Taking an Open House online: interview with MWSU

With campus closed and students and staff confined to their homes, Missouri Western State University was tasked with creating a virtual Open House that could give prospective students and applicants a full experience online.

Using a combination of technologies – including Zoom, Unibuddy Live, YouTube and a dedicated microsite – they were able to turn around a virtual Open House in just two weeks.

We spoke to MWSU’s Events and New Student Program Coordinator, Melissa Stallbaumer, one of the brains behind the event – to see how they created it and what the results have been.

What challenges has the COVID19 outbreak created for MWSU?

COVID19 has posed significant challenges for attracting and enrolling students across the globe. Campus visits play a pivotal role in college decisions for Missouri Western. Stay at home orders, social distancing, and the like have forced us to reimagine the campus visit experience.

Just three weeks out from our quarterly weekend visit program, we were tasked with flipping the experience to a fully online model. We were looking for a way to hold on to the personal connection that comes from a campus visit, which is where Unibuddy came into play.

Your virtual Open House contained loads of multimedia content – how hard was it to create, especially remotely?

We designed our virtual campus visit to resemble our in-person experience as closely as possible. We started by taking our traditional schedule and brainstormed how each step could be reinvented, this led to a lot of multimedia content. We used a variety of technology to keep the event as real-time and interactive as possible. We utilized Zoom conferencing for a live campus tour, student panel, and for breakout sessions on housing and dining. Zoom allowed for some question and answer versatility, but Unibuddy provided us with the opportunity to really connect and provide a personal experience for students.

Using the Unibuddy Live feature, we were able to reimagine our Academic Fair, through a fairly simple and easy process. We had over 50 faculty and staff members who volunteered to create profiles and interact with our student attendees to answer questions about various academic programs and aspects of student life in the Unibuddy Live event. We were also able to embed direct contact links to our website for prospects to have private conversations with our Financial Aid Coordinators, Accessibility Resource Center Coordinator, and Admissions Counselors. One of the most exciting things was that Unibuddy also allowed us to still utilize our student leaders in the campus visit experience, with prospects having the opportunity to sift through varying student profiles to ask their questions to students with backgrounds that resonated with them.

Creating the wide variety of content relied heavily on the combined efforts of both members of our New Student Initiatives team, along with a representative from our marketing office who was able to support website design and accessibility. A creative and cohesive team was key in creating the site. With that said, one of the biggest challenges we recognized in the implementation was preparing for how prospective students and guests would perceive the site. We designed a website that made sense to us, but we feared that guests might experience confusion with the layout, new technologies, and especially with nearly all of our content being real-time. To combat this, we designed a welcome page with a brief video from the event hosts which utilized screen sharing to walk guests through the website and flow of the event.

How have students responded to the virtual Open House – have they found it helpful?

The prospective students who attended the event seemed very actively engaged in both our Zoom sessions and Unibuddy platforms. One of the highlights includes a conversation between one prospective student and Student ambassador that spanned consistently over the course of 10 days.

Why did you decide to include chat to staff and chat to students in your Virtual Open House, and how have students used this functionality?

We designed the event intentionally to create as many personal touchpoints as possible. Every university has a website that prospects can visit and read about programs, watch pre-recorded videos, read blogs, etc. 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.

Do you think virtual events like this will continue in Higher Education in the post-COVID world?

COVID19 has caused professionals across the globe to stretch their skills and learn new ways to utilize technology. While I do not see face-to-face in-person contact losing its vital role in higher education and the recruitment and enrollment of new students, I do see a rise in virtual events in a post-COVID world. At our institution, we have already been tasked with re-creating the experience for a global market.

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