Student experience

Exploring the use of ‘WeChat’ as a
social media tool to engage Chinese
University of Sheffield

Background to the project                 UK, but the majority of these accounts        The project enabled the University of
                                          are created for marketing purposes.           Sheffield to develop a better
The University of Sheffield currently     By recognising the popularity of              understanding of the needs of Chinese
has over 4,000 Chinese students and       WeChat among Chinese students, this           students and how services provided
an alumni network of over 11,000          project aimed to promote the                  could be improved to support them
students. Engaging with Chinese           international student support services        better. The university also benefited
students, encouraging their integration   available at The University of Sheffield      from this project in engaging with
with British culture, and creating and    for Chinese students, with a special          Chinese alumni and subsequently
                                          focus on immigration, integration and         supporting student recruitment,
promoting a globally-minded culture
                                          career placement and development              experience and employability.
within Sheffield have become the key
elements of the university’s              opportunities. This is also a
Internationalisation Strategy. To         continuation of the work that the
                                          University of Sheffield has been              Set up and evaluation
effectively engage the Chinese student
community, innovative communication       implementing on engaging Chinese
                                                                                        The International Student Support
channels need to be explored and          students and understanding their
                                                                                        team and the Careers Service team
utilised.                                 particular needs.
                                                                                        worked together and created a public
                                                                                        WeChat account in April 2016.
From past experience and preliminary                                                    Building from the experiment, this
research, we realised that traditional    Project outcomes                              project was launched to further
social media platforms do not attract                                                   explore the use of WeChat.
many Chinese students. This is            The strength of this project lies in the
partially due to the fact that these      fact that it is one of the first to explore   The project was collaboratively
social media platforms have been          the use of WeChat as a social media           managed by the International Student
blocked in China. Very few Chinese        tool to promote international student         Support Team and the Careers Service
students have Twitter or Facebook         support services and to engage                at the University of Sheffield. The
accounts when they arrive in the UK.      Chinese students. Information                 project team was expanded in early
In addition, Chinese students have a      published via the WeChat account              2017 with two student assistants to
cultural tendency to rely on their peer   helped Chinese students realise the           form a WeChat working group. All
group as the main source of               benefits of learning about British            members in the group met on a
information. Often, information sent      culture, engaging with the range of           regular basis and worked
from the university via emails or         student communities, and integrating          collaboratively on the project. The
Facebook, is overlooked by this group     with the city and other international         team composed and published posts
of students.                              students to form part of the wider            (see below), responded to queries,
                                          #Weareinternational campaign. It is a         monitored subscriptions, conducted
WeChat, also known as ‘Weixin’ in         trusted university channel for Chinese        questionnaires, focus groups and
Chinese, is a social media app            students to receive first-hand and            interviews, analysed data collected
developed by Tencent in China. This       immediate information on immigration,         from students and made
project found that WeChat has been        integration and placement                     improvements on the forum.
used by a number of institutions in the   opportunities.
Grants Scheme 2016-17: A report on pilot projects supporting the international student experience in the UK                                                      3

An ‘Ask the WeChat team’ event to promote online app

Our initial posts focussed on the area                    The project was also evaluated by                   Stage Timescales         Milestones
of providing information on                               monitoring students’ participation in               1      August – mid-     Promoting the WeChat
immigration and integration as well as                    careers service events. For example,                       October 2016      account
employment placement opportunities                        before it was promoted by using                     2      September –       Communicating and
                                                                                                                     December 2016     improving content
for current Chinese students. For                         WeChat, an employability skill session
                                                                                                              3      December 2016     First round of data
immigration advice, it provided                           for international students organised by                    – February 2017   collection
information on renewing a Tier 4                          the Careers Service had fewer than 10               4      February – May    Data analysis,
student visa, working conditions, Tier                    registered students. After the session                     2017              improving content
                                                                                                                                       based on feedback
4 student visa responsibilities,                          was promoted on WeChat, the                                                  from the first round
safeguarding of BRP and visa                              number of students registered                                                data collection

implications on change of programme.                      increased to more than 100 overnight.               5      April – June      Second round data
                                                                                                                     2017              collection and analysis
Later, we added information on                                                                                6      July 2017         Final evaluation and
applying for a Schengen visa, the                         A final evaluation meeting was also                                          report write-up
Doctorate Extension Scheme, Tier 2 &                      conducted within the WeChat team.
Tier 5 visa routes, and inviting family                   Everyone who had been involved with
members to visit the UK. Our account                      the project participated. Data                      Challenges
also gave students information on                         collection and analysis, student
‘Global Campus’ which is a series of                      feedback, and changes introduced on                 There were several challenges in the
events and workshops that help                            the WeChat platform were discussed,                 running of this project:
students to settle into life in the UK                    and a plan for future work was drawn
and gain as much as possible from                         up.                                                 §§ For staff, committing time to take
their experience at the University of                                                                            on the project in addition to daily
Sheffield. In addition, the account                       Timescale                                              job responsibilities proved difficult.
advertised placement opportunities                                                                               This was especially challenging at
specially created for Chinese students,                   The project ran from August 2016 to                    the early stages during the busiest
and shared practical guidance from                        the end of June 2017. The work was                     period of the academic year, ie
preparing a CV to ‘best performance’                      carried out in five stages as outlined                 September to early November. As
at interviews.                                            below.                                                 the project progressed, the WeChat
                                                                                                                 account attracted more followers
The project was (and will continue to                                                                            and the expectation on the quality
be) evaluated by student feedback                                                                                of the content also increased. This
through an online questionnaire,                                                                                 meant greater effort was required
informal focus groups and interviews.                                                                            on preparing and composing posts
Grants Scheme 2016-17: A report on pilot projects supporting the international student experience in the UK                                          4

                                                                                                              Key findings and learning
                                                                                                              Questionnaires, focus group and
                                                                                                              interviews were used to gather student
                                                                                                              feedback on the work produced by
                                                                                                              the WeChat account. Key findings and
                                                                                                              learning points are:
                                                                                                              §§ Cross-platform promotion is
                                                                                                                 essential. For example, working
                                                                                                                 closely with the university’s other
                                                                                                                 social media channels including the
                                                                                                                 WeChat/Weibo accounts (mainly
                                                                                                                 used for marketing purposes),
                                                                                                                 Facebook and international student
                                                                                                                 e-newsletter. Based on this
                                                                                                                 principle, the project team worked
                                                                                                                 collaboratively with other key
                                                                                                                 sections at the university, including
                                                                                                                 the Confucius Institute, the
                                                                                                                 Students’ Union, the Corporate
                                                                                                                 Communications team and the
                                                                                                                 Chinese Students’ and Scholars’
   and engaging with students.                            improvement. The feedback, focus                       Association.
§§ It was challenging to make                             group discussions and WeChat                        §§ The students who are following the
   improvement in addition to                             content produced are useful to create                  WeChat account use a wide range
   maintaining the daily operation, due                   a sustainable resource depository. The                 of social media channels, but
   to team capacities. Extra resources                    WeChat account has become an                           WeChat is their choice when asked
   had to be obtained from other                          important and powerful additional                      to choose only one social media
   channels to fill the staffing budget                   social media platform to widen student                 platform. Students are pleasantly
   gap.                                                   awareness on the support services                      surprised that the university created
§§ The data collection process took                       available at the university. In the longer             a WeChat account and welcome
   much longer than planned because                       term, it would be useful to embed the                  this as an additional communication
   of the difficulties in recruiting a                    project in the standard services                       channel on social media.
   sufficient number of students to                       provided for international students.                §§ The followers are not limited to
   take part in the questionnaires,                       Possible options include employing a                   Chinese nationals. The number of
   focus groups and interviews.                           student editor, or a student or staff                  postgraduate taught student
   Although announcements were                            volunteer to set time aside to work on                 followers is higher than the number
   made on WeChat repeatedly and                          the WeChat, similar to the way the                     of undergraduate students. The
   incentives were provided for                           University currently manages other                     account has more female followers
   participation, the response rate was                   official social media channels (for                    than their fellow male students.
   not as good as had been expected.                      example, Facebook, Twitter and                      §§ Student preference on when to read
   The reason behind this was                             Instagram). The continued running of                   posts on WeChat varies, but the
   unknown, but busy study schedules                      the WeChat account also provides                       most favourable time is after 6pm in
   could be a contributing factor.                        students with opportunities of working                 the evening.
                                                          in a UK office environment, which                   §§ There is no particular preference
                                                          further develops their employability                   among students on the language
Sustainability                                            skills as well as enriching their                      used in a WeChat post; that is, it is
                                                          experience in the UK. This matches                     not necessary to publish posts in
Thanks to the UKCISA grant and the                        the initiatives of the Careers Service’s               Chinese to attract readers. The
support from various departments at                       placement programme, which                             results from both rounds of data
the University of Sheffield, the WeChat                   provides students with a bursary as                    collection point to the same
account has been further developed                        well as mentor support.                                conclusion.
since it was initially created in April                                                                       §§ The types of posts that attract more
2016. More resources have been                                                                                   reads and engagement are in the
made available to gather student                                                                                 subjects regarding university
feedback and this resulted in further                                                                            achievements (ranking,
Grants Scheme 2016-17: A report on pilot projects supporting the international student experience in the UK                                            5

     development and alumni), emotional
     topics and events. For example, the
     top three popular posts on the
     WeChat account are ‘Our university
     rises in QS world ranking, we are
     top 100!’, ‘Students vote university
     of Sheffield top of Russell Group
     and third best university nationally’
     and ‘Celebration of the Lunar New
     Year’. Student feedback confirms
     that they are proud of the
     University’s achievements and
     therefore prefer to share posts on
     these topics with their friends and
     families. This also shows that
     original content is the key to
     attracting readership.
§§   Students prefer the posts styled
     with more visual elements such as
     pictures, embedded videos, etc.
     Plain text with detailed instructions
     does not generate great interest.                        In addition, posts on topics about              Recommendations for other
§§   It has not been an issue to manage                       available support services at the               UK institutions
     queries posted on WeChat even                            University, for example, guidance
     though there is a 48-hour time limit                     on academic conduct and appeals,                §§ To set up a WeChat public account
     on replying to a query. An automatic                     chaplaincy service and counselling                 is easy and free. However, it is not
     reply is in place to ensure that                         service, attracted great interest                  straightforward to make the
     students can always contact the                          among our followers. Students                      account a verified one. To do so, a
     WeChat team by email as an                               commented on WeChat that such                      China Business License is required
     alternative.                                             information is vital for their study               and this can be difficult for
§§   It is important to publish information                   and life at the University, but they               organisations outside China.
     when students need it the most.                          were not aware of the procedures                   Unverified accounts still work but
     Posts are archived in different                          and support before reading the                     these will be shown as personal
     categories and keyword search                            information on WeChat.                             accounts rather than official
     function is added to help students                                                                          accounts on WeChat.
     find the relevant information more                       This lack of awareness was the                  §§ To promote a WeChat public
     easily when needed.                                      case across all areas that the                     account, the most effective way is
§§   Student feedback collected from                          WeChat account aimed to                            to display the QR code of the
     focus groups and online                                  promote, including immigration                     account whenever and wherever
     questionnaires show that Chinese                         advice, integration programmes                     possible. Planning online and offline
     students are not aware of the full                       and placement opportunities.                       events can also help attract
     range of student support services                    §§ The WeChat account not only helps                   followers. For example, the WeChat
     available at the university. For                        the university to recruit students,                 team organised an online Q&A
     example, one student commented                          but also helps to build a closer                    event and offline ‘Ask the WeChat
      ‘More information about how to                         relationship with them. Throughout                  team’ events followed by prize draw
      adapt new culture and study                            the project, the team got to know                   activities to spread the word and
      style would be helpful. … If                           many students through both online                   promote the account.
      someone (had) told me about all                        interactions and offline events.                 §§ A public WeChat account is not just
      the services I can get from the                        Students provide valuable feedback                  another official platform to
      university such as workshop                            and suggestions on the WeChat                       disseminate official news. It is useful
      from 301, writing advisory                             account, which subsequently                         to post interesting content on a
      service and career services at                         improves the service provided                       regular basis so that student
      the beginning of the semester, I                       through WeChat. This platform                       followers can feel that they are
      guess life would be easier.’                           creates a better understanding and                  receiving special attention. In
                                                             a stronger bond between Chinese                     addition, students may decide to
                                                             students and the University.                        follow the account if they read an
Grants Scheme 2016-17: A report on pilot projects supporting the international student experience in the UK                                           6

     interesting post shared by existing                     Mandarin) (email project lead to
     followers. To grow the subscriber                       request)
     base, it is essential to make the                    §§ WeChat backstage demonstration
     content interesting so that people                      PowerPoint (email project lead to
     are willing to share.                                   request)
§§   It is important to have a dedicated                  §§ Two facilitators who can speak                            The University of
     member of staff or a team in place                      Mandarin.                                                 Sheffield is on
     to manage the account. One of the
     most important elements in
     managing a public account is to                      Further information
     engage with the followers. Having a
     dedicated team to communicate                        This project was run by Fang
     with students is also a useful way                   Zheng, International Student Adviser,
     for the University to establish closer               The University of Sheffield                         Receive updates about immigration
                                                                                                              information, social events, job fairs

     relationships with them.                                                                                 and placement opportunities both in
                                                                                                              the UK and in China on our WeChat
                                                                                                              public forum.
§§   Support from student assistants is                   Contact:                                            Just search 谢大国际学生服务or scan

     another important factor to                                             the QR code.

     consider. Student assistants have                                                              

     much more in-depth knowledge
     and experience in using and
     managing the WeChat account.
     They help write the posts in
     appropriate language to the target
     audience. This identifies less well
     known university information and
     services to the Chinese student
     population. Use of popular ‘internet
     language’ (the informal language
     used on the internet that people
     often adopt to simplify and update
     formal language) could also
     generate greater interest from
     student followers.
§§   Public WeChat accounts are
     restricted to one post a day
     although there is a function
     available to include different topics
     within one post. It is therefore
     essential to plan ahead about what
     to put in a post and when to publish
     in the academic cycle.
§§   Involving students is incredibly
     powerful. A lot of feedback from
     students is gathered and this forms
     the foundation for the work and the
     improvement required. It is crucial
     to understand what students want
     and need and how they prefer the
     information to be delivered.


§§ WeChat promotional flyer, poster,
   postcard and plasma screen slides
§§ Templates for questionnaires/focus
   group/interview (with translation to
Grants Scheme 2016-17: A report on pilot projects supporting the international student experience in the UK                                           7

International student
web video information
University of Dundee

Project aims                                              experience and therefore be of
                                                          importance to institutions and the
The overall aim of this collaborative                     sector as a whole.
project between Student Support
Advisors, the International Advice
Service and current international                         Outcomes
students was to create a series of
short accessible videos. These online                     Six videos have been produced
resources for international students                      featuring international students talking
will enable new international students                    about their personal experiences. The
to better prepare themselves to come                      videos can be found on the university
to university in the UK (particularly                     website on the International Advice
                                                                                                              Project set-up and evaluation
Scotland) and help them adjust to                         Service pages and have links from
living and studying in a new country,                     other places on the university website,
                                                                                                              The project team invited international
culture and climate.                                      eg Welcome pages and online student
                                                                                                              students from different countries to
                                                          toolkits. They will be utilised at
                                                                                                              help us make videos by speaking
                                                          welcome events for new international
                                                                                                              about their experience of different
Rationale for the project                                 students and on flat screens in our
                                                                                                              aspects of living in the UK/ Scotland.
                                                          new “Global Lounge” when it opens in
                                                                                                              We were successful in finding students
Feedback from international students                      mid-October 2018.
                                                                                                              to represent Asia (Pakistan and China),
told us they would like more                              (See the end of this report for a link to
                                                                                                              Africa and Southern Europe. We were
information and knowledge on a range                      the videos).
                                                                                                              unable to get someone from either
of subjects with regard to living and                                                                         North or South America. We invited
studying in the UK/ Scotland, for                                                                             the students to meet with the staff
instance, weather/climate, time                           Background
                                                                                                              organising the project and the
(daylight hours in winter/summer),                                                                            professional videographer who would
academic differences, language, food,                     University of Dundee sits within the
                                                                                                              be filming and editing the project. After
and culture. These are some of the                        city of Dundee (with a population of
                                                                                                              consultation and a discussion with this
most common aspects of changing                           148, 270 in 2016) in Scotland. The
                                                                                                              group of international students, six
country that had the most impact on                       university has 18,000 students from
                                                                                                              topics were chosen for the videos.
students personally and they needed                       145 countries and 3,000 staff from 72
                                                                                                              These were:
some time to acclimatise to these and                     countries. It has around 15,000
                                                                                                              §§ Accent
adapt. By using the personal                              students on campus of whom 3,000
                                                                                                              §§ Asking for help
commentary of actual international                        are international (this includes EU
                                                                                                              §§ Culture
students on the videos we believed it                     students). There are nine academic
                                                                                                              §§ Environment
would help to address the needs of                        schools and a range of directorates,
                                                                                                              §§ Food
incoming internationals making that                       including Professional Services, one
                                                                                                              §§ Social life
transition. We also thought that if                       of which is Student Services.
student expectations can be                               Internationalisation is key to the
                                                                                                              Initially we thought we would use
realistically managed by providing                        university’s strategic aims: see www.
                                                                                                              scripts for the videos when we were
information and support, in this way,           
                                                                                                              planning the project, but it was
to new international students this                        internationalisationattheuniversity.
                                                                                                              decided after our discussion with the
could enhance the overall student
Grants Scheme 2016-17: A report on pilot projects supporting the international student experience in the UK                                             8

students and the videographer that it                     2016 to plan the project with the                   Challenges
was better that they were unscripted,                     members of staff involved.
as it was more natural. The students                                                                          §§ Working with many different
involved then decided what they                           October 2016. Initially we asked                       students with different time
would say about the different topic                       international students to come to a                    commitments proved to be
areas they had chosen to cover.                           meeting in early October if they wished                challenging as our plan to have
                                                          to participate in the video project.                   everyone together doing the filming
Our original plan was to gather the                       After this initial discussion, it became               was not feasible.
students together to film the videos at                   clear that our original planned                     §§ We had to fit in with the other work
one time and provide lunch for them                       timelines were unlikely to happen,                     that the professional videographer
collectively on the day of filming. This                  particularly as all the filming could not              had planned.
plan had to be re-thought as it                           happen on one day as originally                     §§ The weather had to be taken into
became clear that the students would                      anticipated.                                           account as we had chosen external
have to be filmed individually on                                                                                locations on campus. This was
different days to fit with their                          November 2016. The filming was not                     quieter and there was less likelihood
schedules and other commitments.                          completed until the end of November.                   of interruptions than inside buildings
The videographer liaised directly with                                                                           during the semester although we
the students around their                                 January 2017. The first edit was                       did have to factor in occasional
commitments and also his own                              available.                                             sirens and aircraft noise.
schedule. This meant that he could                                                                            §§ We also had to take into account
spend a bit of time with the students                     February 2017. First viewing of the                    the views of our External Relations
ensuring they were relaxed and not                        rough edited version was available.                    team within the university as they
looking anxious or nervous whilst they                    The team suggested further edits and                   manage the website content and
were being filmed. As we had chosen                       additional filming. The videographer                   this led to delays in getting students
to film outdoors around campus we                         had to make arrangements with some                     to see the videos and give us their
could also ensure that the weather                        of the students and one of the                         feedback.
was suitable for filming.                                 International Advice Team to do the                 §§ The extra edits and filming required
                                                          extra filming which took a few weeks                   meant using the budget allocated
After filming, a rough edit was                           to organise and complete.                              originally for catering.
prepared by the videographer. This                                                                            §§ Staff availability due to sickness and
was then viewed by the staff involved                     April 2017. We invited the students                    leave also impacted on our
in the project and some of the senior                     involved to come and view the videos                   estimated timescales.
managers within Student Services.                         in April – those unable to attend were
Some further minor edits were                             sent the videos to view. As the videos
required and some additional filming.                     had not yet been seen by our External               Sustainability
This was carried out over the following                   Relations team we could not get them
month, again taking into account the                      uploaded in April as planned. The                   The videos should be useable for
commitments of both the students                          feedback from the team meant some                   several years as the topics the
and the videographer. The final                           further captioning was required.                    students are talking about on the
footage was then shown to the                                                                                 videos are not going to change. The
students involved. The two students                       August 2017. Videos were in place on                project should be able to be replicated
who could not attend the screening                        our International Advice pages for                  in other universities using their own
were sent the videos. Once the videos                     August 2017 to use during our                       international students.
were completed they were shown to                         welcome activities for new
one of the university’s External                          international students in September
Relations managers for final approval                     2017. We planned to evaluate the                    Learning points
for use on the website. This took                         videos (see Appendix) in October
longer than anticipated and delayed                       2017 with our incoming students                     We would allow more time for the
the evaluation process until October                      using an online survey, which is                    project and also devote a larger
2017.                                                     considerably later than originally                  budget to the videography to cover
                                                          planned. We aim to share this with                  further editing or filming required. It
                                                          UKCISA in January 2018 and it will be               may have been better to involve our
Timeline                                                  available on the UKCISA website.                    External Relations team earlier.

September 2016. There were two
initial meetings held in September
Grants Scheme 2016-17: A report on pilot projects supporting the international student experience in the UK                                             9

Recommendations for other                                 1a. If yes, are these videos helpful
UK institutions                                               to you as a new international
§§ Ensure that you have a professional                               Yes
   videographer with the ability to do                                 No
   editing as this makes the process
   easier for both the students and                                    Unsure
   staff involved. The end result is
   much better – more professional                        2. When do you think these have been
   and watchable.                                            most helpful to you as a new
§§ Budget for any extra editing and                          international student?
   filming that may be required.                                Before applying for a place at
§§ Having a small project team and not                          university
   too many students involved helps to                          On arrival at the university
   make the project more manageable.                            Some time after arrival at the
§§ Involve students: they like to be                            university
   asked and to get involved.                                   Unsure
§§ It is important to get a balance of
   viewpoints from different                              3. When would you suggest that new
   perspectives and cultural                                 international students should be
   backgrounds.                                              able to see these videos?
§§ Get your web team involved at an
   early stage.                                           4. Are there any other topics you
                                                             would like to see available for new
Further information                                          international students on video?

This project was led by Joan                              5. Where would you suggest that
Muszynski, Student Support Advisor                           these videos be best placed for                                   new international students to view?
and                                                             University International Advice
Susan Scott, International Support                              website pages
Advisor                                                         Admissions pages for                                          international student applicants
International Advice Service,                                   University’s Welcome pages
Student Services, University of                                 University Facebook page
Dundee                                                          YouTube
                                                                Other (if other please state)
Link to the videos:                                 6. Is there anything else that you
international/support/                                       would like to say about the videos?


Proposed evaluation for international
                                                                                                              Above and on page 7: stills from six videos
student web video information project,
                                                                                                              featuring international students talking
University of Dundee.
                                                                                                              about their personal experiences about
1. Have you viewed the International
                                                                                                              living and studying in Scotland.
   Student Videos about living in the
   UK/Dundee on the International
   Advice website page?
You can also read
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