Episode 4: Virtual Insanity

Episode 4: Virtual Insanity
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 23:23
 
1X

In this episode, Jon-Stephen Stansel and Joel Goodman talk about the importance of using clear language when marketing in higher education. We ask the question, “Are we paying attention to the language we use and what it communicates to our students and prospective students?”

Episode 4: Virtual Insanity
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 23:23
 
1X

In this episode, Jon-Stephen Stansel and Joel Goodman talk about the importance of using clear language when marketing in higher education. We ask the question, “Are we paying attention to the language we use and what it communicates to our students and prospective students?”

Joel Goodman
Welcome to Thought Feeder. I’m Joel Goodman,

Jon-Stephen Stansel
And I’m Jon-Stephen Stansel.

JG
On this episode, we’re talking about how the language we use matters — perhaps now more than ever with most of our students and staff at home or someplace else, not on our campuses.

J.S.
All of a sudden, everything is virtual. We have virtual classes, virtual tours, virtual meetings, virtual graduation, “it’s virtual insanity,” to quote Jamiroquai.

JG
What is it? What is it with the word virtual? Virtual is one of those terms that I remember being so popular even when I was in college in you know, the early aughts this, I mean — and it was popular in the 90s. It was popular actually in the 80s when the first virtual reality stuff started coming out.

J.S.
Well, I think the problem is people are substituting “virtual” for online or trying to give the impression that something is high tech. It reminds me of my early days in college when self-checkouts first started, I remember going to my local grocery store and standing in line and the clerk coming up to me saying, would you like to try the E-Checkout? There was a time we put “e” in front of everything to make it seem high-tech and futuristic.

JG
Maybe they weren’t actually using computers at the [laughs] registers… I mean…

J.S.
There was nothing, I mean, it was just your typical checkout, except it’s a self-checkout. So I think now in the days of COVID-19, where courses are shifting online, and we’re trying to figure out how to do things in a more digital space rather than in person, I think people are struggling to find ways to describe adequately what’s being done. And the word virtual is just being used as shorthand for not-in-person, but I think there are some severe problems with the term virtual and Joel, you’ve mentioned this in many of your tweets lately. So I’ll let you address some of the issues you have with the word virtual.

JG
Yeah. And I’ve always had an issue with the word virtual, because it’s not applicable in 98% of the use cases that people that use it for, you know? A virtual tour, maybe. I think there’s a little bit of a stretch there. But yeah, sure, you’re not actually touring campus, you’re not in the physical space walking around. So it’s, it’s maybe not quite as good. But you know, I don’t necessarily think that’s because it can’t be as good or can’t be better when it’s online or digital. It’s just that we haven’t really tried because we only have one mode of thinking around it.

But this idea of virtual courses or a virtual bachelor’s degree or virtual master’s degree, I mean, what you’re saying if we actually look at what the word virtual means, the actual definition of it, it means “not quite.” It’s not quite there like it’s almost. And so when you say you have a virtual course or a virtual program, you’re saying to your students, “This is not a real thing. This is almost there, but it’s not quite.”

And so, I don’t really know what the thought process is. Is it, you know, trying to lower the bar because we’re unsure of the quality of what we’re putting out there and we don’t know if it’s going to work yet? Maybe. But from a marketing perspective, never show your weaknesses like that. And you never — you know, Apple doesn’t come out with a new MacBook Pro with a terrible keyboard and say, “This keyboard is almost as good as the one that we had six revisions ago,” because that’s not gonna help them sell anything. And sure, people might get upset, but it gives you a chance to learn from it.

I think there’s an issue when we’re taking all of the experiences that we have in person and putting them online and freaking out about, “Oh, man, maybe it’s not going to be as good!” You know what? Make it good enough. We should be replacing all of these “virtual” things with new experiences or better experiences because we have the technology to do it.

J.S.
And let’s not discount digital experiences as something less. Not even in the marketing sphere just as far as — I’m getting messages all the time, appointments, “we’re gonna have a virtual meeting today.” Well, would you call a phone call a virtual meeting? No, it’s just a phone call.

JG
I feel like an email is — isn’t an email a virtual meeting? Like that’s what I think; an email is closer to a virtual meeting.

J.S.
How long? How long have we had video chat services? How long has Skype been around? How long has FaceTime been around?

JG
Skype, what? 15 years.

J.S.
It’s just basic communication now and it’s nothing less. You know, right now, I’m looking at you, Joel, through my screen. And it’s a very real meeting. We’re having a very real conversation. There’s nothing “virtual” about it. In fact, it’s even better because I have the ability now to reach out to you and see your face and talk to you and record a podcast from my home in Conway, Arkansas all the way to you in Austin, Texas. And it’s amazing that we’re able to do that and there’s nothing less or reduced about it. We should be celebrating the fact that, wow, we are able to do this thing now.

JG
And the other thing to think about is that the incoming class — hopefully you will have students coming into your incoming class with everything going on — the incoming class grew up with all of this technology. It’s not something new. It’s not something — they’ve never experienced a college class before, for the most part. Why are you underselling what you give to them? Why not make it better? Because I mean, real talk with this, like if a university is offering a “virtual” class that is not quite as good as what someone’s getting on campus, you should not be charging for it or you should be refunding your students. Find a way to do it better.

J.S.
Well, I think there is still a big animosity to all things digital in higher ed. Quite often from just from the marketing perspective of being a social media manager who’s trying to get advertisements out there and get funding for that. I’m always struggling because people in higher positions say, you know, they can see a billboard. They can touch — Oh, there’s this idea about how tactile experiences are more important. I can touch a magazine. Or I have a lot of faculty friends who just cannot stand the fact that I use a Kindle and I read on a device. Like, “Don’t you miss the scent of a book?” And I’m a bibliophile. I collect books, I love nice additions. But the fact that I can put every single book I own on a device that fits in my backpack and take it anywhere is amazing. And the digital experience of reading… reading is reading is reading. It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing it on a book or on a screen, I’m still putting that information in my head. And we should celebrate the fact that we have the ability to do that and not discount it as something less.

JG
I’m also a fan of tactile experiences. I mean, the things that I have created as giveaways for Bravery Media have been focused around a feeling of quality. It hasn’t just been here as a digital “cool digital thing.” And so yeah, I get it. I understand the allure of something that is you know, temporal that you can touch. But use that to support the experiences that make a bigger impact. Don’t use that as a replacement.

This is the problem, is that you know what man a decade-plus ago we were already talking about how hard it was to go digital-first and we thought, “yeah, we’ve finally got there everything’s starting with digital!” But we’re not. Everything is not starting with digital and now, in the times of COVID-19 and the coronavirus, we are seeing where our folly has landed. Do you know what? If we had gone digital, when we, you know — if we had shifted our thinking into a digital-first mentality back when it was actually happening, this whole transition would be way easier. We would have the infrastructure in place. We wouldn’t be hit as hard as institutions by the recession that is most likely coming. You know, there there are so many benefits, but to some extent, we were just shortsighted in actually moving that direction. And that’s what’s so frustrating because that has kind have infiltrated our language and how we talk about what we’re doing.

J.S.
Exactly. And I think it really does start with the language and how we discuss these ideas and concepts. And terms like “virtual” discount that and make it feel like something less because as you pointed out, virtual means less than real. It’s not quite reality, it’s a “virtual” reality. I mean.

JG
A virtual meeting is a meeting. Virtual reality is not quite real reality. A virtual course is still a course — why not just call it a course? And that’s the thing, at some point, why do we need to qualify it with even being remote or digital or whatever? I don’t know why the qualification is there, necessarily, except for when you have, you know, except when you have multiple modalities for accessing something and you need to differentiate between, “Hey, we have a course that’s on campus and in person and we have a course that you can do completely online.” They’re the same course, the same quality, I can understand that. But now when everything has to be online, I don’t know I don’t really know why we’re differentiating this

J.S.
I understand, sometimes, the need for specificity and I agree, you know, we’ve got those different modalities of, okay, this is going to be an online course versus an in-person course and being clear about that. But I think the terminology “online” versus “in person,” it shouldn’t be one is more valuable than the other, they should be, in theory, be equal.

JG
Definitely. So where I mean, where do you think the roots of this go, J.S.? You know, we’ve both been in higher ed for a while, we’ve both worked for institutions and multiple institutions. And we know that there’s a lot of, you know, insider-speak, that happens. And this is a problem that we’ve had when writing content for the web, when editing or vetting content for social media, this idea of university jargon. Of all this stuff that that gets thrown around inside the institution that someone outside doesn’t really understand isn’t isn’t necessarily going to know because they don’t know the inner workings of that place.

J.S.
Yeah, well, you know, the topic of this episode is language and I think it does come down to our affinity and our love for language and wanting to make things a little bit different and be as specific as possible about what we are. The best example is, you know, Residence Hall versus Dorm. The term residence hall came up because we felt that “dorm” had a negative connotation and rather than making our dorms nicer and better — and we have to some extent from when I was in college, there’s a lot, you know, better going on in that area. Now, we decided that it was the name that was the problem. Like, we’re rebranding it as residence halls. The problem is that doesn’t stick with our audience. Parents who want to find information about where their children are going to be living aren’t going to your website and searching “residence hall.” No, they’re searching “dorm” because that was the term that they grew up with. And that’s a term that still to this day sticks and sometimes we need to get over it and say, yeah, maybe residence hall is a better description of what we do now, but people are gonna call it a dorm. They’re gonna call it a dorm for a long time and we just need to accept that.

So a lot of this terminology that we use in higher ed becomes very alien to first-generation students, their parents, even second, third, fourth generation parents of students in general who grew up with one term and still have that mindset. And international students who may not be aware of some of these terms I’ve even seen, you know, college speak for first-gen students courses and resources online to explain what things are, you know, what, what a registrar is, what a provost is! Like, I’ll be completely honest with you, I worked in higher ed for three years before I really knew what a provost was and what they did. As a college student, I never even heard the term provost and honestly, a provost has more to do with the daily lives of a student than the president of the university does. So we need to find ways to better communicate some of these terms and make them more accessible to our audience.

JG
What’s really interesting to me is that when a university or college goes through a web redesign process, especially if you’re working with with a third party agency, one of the first things you do is a study to figure out how to make the terminology that you use in your navigation and on your pages obvious to the people that are navigating the website. That’s, you know, Conversion Rate Optimization, 101 or information architecture 101, UX 101 is figuring out how to remove the friction of language that people don’t understand by nature and turn it into something that is easily understandable. But that rarely, if ever, extends to the so-called “real life” experiences that people have. Once someone becomes a student, that changes entirely. You’re forced to know what a registrar is and where their office is. You need to know what a bursar is. I mean, it’s old, it’s an old-timey term for someone that takes your money.

And, it’s fine, like, those titles are fine. And for some institutions, there’s a pretense of the ivory towers and everything that wants to be maintained. And that’s a very specific choice you have to make. A lot of times that ends up being more expressive for Ivy League universities because they can afford to do it. They’re not, you know, they’re not hungry for applicants sort of a thing. But we’re not taking these ideas of a really good user experience from a digital standpoint, you know, writing tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram posts that use common language that anyone can understand — that a high schooler can understand and a parent can understand, whether they’ve been to college or not — we don’t take that into the real-life user experiences and the real-life student experiences that we offer and I think that’s something that’s bleeding into even this you know this relatively new paradigm of having everything online during this pandemic, where everyone has to be at home.

J.S.
Well, I think in higher ed we don’t do ourselves any favors regarding clarity. We try to make ourselves sound more… it becomes very self-important, our language. We sacrifice clarity for academic-speak sometimes. You know, “we’re University and we should sound very professional and intelligent,” when…

JG
Oh, I have been told that before. I’ve been told that by clients, I’ve been told that by former employers. It’s, no you can’t write something like this. It doesn’t sound hoity-toity enough, basically.

J.S.
Right. And the point of conversation — I started my career as a grammar teacher and I love being meticulous about grammatical rules and syntax and structure, and all of these things. But the bottom line is, those sort of rules and language, it’s made to facilitate better communication and clarity, not to hinder it. And when that gets in the way of the understanding of meaning from your audience, you’re hurting yourself, it becomes something less than what you’re attempting.

And another way we don’t do ourselves any favors is by creating constant, pointless acronyms. Every single program that comes out, they create the acronym before they’ve really fleshed out the program. So many times it feels to me like when I was in high school, and I would create band logos and names before actually learning how to play guitar. Like, we create programs and acronyms before we’ve really figured out the program itself. One of the worst acronyms I ever came across is that a university created a program that was called the Center for Academic Finance Education. The C.A.F.É.

JG
That’s ridiculous.

J.S.
They even spelled it out with the accent mark over the E. So you can go to the University CAFÉ and learn about how to better manage your finances for your education.

JG
But that’s so confusing!

J.S.
Wait. Here’s the clincher. It was in the same building as the cafeteria, right across from the cafeteria and they advertised it as the cafe. Like, how, okay, you’re, sacrificing clarity for cuteness. You don’t need to! It’s not clever. Sometimes a thing can just be a thing. Not everything has to be interesting. You’re studying you know, learning about finances. You know what? It’s boring. But you know, it’s also important. It doesn’t have to be fun. Not everything has to be fun and clever. Sometimes you can just be clear and focused and do a good service for your students without having a pizza party every time.

JG
Yeah. Mmm, pizza. Pizza sounds great.

It’s [sigh]. Yeah, you see this all the time. I think the acronym thing is one of those that’s finally starting to sink in, but you still see it. And when the naming of things like that, or the language that we used is dictated by people that aren’t interfacing with the public or with students all the time from a marketing or support or, you know, just a lifestyle sort of standpoint, that’s when a lot of this stuff kind of creeps in there. There has to be some sort of governance around how things get marketed.

J.S.
Exactly. I think that comes back to the case for centralization in university marketing, is we have all of these departments that are in many regards expected to market themselves, and I’m sorry, the chair of your Physics department is not a marketer. So maybe their ideas regarding marketing are not the best ideas and they need some help.

This is also in addition to acronyms. How many mascot puns do you have?

JG
I was gonna bring that up.

J.S.
You know, I’ll call it on ourselves too. I mean, we have the Bears’ Den. We have the Bear CLAWS award — every single thing is bear themed and I…

JG
I really hope it’s a giant like a giant fried pastry put on top of a statue.

J.S.
To some extent, I get that that’s school pride. That’s your identity that that’s your brand but not… I love puns. I mean, I’m a dad joke all the time person but sometimes it’s bad marketing. Not everything needs to be and then you run into you can only make so many bear jokes before you’re repeating yourselves.

JG
Yes, no doubt. And it’s everywhere, too. You see it at every school and I mean, to some extent, yeah, the school pride and developing a campus culture, like, I get a lot of those things. But you’ve got to do it tastefully, right? Like, have some tact with how you’re using these puns, how you’re working your mascot into it because not everyone really cares about, honestly, not everyone cares about athletics at your school.

J.S.
Right? Well, your advising center can just be the advising center, it doesn’t have to be Bears’ Den Advising Center. It can be the thing without a totally, I was gonna say clever title, but most of these are not clever. So yeah, just be the thing.

JG
And I think that brings us to asking the question, are we paying attention and thinking about what the language we use is communicating to our students, to our prospective students to their parents? Are we really thinking about the semiotics of what we’re saying when we’re using the word virtual? “Virtual,” in a lot of cases, can just mean “not as good” to other people. It means inferior, it means you know, fake, if we’re going to be really harsh on it. It’s a word that communicates a lot in different ways. And so while those of us in our 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s that are working on the administrative side might see that word as something that’s common in how we speak about the things that we’re doing online, we need to think about the people that are actually interacting with that language we’re using and what it’s communicating to them. Because we don’t have the opportunity to go on a long-form explanation of well, by virtual we mean blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And also, it doesn’t really matter what you mean by “virtual” because it has a different definition in the world.

J.S.
Right. I think it has become just a rubber stamp that we put on things to say it’s not in-person. And that’s not what that means and as we’ve already mentioned before it devalues the experience.

JG
Definitely. Acronyms are confusing, as we said. Using the word virtual is unhelpful in a lot of cases. And you know, to the other point, especially with the volume of communication that’s happening right now with emails, with video calls for classes and meetings, with social media posts, with everything that’s going on, and all of the noise that we’re interacting with — clarity is going to be the thing that cuts through all of that better than being cute. At least at the moment. There’s a time for cuteness and a time to joke. Clarity and being straightforward, especially in the time of a worldwide crisis, is something that’s going to be invaluable to how you market your institution and market the, hopefully, the care that you’re focusing on giving your students even at a distance.

J.S.
So let’s end with a thought from our friend Andrew Careaga, who responded to one of my tweets yesterday where I was ranting about the use of the word virtual in reference to virtual meetings and said “Why don’t we refer to video chats the same way we refer to movies as motion pictures, or cars as horseless carriages. That these outmoded terms need to go. We call a car, a car, a movie, a movie, a virtual meeting is just a video call.” Let’s call it what it is, and let’s move forward.

JG
Thanks for that, Andrew. We love you. Thanks for conversing with us, especially with J.S., but yeah.

Well, that’s another episode of the Thought Feeder podcast with your hosts Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel. We hope you’ve enjoyed it. Please visit thoughtfeederpod.com to subscribe or find us wherever you get your podcasts. And please follow us on Twitter, @ThoughtFeedPod. We’d love to talk to you. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the term virtual or any other weird stuff that you hear being used that’s just unclear language in higher education.

The Thought Feeder Podcast is hosted by Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel and edited by Joel Goodman.

Thought Feeder is sponsored by University Insight.

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