

  • How can we make students feel heard and gather feedback without badgering them with multiple surveys and email requests for feedback?

  • How can we listen if our audience is already bombarded with questions? We are competing for their attention.

  • How do you give students information in a way/at a time when they can have it?

  • How do we respect students’ time when trying to create opportunities to listen?

  • How can an institution learn, manage, and speak to this information?

  • How can institutions really get to know their students and enable them to succeed - not just academically but personally?

  • How can we empower students to tell their stories to authority figures so they can get help?

  • How can institutions serve students who experience loss?

  • What are you doing in terms of career services at your school?

  • What real advantages exist for students with parents who attended college?

  • How do we better educate students on academic and career support → beyond a presentation at orientation?

  • Who was watching/tracking/advising these students? There must have been opportunities to ask/listen that could have made a huge difference.

  • When everyone’s journey is so different, how do we market to and connect with each audience segment?

  • How can robust data analysis better prepare us to treat individual variation?

  • How do we measure/gather human experiences as data? Can you?

  • How to better engage with who you are how versus what you were then?

  • Why do institutions fail to collect data on alumni the way retail brands collect info on customers?

  • How can we identify those students that are just floating by?

  • How can we identify the connection/affinity that exists today?

  • How can we get to know the context better and help?

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