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David Comp, Assistant Provost for Global Education, Columbia College Chicago

David Comp is the assistant provost for global education and Columbia College Chicago. He talked to The PIE News about the impact of social media on international education, and how it can be best utilised by key stakeholders including HEIs and government departments.

The PIE: Your talk focussed a lot on the federal use of social media. Could you briefly talk about the start of that?

Photo: The PIE News

"Relationships can be mended. But it’s a tough environment and it has been since the Gulf War"

David Comp: From a US perspective, there has historically been a lot of focus on the value of public diplomacy. In terms of social media use and public influence, I think the federal government has been really engaged in that process. The bureau of education and cultural affairs and even in the Department of Education have Twitter and Facebook accounts where they are really trying to promote the value of international student mobility.

I think that’s changing with the current administration. We still see some posts from these accounts as well as individuals in the federal government but … it’s a different focus. It’s changing dynamic that is for sure.

The PIE: Can you speak a bit about that internationally, compared with other governments?

DC: In many ways for a long time the US was leading in that effort in terms of sheer volume of tweets and the influence they would have and the ability to produce a lot of content.

“Malaysia [is now] not only a sending country. In all honesty we could be competing against them as a destination”

It seems in other countries that there is a lot more [cooperation]. Looking at the public diplomacy strategic plan that Australia had from 2014-2016, there was a focus on education throughout that strategy, but there was a lot of focus on collaboration and really duplicating efforts. Accounts within the government [had freedom] to tweet or post as needed to be proactive. There’s a strategic component that they are really trying to do, which I think happens a lot less in the US.

The PIE: People talk about Twitter as an echo chamber. Is that magnified in the international education sector?

DC: I think so. There’s different reasons why people are in the field, but overall, we all value it. We have a captive audience. We tend to publish in journals that are focussed on the international education sector. We don’t do as much expanding outside of that to engage others and inform what we’re doing. I think that’s a challenge and a problem.

While we might disagree on certain aspects of it, we are all in the same sector so there is certain value in people retweeting international educators but we need to get that out to others and that’s a challenge for sure.

The PIE: Do you have any ideas or solutions to that?

DC: People need to be strategic and intentional. I try to be intentional but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily to reach out or have this advocacy effort be on international educators.

But it’s trying to reach a wider effort with my literature and the research I’ve done and trying to put this on others’ radar. It is hard.

The PIE: What do you see as a new emerging trend in social media or in the way information is communicated? There is a US university that has gone out to China with VR head-sets and said “look, this our campus”. Do you see that new media having any influence?

DC: I am all for trying things. Each school will have to determine on their own whether there’s value in that.

Sometimes I think we are too technical. We try too many things. Sometimes simple is good. That’s all people want. They don’t need the razzle-dazzle of a nice defined website; they just want the information.

“[We should] have open dialogue. The problem is I don’t think a lot of people are open to it”

VR can be helpful but I’m not sure what the difference would be with watching a well-produced video on YouTube, that can easily be shared as well.

Things are changing in terms of the tools, we need to be aware of who’s using what to reach the audience and students. I look at my daughter who is 16 now, and they are all Instagram and Snapchat. She’s on Facebook, she doesn’t go on it at all. She has email, she hardly checks it. The attention span of users is shrinking in terms of what they were.

There is so much information that it’s hard to retain. Things need to be shorter. The longer they are, the greater chance of losing a captive audience. All that fits into how universities interact with this next incoming generation of students.

They’re not going to watch an eight-minute video.

The PIE: You talk quite a lot about the social media campaigns, the #WeAreInternational and these various slogans along the lines of “we are open”.

Where do you think the openness campaigns can go from here?

DC: Well I think there is a lot of room for growth and [we need to] get it into the hands of those key stakeholders. Sometimes presidents or provosts don’t know what is necessarily happening on the ground level.

They are very supportive; they understand the value that international students bring but getting them involved [is difficult]. I think the next step is really trying to engage the community.

[We should] have open dialogue. The problem is I don’t think a lot of people are open to it. I think the current climate, at any time, there is something that you disagree with. It’s fake news or it’s inappropriate. It’s put down without any forethought.

The PIE: You mentioned campus life and concerns in the US for international students. What are the big concerns?

DC: Big concerns are economic drivers for the student. How is this degree going to help me and what are the options available to me in country to stay and get more experience.

Within the US I think the big thing specifically for international students [is immigration]. What is going to happen if I go home to visit my ailing mother? Then I can’t enter and finish the last year of my program after I spent three years and a lot of money to get this degree.

They may have interest in working in that country where they studied. Everyone comes for a credential for career advancement. You are spending a lot of resources, time and money as you figure that out. It will have an impact on where you are going to go.

The PIE: We are seeing Chinese and South Asian investment in places like Africa and the Middle East, which are populations seen as targeted by the Trump administration, as far as immigration is concerned. Are you concerned that those populations are going to get drawn East rather than West over the next 10 years?

DC: Everyone thinks of the big four – the UK, the US, Australia and Canada – but… you have all these other countries that are developing these English-medium programs.

For example, Malaysia [is now] not only a sending country. In all honesty we could be competing against them as a destination. We need to be aware of that.

Things change too. After September 11, I was doing the immigration side of international students. There was a lot of scrutiny on students. A lot of things that weren’t working right and things were unnecessarily delayed.

Like when US and Turkey mutually suspended non-immigrant visas. Turkish students are not a huge segment, but that is lowering the numbers right there. If this is going to continue with other countries, it’s going to have an impact. These kinds of changes are unfortunately happening.

I am hopeful that the world will be a better place. I am a firm believer the value [of] international education. We don’t have to agree, we just have to have an understanding that’s respectful.

I think we are losing that across the world, but I think things will change. We have gone through major world wars and we have come together. Look at the US and Vietnam and look at that relationship now.

Relationships can be mended. But it’s a tough environment and it has been since the Gulf War, at least with the Middle East and having that mutual understanding and respect with what’s going on.

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