Using Tech to Enhance Engagement

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Tuesday, September 6, 2022
By Victoria L. Crittenden, Cheryl Gray
Photo by iStock/SDI Productions
Social media has its drawbacks, but faculty can use edtech platforms that feature elements of social media to encourage and enhance student interactions.
  • By turning to an edtech platform designed to drive discussions, we fostered rich conversations among our MBA students about diversity and inclusion.
  • We found that when students are actively engaged in discussion, they often will continue their conversations long after they have fulfilled course participation requirements.
  • As educators, we must be willing to cede control of online conversations and let our students take the lead.

 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted two important points for educators. First, social isolation and the need for physical distancing made many students feel more isolated than ever. And, second, social unrest, fueled by protests about police violence, sparked keen interest among students in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Today, educators are still challenged to create learning environments that help students overcome social isolation and actively engage in important conversations about diversity and inclusion.

Marketing educators, in particular, must teach students how the marketing process can contribute to inequitable consumer experiences, but leading discussions about diversity and inclusivity does not come easily for many marketers. Luckily, technology can help. In a bid to drive student engagement, we recently used a technological social interaction platform in three seven-week MBA marketing courses. The result was exactly what we had hoped for. Our students participated in rich classroom discussions that deepened their appreciation of the role that marketing plays in diversity and inclusion.

Social Media ‘Without the Noise’

Professors have long used discussion boards embedded in learning management systems to engage students in online Q&As. The challenge has been how to encourage students to hold active group conversations outside the Q&A format. While faculty can use social media sites to inspire discussion, these tools are fraught with external “noise” and can make assessment tasks difficult.

But there are edtech platforms that offer social media’s benefits without the noise. For instance, we chose Yellowdig for our courses because it is comparable to the social media platforms students use in their daily lives. Designed to facilitate assessment, the platform awards points to students for their degree of engagement and interactions with others. Students can continually monitor their point totals to ensure they are meeting expectations.

As professors, we can decide how many points various levels of engagement are worth. This points system allows us to easily track metrics such as posts authored, comments authored/received, classmate reactions, and faculty accolades. That frees us to focus on the content itself.

Letting Students Lead Discussions

In our marketing courses, we want to address the many variables that comprise the “what” of an individual’s identity—such as race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, mental health, physical ability, physical attributes, political beliefs, religious background, ethical values, education, work experience, and family situation. These all are factors we can use to define market segments and develop marketing programs.

We also want to capture the “how” of diversity and inclusivity, which describes how diverse identities and contributions are valued. But classroom conversations about diversity are difficult, particularly among students who already feel marginalized or who fear being labeled as privileged.

Students authored a wide range of posts in which they often included links to relevant visuals. These examples set the stage for online conversations that highlighted different perspectives.
In the first week of our marketing courses, we assigned a reading on the importance of diversity in marketing content. Then, in each subsequent week, we assigned a different diversity topic in areas such as gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability. We asked students to discuss these topics on Yellowdig in the context of marketing actions taken by different companies.

We did not assign questions for students to discuss—only topics. This approach made room for students to take charge of the conversation, authoring a wide range of posts in which they often included links to relevant visuals. These examples, both positive and negative, set the stage for online conversations that highlighted different perspectives.

Rich Explorations and Conversations

It quickly became clear that students understood the difference between market segmentation and diversity and inclusion in marketing. For example, they understood that marketers would not target young people for senior living communities. They recognized that while marketers could target different genders for shaving products, gendering often occurs through the colors companies use for these products.

For each week’s discussion, students could post examples of corporate marketing that illustrated that week's topic. At the start of the conversation, students shared their thoughts and experiences with that diversity problem, as well as examples of marketing actions that exacerbated that problem. By midweek, students were finding examples of truly inclusive marketing efforts.

Students explored industries such as sports, fashion, and banking. They submitted examples of products relating to different diversity issues, including Halloween costumes and toys (gender), beauty products and foods (race), personal care (age), and video games and hearing aids (physical ability).

Below are just a few examples of student interactions on different topic areas:

Race. Early in the week, students posted information relating to changes to the Aunt Jemima syrup brand, which PepsiCo purchased in 2020. In 2021, PepsiCo changed the name of the syrup to Pearl Milling Company, in response to long-time criticisms that the Aunt Jemima label reinforced racial stereotypes.

Almost immediately, one student commented, “For me, this is one of the examples of when things just go too far. People have bought the product as ‘Aunt Jemima’ for years.” The student went on to say that “if they ever change the shape of the container, I would probably pick another one just because I wouldn’t recognize it anymore.”

In response, another student found an article about why companies had the responsibility to rebrand products such as Aunt Jemima. Some students even conducted secondary market research to find how the rebranding affected sales. Eventually, the student who initially disagreed with the rebranding posted that he now appreciated the reasons behind the name change. Interestingly, he also was the one who sparked the interest in measuring the sales impact of the change.

Physical disability. A student posted the link to the announcement that Victoria’s Secret would feature its first model with Down Syndrome. (The model, Sofia Jirau, also is Latina.) Students discussed the need to focus on people’s strengths and explored society’s changing concept of beauty. One student said, “I’m thrilled to see and think about what my daughter is going to see. I really hope she has a better world than I do, that is our job.” Yet another said, “We’ve been seeing all week how brands have the power to take a perceived weakness and turn it into a strength through the power of marketing.”

Sexual orientation. Possibly the most impactful posting for this topic was a YouTube video showing an advertisement from Oreo that depicts a young woman introducing her girlfriend to her family. Labeling the discussion “Oreo—Proud Parent,” a title similar to that of the video, the student who began the conversation commented on how difficult it can be for parents to “come out of the closet” when accepting their child’s sexual orientation. Many students shared that they had cried after watching the ad.

These examples only touch the surface of our students’ discussions. Even more importantly, most students continued to participate in these conversations even after fulfilling the maximum points for their grades because they wanted to explore these topics further.

Changing the Way Students Think

Prior to using Yellowdig, we first would introduce students to the topic of diversity and inclusion; then, we would ask them to form teams to create presentations focused on products or examples of their choice. These presentations did raise their awareness of diversity topics, but this approach only took them so far.

However, the online discussion format encouraged students to explore various topics together, as they shared their thoughts and views via two-way exchanges. By the end of the class, students’ views of marketing had been transformed, as evidenced by their feedback. One student said, “I didn’t expect that the discussions about diversity and inclusion would completely change the way I think.” Another credited the platform’s capacity to “foster the conversation and create meaningful discussions.”

Better yet, students noted that they now were much more aware of how a company’s marketing can shape society’s views of diversity and inclusion. As one put it, “I learned very much about how companies capture my attention and sell me products, concepts, or ideas based on certain ideals of who I ‘should be’ as a person.” Said another, “I didn’t realize how much gender-targeted marketing still exists in today’s society until it became a main topic in my mind. These conversations have now conditioned my mind to be more aware of this.”

One student had an especially interesting take on the connection between diversity and marketing. “I'm not going to lie, after going through all the examples the last few weeks,” the student wrote, “I think I'm more nervous about launching a marketing campaign than launching a business.”

Learning From Experience

The pandemic has shown us that educators are resilient and can adapt quickly (even if not easily). It also has shown that student engagement is still a critical, if not the most critical, factor when it comes to teaching and learning, regardless of delivery modality.

We have learned other valuable lessons from our experience in our marketing courses. Here are just a few:

We can use technology to foster active student engagement. Educators can turn to the IT staff at their colleges for help, whether to find the right technology partners for new projects or to create projects that take advantage of platforms already in use on campus. And just as people use different social media platforms for different purposes, faculty can choose different social learning tools, depending on the type of project. Often, they can seek out user feedback for guidance about which tools might best meet their objectives.

We must be willing to give up control. Controlled learning is often passive learning, which educators want to avoid. On the contrary, technology can enable us to guide conversation topics, while letting students own the conversations themselves.

It’s a risk to allow students to create the posts that get conversations started. The good news is that professors can always steer conversations if direction is needed.

We must be comfortable with unpredictability. It’s a risk to allow students to create the posts that get conversations started. The good news is that professors can always comment and steer conversations if direction is needed.

We must accept vulnerability and be empathetic. While most students today are technologically savvy, some will struggle or feel awkward using a new technology platform. We must be attuned to this and offer some coaching along the way. Also, we should be willing to be vulnerable ourselves, sharing and commenting in conversations as applicable.

We must protect ourselves from burnout. As faculty, we should not be recreating the wheel with each new project. Instead, we can conserve our energy in three ways. First, we can choose projects that will stand the test of time (or at least a few semesters). Second, we can put in the time and preparation required to initially develop a project on a technology platform, so that the project will move easily into the next semester’s teaching module. Finally, we can forge partnerships with campus IT staff who can help us find solutions and avoid problems—a win-win for us and for our students.

A Solution That Works

Many professors find it difficult to build the topic of diversity and inclusion into classroom discussions. But by using technology tools that enable online conversations, in formats students are already comfortable using, we can boost student engagement considerably. In this way, we can turn otherwise tough discussions into rich, rewarding, and personal interactions.

Authors
Victoria L. Crittenden
Professor of Marketing and Babson Research Scholar, Babson College
Cheryl Gray
Senior Course Production Designer, Babson College
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