Eduvation Blog

Schadenfreude and the Art of Persuasion


Good morning, and welcome to another Monday…

In the past few days, we’ve seen immense spikes in daily COVID19 case counts in England, France, Slovakia,Russia, Ontario and Quebec (which reported >1,000 cases a day all weekend). Ontario and Quebec are warning of even tighter restrictions to come. Canada is just 2 cases short of 166,000 to date.

Of course in many ways, the biggest change in the pandemic landscape is a perceptual one, sparked by the hospitalization of President Trump, and the infection of dozens of Republicans in his inner circle. (Not coincidentally, Merriam-Webster reported a massive surge in dictionary searches for the word “schadenfreude” on Friday.) The massive outbreak, just days after Trump mocked Joe Biden during the debate for so consistently wearing a mask, underscores the futility of depending solely on daily rapid tests to keep the White House secure (or any campus, for that matter), when there are known false negatives.

Just MAYBE this will trigger a massive shift in attitude and behaviour among the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who support Trump – but it is equally likely that Trump will emerge from hospital, like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson before him, to return almost immediately to his old ways, pushing to reopen the economy and boost the stock market at any price. (In a sense, he already HAS.) Since Trump’s diagnosis, another 97,000 Americans have tested positive.

“Saying you’ll wear a mask ‘when needed’ is like saying you’ll wear a seat belt when needed. The notion… ignores the threat of asymptomatic transmission.”Joseph Allen, Director of Healthy Buildings Program, Harvard U


Today, I want to explore the theme of public health persuasion, and of course we start with plenty of examples of its failure…


Cases on Campus

Since Friday morning, there were just 4 more CdnPSE cases announced, but some really large outbreaks in Seattle and Northumbria, and embarrassing missteps by both a Belgian instructor and the president of Notre Dame…

U Notre Dame president John Jenkins has tested positive for COVID19 after he attended a ceremony at the White House last week unmasked, to celebrate president Trump’s nomination of ND law professor Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Apparently 18 other ND faculty members who attended are still awaiting their test results. (ACB herself caught COVID19 in the summer but has since recovered.) Students were calling for Jenkins’ resignation even before his test results, outraged that he had not worn a mask, and was “doing things that a student could get expelled for.” (You may recall I mentioned back in May that Jenkins wrote an incendiary op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that reopening college campuses was essential and “worth the risk.” Will the irony never end?)   Boston Globe  |  Chronicle

Northumbria U (in Newcastle upon Tyne, England) reports that 770 students have tested positive for COVID19, although just 10% are showing symptoms to date. COVID-free students are still welcome to attend classes in person and use campus facilities. 11 university employees have also tested positive.  The Guardian

uWashington in Seattle has confirmed 117 positive COVID19 cases among 11 sororities and fraternities (as of Friday morning). Earlier this summer, UW’s Greek community reported 154 other cases in the span of a month.  US News

In Belgium, an instructor resumed in-class teaching at Vives University of Applied Sciences, despite her cold symptoms. She later tested positive for COVID19. Now 2 of her students have also tested positive, and 26 are in quarantine. A university spokesperson said the instructor made a “stupid and unwise decision.”  Newsweek

Durham College has announced another student COVID19 case at its Oshawa campus (now 8 in total). The student was on-campus Sep 23.  DC

McMaster U reports another COVID19 case, an employee who was on campus Sep 29. (Total now 4.)  McMaster

St Lawrence College reported 2 unrelated student COVID19 cases at its Cornwall campus, on Sep 29 and Oct 2.  SLC


Winter in Canada

Although the national trend to announce a continuation of the status quo for the Winter 2021 term is continuing, institutions in Western Canada seem to be pushing for slightly more on-campus learning in January…

uCalgary plans to continue with blended delivery in the Winter 2021 term, but to increase the campus population density by half: instead of 20% of students on-campus at any given time, UofC plans to increase that to 30%, “subject to evolving public health guidelines.” Alberta’s minister of advanced ed is apparently pleased that more students will be welcomed back to campus.  Calgary Herald

Mount Royal U will continue with largely online delivery for the Winter 2021 term, with some exceptions, but is also “exploring ideas around safely expanding access to campus by employees, students and community members.”  Global

Red River College will deliver the Winter 2021 term much like the Fall, predominantly in a blended format, “with a modest increase in the number of students returning to campus for essential and necessary hands-on learning.” (Winnipeg remains at alert level orange.)  RRC



Throughout the pandemic, campus leaders and communications teams have worked tirelessly to counteract confusion and anxiety among faculty, staff, students, parents, and local communities. It has been a challenge to be concise and clear when so often, much remains uncertain…

Overcommunication is the Plan

In late May, 4 reporters at the Chronicle of Higher Education emphasized that PSE leaders “can’t be too transparent” and that the “new communication plan” should be “overcommunication.” They contrasted the transparency of institutions with real-time COVID19 dashboards, versus those that fell completely silent after reporting their first case. Campus leaders tried to balance reassuring messages, with honest admissions that much remained unknown. Too many messaging reversals, or the appearance of a coverup, could both invite suspicion and undermine institutional credibility. More than simply knowing what decisions have been made, stakeholders wanted detail about how and why those decisions were being made, and to know that campus leaders had students’ best interests at heart. Many institutions started communicating once or more each week to prospective students and their parents, and shared hints of potential bad news in advance as a form of “attitude inoculation.” In addition to emails and video town halls, many deployed armies of employees by phone to connect personally with students. Town and gown communications channels also need to stay open: “In the absence of communication, people are going to assume the worst.” Chronicle

“People would rather have the truth. The trust-building that happens from the exchange of accurate information is more powerful than the negative headline.”Michael Cherenson, Exec VP, SCG Advertising & PR


The Art of Persuasion

Since the success of even partial campus or dorm reopenings hinges almost entirely on student adherence to social distancing, isolation and masking protocols – on campus and off – many institutions with large outbreaks have been blaming their students for irresponsible behaviour. But an evidence-based approach to messaging over the summer might have led to better results…

Positive Role Models and Messaging

Throughout the COVID19 pandemic, Montréal researchers have led an international study of public attitudes and behaviours in response to health messaging, with almost 70,000 survey respondents in 143 countries. In most, the vast majority of the population is following PHO directives – but after 6 months, fatigue is setting in. A particularly stubborn 12-25% though (disproportionately 20-35-year-old males), refuse to self-isolate even when they know or suspect they have COVID19. Messaging needs to be tailored to each group, and generally positive messages were more effective than negative ones. “People want to see that we are working hard and we are getting a benefit out of all our sacrifice.” Role models and political leaders wearing masks can be particularly impactful.  Concordia

The Power of Peer Pressure

Many US colleges reopened campus but clearly fumbled student communications. Instead of leveraging peer pressure (as many do to tackle sexual health or alcohol use), most leaned on administrative edicts, fear-based messages, and threats of discipline. A uMaine communications prof recommends more “horizontal” than “vertical” propaganda, and a focus on collaboration and positive action. He points to Japan’s “cluster busters” (contact tracers), and focused messaging on avoiding the “3 C’s” (closed spaces, crowds, and close contact). Administrations should have approached student government in a spirit of cooperation and full disclosure, instead of legal directives, PR spin and delays that left students on many campuses suspicious of the administration’s motives. “Basic carrot-and-stick approaches that emphasize incentives and punishments have limited utility in a situation where overwhelming compliance is demanded… It’s clear, in retrospect, that focusing so tightly on legal ramifications, scientific and medical frameworks, and political and economic consequences – while neglecting to emphasize the importance of focused, engaged, collaborative and interactive messaging – ultimately rendered a lot of herculean effort fruitless.”  Inside Higher Ed

“It seems as though institutional leaders believed that their authority and credibility alone would suffice to significantly alter student attitudes and behavior. Oddly, they remained committed to that belief even when, over the summer, evidence kept mounting that their assumption was faulty.”Michael Socolow, Assoc Prof of Communication and Journalism, uMaine

Communication Tactics

Campus marketers and communications professionals have been working overtime since March to enhance channels of communication with dispersed stakeholders, manage constantly evolving messages, and keep momentum on the usual seasonal responsibilities like enrolment, orientation, and recruitment. I’ve been collecting plenty of examples of revitalized approaches, but here are a few…

Revamped Websites

In the past few weeks a number of website redesigns and microsites have launched. York U launched its redesigned, mobile-first, accessible, social-media-enabled site in phases starting Aug 31. Nipissing U has a new “NU News” site, with 6 categories of stories that make it easier to navigate, and social media aggregation. SAIT launched a snappy new website in late August, too. uOttawa has launched 3 new virtual hubs for student services and online chat: the “Wellness Hub,” “Academic GPS,” and “Career Corner.”

Grading COVID Dashboards

Almost all institutions have launched COVID19 landing pages or microsites, and hundreds in the US have created realtime data dashboards to keep the campus community informed. 2 Yale doctors and a Harvard medical student have graded 211 of those dashboards on ease of use, frequency of updates, and transparency. Overall, 17 schools received Fs, while Ohio State U earned the sole A+.  RateCOVIDdashboard

Smartphone Apps

Campus safety apps were a steadily-growing trend that became absolutely essential this spring, as a way to push notifications to staff and students about rapidly-changing campus restrictions and precautions. Most have integrated COVID19 self-assessment screening questionnaires, such as Georgian College’s “Safe@Georgian” app. Trent U and its student associations launched “Trent Mobile” to consolidate transit information, bus pass, LMS announcements and schedules, club discussions, social media feeds, personalized campus news, and direct student-to-student chat.

CapU Digital Magazine

Even though COVID19 delayed the original launch planned for April, it remains timelier than ever that Capilano U has a new “digital magazine,” Capsule, to tell stories about students, grads, and staff. Capsulepremiered on Instagram in mid-September, and a “beautiful new website” is in the works.  Capilano

“We created Capsule because we believe stories have the power to build connections — and there is no better time to launch a platform designed to connect us through stories. It’s more important than ever to create ways to stay in touch with, learn about, and learn from each other.” Capilano University


Remote Phone Services

On most CdnPSE campuses, office phones have been going straight to voicemail for months – and not always with a prompt response time. In some cases, managers may forward their private lines to an institutional cellphone. But the University of New Brunswick is apparently the first Canadian university to migrate its entirephone system to VOIP using Microsoft Teams. “From anywhere in the world and from any computer or mobile device, UNB faculty and staff can use Teams to place and receive calls with their existing UNB phone number, attend virtual meetings, collaborate on documents and stay connected with each other.” UNB reports significant savings on long-distance charges, hardware and maintenance.  ENC

AI Virtual Assistant

Mohawk College has joined York U and is now using IBM Watson Assistant to provide 24/7 natural language Q&A support to students, with details about programs, applications, and financial assistance. IBM began offering the service at no charge this spring, to institutions wrestling with COVID19 questions. Over the summer, Mohawk Assist answered >10,000 student questions about rapidly-changing details.  IBM

Literally Knocking on Doors

Acadia U, on the other hand, provided personal attention with a low-tech approach: the president and mayor of Wolfville have been literally knocking on the doors of half a dozen “party houses”, to address the rise in off-campus parties across town this year. Acadia is still offering some F2F classes, but social activities seem to have migrated off-campus into residential neighbourhoods.  CBC



In keeping with today’s focus on health precaution messaging to students, here are a few new and notable PSE vids…


Boston U students developed an extensive and eye-catching peer campaign, “F*ck it won’t cut it,” using social media, outdoor advertising and more, to urgently convey that if the entire student body doesn’t take social distancing and masking seriously, campus life will cease to exist altogether. The campaign breaks taboos in many ways, and is worth checking out. In this 2:40 min video, two students behind the campaign explain how the campaign came together.  YouTube


SUNY Brockport’s athletic coaches are sidelined, but putting their skills to work to “protect the nest” in this amusing :25 sec vid about handwashing.  YouTube


Queen’s U has released 2 peer message videos, “Mask Up or Pack Up” and “Space Out or Move Out.” The tone is a bit aggressive, with messages like “I want to stay on campus,” and “don’t spoil this for us,” that emphasize the need to act responsibly: “We can do this together… Do your part.”


I hope your week gets off to a great start.  Stay safe and be well!

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