What lockdown has taught us about the digital student journey

The ongoing lockdown has given us a glimpse into what the digital university of the future might look like. The entire student journey has been forced online in a matter of weeks – from admissions through to graduation.

Working with schools across the world, we have dedicated a lot of time to thinking about what elements will stick into the ‘new world’ after the pandemic, and what can’t be replaced by face-to-face.

Student Recruitment & Admissions

Student Recruitment has traditionally been dominated by face-to-face activities. And for good reason: those personalised interactions create a sense of belonging with an institution and boost student confidence.

Taking Student Recruitment online isn’t about replacing human contact, it’s about facilitating it in a new way. As the start of the student journey, it’s important to get that first impression right.

The continued COVID-19 outbreak has led to an increased number of universities turning to virtual enrollment events. In March, there was a 900% increase in the number of Unibuddy Live events compared to the previous month. And more students than ever are signing up from across the world.

The aim of these events is to connect with your students and create a sense of belonging. It provides them reassurance and guidance on their Higher Education journey. We know that is the priority for you right now, and staying connected is more important than ever.

Virtual events are also replacing the key conversion events in the calendar: Open Houses, Admitted Student Days, Applicant Visit Days. Why? Because when done well, they still deliver that experience – and offer even more that isn’t available offline: more depth and breadth of information, a truly personalised experience and a record of those important conversations.

Missouri State Western University ran a virtual Open House on Unibuddy. We interviewed MWSU’s Events and New Student Program Coordinator, Melissa Stallbaumer, about this event. She said: “By making the event real-time and including as many opportunities as possible to connect to a real person, we were able to better communicate who we are as a university and show care and concern for each individual student experience.”

Orientation

Plans for September teaching are still unconfirmed at most places. But many institutions are putting in place plans for an online orientation.

And for colleges that run orientation programmes over summer, some are organising these sessions using digital technologies such as Unibuddy Live.

Of course, there are times when it will feel like students are missing out on an in-person experience. But there are a number of advantages to online orientation. For a start, students can ‘replay’ an online experience as many times as they need to, if they want a reminder of key information. Even after a student enrolls, that online information will still be there for them throughout their student journey.

The value of mentorship has been proven in many studies of education. And, given that Gen Z are most comfortable on messaging apps and platforms, this is a good opportunity to trial digital mentorship programmes. This digital mentorship could be as simple as introducing a new student to a current student mentor over email. Or, you could use a platform like Unibuddy that facilitates instant messaging. It has the benefit of giving you full insight into conversations and their topics using Machine Learning technology.

Teaching and Learning

There have been whispers and developments in online learning for some time now, but nobody anticipated that the education sector – from pre-school to PhD – would be flung online in a matter of weeks.

Universities are adapting to the challenge – using the tools that they have at their disposal and building new ones.

Pat Moores, founder of UK University Guide, has written and spoke extensively about the future of education, and the move to online provisions.

Speaking to Unibuddy, she said: “The future of education is online. When we look at some of the most innovative schools in the US, they have been moving to online teaching and learning for some time now. This crisis will only speed those developments up – right now, it feels like a scramble to get courses online, but it will pay dividends in the future.

“What matters is that schools and universities offer a rewarding online student experience, rather than just replicating the classroom experience on Zoom. Students and families will appreciate that for many institutions it has been a mad rush to move teaching online, but smart institutions will now build on this to develop a fuller experience using; multimedia, interactivity, personalised assessments.

“These developments take time, but when they come it will benefit students and teachers alike.”

Graduation

Final year students across the world are understandably disappointed to be missing out on graduation. It’s an opportunity to celebrate with their faculty, friends and families.

But online graduation ceremonies aren’t a new concept. The first was back in 2010, hosted by Florida State University on the online game, Second Life. Students and their families created avatars to virtually attend the event. A study into the event revealed the biggest obstacle was bandwidth capability – less of an issue ten years on. But overall feedback was incredibly positive.

This year, many more graduates will face a similar experience. Thousands of students across the globe who were due to graduate this year are refusing to miss out – and hosting a virtual graduation on Minecraft. Students from over 400 schools have registered to the Quaranteen University graduation ceremony on May 22nd.

Harness tech opportunities to improve the student journey

What is becoming increasingly clear is that – across all departments of a university – technology can be harnessed for its benefits. While it might feel like students are losing elements of the in-person experience, this time can also be viewed as an opportunity to gain the benefits of an online experience.

Those smaller, personalised events. The ability to replay lessons, graduation ceremonies, Open Days. Speak to the right student or staff member, at the moment that suits them.

Whether in Student Recruitment, teaching, or any other department – this will be an opportunity to make Higher Education more accessible for students around the world. We will leave this difficult period better equipped to take the best of the digital.

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