Teaching as a conversation with… almost 500 prosI started teaching Web Analytics for Higher Ed in September 2011. Since then I have added several additional courses on topics such as SEO, advanced and predictive Web analytics. Nearly 500 students have collectively gone through these courses. When I saw that number this week, I was a little surprised. It was a larger number than I realized.
As the “analytics prof,” I take my role seriously. I see myself not only as teacher, but also mentor. I interact with each of my students, providing feedback and suggestions based on the discussion posts and the assignments they submit. My hope is that the courses will help them not only learn the tools, but also change the way they think about marketing and measurement. Much of the feedback I have received indicates that it’s exactly what the course do. 🙂
However, as all teachers know, teaching is not a one-directional activity. It is never just teacher giving a directive and student doing it. Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy (teaching adults, as opposed to pedagogy, or teaching children) indicates that people really don’t learn that way. It has to be a conversation –a back and forth. Students have to understand the relevance of the material and see how it can be applied to their day-to-day. The material is guided by the needs of the students, as will be immediately applicable to their jobs, and focused on the application of the material to a problem. It is not abstract theory, it is practice. A teacher needs to be in the weeds with the students in order to make this work. We discuss the issues and practical relevance.
Of course, in doing this I learn a lot, as well. The following are just a few of the things that I have learned from teaching over the past few years.
#1 Marketing and Admissions have started talking, but there is still more work to doThe students – all higher ed professionals – in my classes come from many different areas and departments within a university. Most are in some kind of marketing and/or admissions-related function. Most take the course because they want to get better at what they’re doing.
One of the assignments in the Web Analytics for Higher Ed course is to create Goals in Google Analytics and assign monetary value to the Goals.
This, perhaps more than anything else, makes students pause.
Even though I teach several ways to arrive at a value, the act of doing so highlights an important point: data transparency is rare. That is, much of the time Marketing and Admissions aren’t sharing numbers and results with one another, even though the work is closely related. There are certainly some institutions that do a phenomenal job of sharing data between departments, but many don’t. This makes it difficult for people in both areas to do their job well. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. In truth, it shouldn’t just be a conversation between Marketing and Admissions. Finance should be involved, as should Legal, IT, and Advancement. Not for every conversation, of course, but when we discuss how X contributes to Y university objective, it is important that all of the relevant key players have the discussion.
If a marketer doesn’t know the monetary value of a student, then their contribution is more uncertain. When the marketer can see that X ad led to Y number of inquiries, which led to Z number of students, each valued at $ABCD for the university’s bottom line, it allows everyone to make better decisions. Everyone will then be much more invested in the process, in the work, and in the university.
#2 We are able to track many actions, but not everything
A key limitation in marketing measurement is that most schools use multiple systems that don’t talk to one another.
Many third party systems, such as the Common App, do not allow custom tracking code to be added to their site. Often even university-purchased CRM systems do not allow it. This makes what could be hard data into something that is still useful and directional, but a little fuzzy.
New systems need to factor in data flow between multiple areas so that universities can make better decisions. In my experience, even the universities with the best data structures have limitations. There is always room for improvement, but this is one area that poses a real challenge to many universities. There will likely not be a perfect solution, but there’s definitely room for improvement in this case.
#3 Data helps put Marketing at the table
I can certainly understand the importance of brand awareness campaigns, but they are difficult to measure.
Often they have vague, vanity metrics associated with them. That can be fine, as long as we understand that going in.
However, when marketing is able to employ more direct response methods, it enables them to get better data. With better data you are able to make better decisions. When these better decisions lead to better results (more students, more donations), it makes senior administration take note.
This is something that is particularly relevant for smaller institutions that are only now waking up to what marketing can do. Until marketing can show the fruits of their labor (beyond pretty marketing collateral), they will not be able to show their true value.
I have learned that my web analytics students are able to get a seat at the table when they can present the impact of their efforts. They are simply taken more seriously. That is a big deal.
#4 A slight shift in perspective can completely change the way we approach our work
When the higher ed marketers and communicators in my classes are able to see past their own work and understand how it impacts other departments and the school at large, it makes them do better work.
Many begin the courses without seeing how their contribution makes a difference. But it does.
They might not have visible proof, but it makes a big difference. It is like the theory that was made into a movie a few years back–the Butterfly Effect. When you see how one thing pushes the needle, you want to do more. I have learned that this little bit of knowledge can completely change the mindset of your higher ed colleagues taking my courses and can change the way that they (and perhaps their entire department) approach the work. It helps to see how we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are not just a cog, but a valuable and contributing member of the team. And with data, we can prove it.
#5 Data sometimes refutes “best practices”No one likes to admit when they are wrong, but it is an important step to getting better.
Depending on which conferences you attend, and even sometimes the sessions within an individual conference, you will learn competing “best practices.” A perfect example of this is with content length. “Best practices” show that shorter content is better, because people don’t really read long articles–except that the data proves that wrong (sometimes!).
Best practices are not always right and as responsible marketing professionals, it is our duty to continue to test the premise.
Trends change over time. An 18 year old today acts differently than an 18 year old acted ten years ago. Maybe not in every way, of course, but in enough ways that we should test our theories on what best practices are.
I have seen my students use their data to test their own hypotheses and be surprised by some results. Sometimes we can all be wrong. So remember, sometimes best practices aren’t.
There are many things that I have been able to learn from my students and our class discussions over the past few years. Sometimes they confirmed what I knew, other times they challenged what I thought I knew.
While the students enrolled in my courses work for many different types of institutions –small liberal arts schools, large state schools, Ivy League schools, religious schools, medium-sized regional schools, domestic and international schools –they share the same aspiration. They want to get better at what they do, and I have learned a lot from them along the way.
Meet the Faculty: Joshua Dodson
Higher Ed Experts is a professional online school for digital professionals working in universities and colleges.
When you take a professional certificate course with us, you get a chance to upgrade your skills by working on your projects, interacting with classmates just like you and getting detailed personalized feedback from your instructor.
Joshua Dodson is a Google Analytics qualified web expert who has worked with numerous colleges and universities to improve their web presence and better understand their user trends. Before joining Bentley University as Director of Digital Marketing, Dodson worked as the Director of SEO at SNHU and the Web Strategy and SEO Administrator for Eastern Kentucky University. He has taught hundreds of higher education marketing professionals how to use analytics and SEO through the courses he teaches for Higher Ed Experts.
Joshua teaches Higher Ed Expert’s 4-week online course on Web Analytics for Higher Education as well as 2 other advanced courses and a course on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for higher ed.