You can also read the transcript below.
Transcript: Interview with Nik Taylor
Q) To start off, for those that don’t know The Student Room could you tell us what you do and how you support students?
A) The Student Room has been around for almost 20 years now. We’re a community site for students throughout their education journey. So, students, will come to us from GCSE’s to the qualifications and pathways they go on to follow. And the aim of TSR is to support those students throughout that period. On our site are forums and message boards where students can ask a question about any aspects of their lives – this covers academic questions, and also broader student life issues as well. Students access direct conversation with other people who know exactly what they’re going through.
We reach about 75 percent of the youth audience between 16 and 24. So there’s an enormous audience who can empathise with any kind of question, any kind of situation that you might come across during that period in your life of enormous change. There are so many areas that people seek advice on. On the message boards, students can pose questions, engage in discussions or provide advice of their own. On top of that we layer our own content. So there’s a lot of content that we will run that draws from the message boards and reflects the kind of questions being asked and adds more detail. We often draw expert comments from authoritative figures in education and elsewhere to provide answers on top of that peer to peer support.
Q) Since the pandemic, I guess you’ve spotted quite a change in what students are talking about? Can you give us a flavour of what’s top of mind for them at the moment and what’s helping them?
A) In a normal year around this time (May – July) the real focus is exams. Clearly this year it’s been a completely different story! Rather than helping students revise and focus on their exams we’ve been helping them understand what’s going to happen now those exams have been cancelled. That’s created a whole raft of new questions about particular journeys that students are on and particular areas where they need support.
There are overall themes but what we found on our forums is that people are saying, well, what about me? I’m a private candidate, can I not go to school? I’m self-tutoring and how are things gonna work out for me. There are a lot of smaller questions that aren’t addressed by the mainstream and that’s what we’ve seen during this lockdown period. One major focus is to provide help and support for all of those individual students and to help them to understand what the next steps in the process are for them.
The whole concept of calculated grades is one that, by its very nature, has had to be fine-tuned on the fly. We’ve been very busy helping students understand what those changes are. One of the ways that has been successful for doing that is a project called ‘TSR answers’. We invite experts from various fields to come on to panel discussions and take questions direct from the forums as they’re posted and answer those on the site in live video format. That’s been super useful. We’ve been joined by representatives from Pearson, from the ASCL and other very knowledgeable people who have joined us to share their information. We’ve found that’s been a really successful and well-received way to get expert knowledge across to the audience.
Q) You’ve innovated a lot with video, especially with getting students to create video themselves. Where do you see student generated video filling gaps that the universities aren’t hitting at the moment? And, where do you see this media format having increasing importance over the coming months?
A) For us it starts with the kind of content that we’re looking to put out on the site and the roots of The Student Room are in its community – students sharing information with each other. The content that we create on the site is intended to reflect this peer-to-peer element so what we aim to do with our school content is to quote real students and real discussions from the forums and present the student view of a particular situation or to provide student advice on a particular topic. This is then by its very nature, authentic. It is by definition, going to feel honest to the reader because this is content that is coming directly from someone who’s on your level. There are a few approaches that we can take with our video content but we feel that the best one is to put students in front of the camera and enable them to tell their own stories.
We use the StoryTagger tool to enable us to do that, in particular with some of our university partnerships where we are working directly with university vloggers. We’re able to ‘direct’ those vloggers remotely and provide them with the kind of questions we want them to answer. Then it’s over to them. The video that we get back is raw and it’s authentic. And, we’re able to embed it into articles in a way that supports the content that’s already there. For example, we may run a feature that is an interview with a student. They might describe what their experience of university has been like, how they’ve settled in and what it was like when they first got there. Perhaps they thought they wouldn’t make any friends and then they realised that actually it’s fantastic. We’d run a feature around that, and then we’d also run a piece of video from that very student to go alongside the content. You’ve got an extra layer of authenticity, an extra layer of engagement within the feature. And that’s something that we look to do where possible with our content.
Q) Do you think this sort of content is going to become more important in the current situation? Students are obviously accessing a huge range of information, but do you get the sense that listening to each other has more impact, more cut through than before?
A) I think what people are always looking for on our site from the content that we run is honesty. If you hear someone speak who is on the same level as you, the same age as you, experiencing the same kind of things as you are there’s an inherent element of trust there. Our audience is really sharp on picking up whether they are being marketed to or whether something is being pushed to them. And, it doesn’t cut much ice if you want to reach our audience, you need to be true to them and present them with honest material and honest information.That’s certainly what we aim to do. And, I think the challenge with reaching people in a time when reaching them isn’t as easy is to step away from trying to show them what you want them to see and instead show them something that’s true. If you can do that, then I think you’re presenting the audience with something that they will genuinely engage with and find useful. And that’s what we try to do with the content that we run. And in that way, we can really stand behind our mission to support all students.
Q) What do you find are the typical challenges that you bump up against with getting students to create video content for you? And what strategies and processes have you developed to overcome them?
A) One of the main challenges when you ask someone to create a video for you is the level of direction that you have over it. So, it’s really easy now for anyone to pick up their phone and create a video. And in the past, we’ve asked people to just record us a video on a particular topic. We used to send over exactly what we wanted in an email and ask them to send a video back once they’ve done it. What’s difficult is that people can go off on all kinds of tangents and what you get back might not be what you were expecting. It might be a lot longer, or an awful lot shorter. And it’s really hard if you’re not there with that person to guide them. That’s why we’ve been using the StoryTagger tool and where we’ve found it so helpful because it enables us to specifically define how long someone should record for and share prompts to their own screen so we can have that level of direction when they’re recording.
One of our most popular video projects is a partnership with the University of East Anglia, where we create video content from their vloggers about what it’s like to live at university.They’re over in Norwich and we’re based in Brighton so it’s not particularly easy for us to be present in the room when they’re recording videos. Instead, we’ve been directing them from afar. What we’ve found so useful is using StoryTagger to use prompts for them to follow and keeping those prompts really tight, keeping them really directed and giving people as much guidance as possible as to what it is that we’re looking for. We’ve found that the more guidance we give and the more specific we are about what we’re looking for the better the final product comes out.But, what we don’t do is script anyone. They’ve still got the opportunity to talk naturally just with a focus on the specific questions that we want them to consider.
Q) I imagine students will be starting to feel quite nervous about what their academic future is going to look like in 12 months time. Finally, as we start the new academic year during this pandemic, how important do you think it is to capture the experiences of students and reflect the positive aspects of going into higher education?
A) I don’t think we can underestimate how difficult this period is for students who have seen everything that they expected, and everything that they thought they knew, just thrown up in the air and ripped up. It’s an immensely challenging period for anyone on an education pathway, regardless of whether they were due to take exams this year or would be taking exams in the future.
There are really difficult questions that students don’t necessarily have answers to at the moment. If you can connect them with other students in an authentic way you can help those people to understand that they’re not the only ones going through a particular situation. You can write that, but it just sounds a little bit flippant. If you show someone, here is a student speaking specifically about the situation that you’re going through you can show them how they’re dealing with it. If you can show that as a video on the site, and connect students in that way, that’s really, really powerful. It’s helping these students in one small way get through this particularly difficult time in their educational lives.
Amazing. Thank you so much, Nik!