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Tips on Creating a Virtual Student Experience in 2020

Rebecca Rozakis
Updated September 30 2020
older alumni watching campus live stream on laptop at home
Rebecca Rozakis
Updated September 30 2020

Many students were willing to cut some slack last semester, as campuses closed due to COVID-19. Everyone knew it was an emergency. (Although the clusters of lawsuits emerging heralds dissatisfaction to come.) But if schools—especially smaller, mid-tier schools—want their students to come back and stay, they’ll need to offer better. They need to not only make remote learning, which is going to be a necessary part of every school no matter their decisions, more effective and appealing. They’ll also need to find ways to continue to create a campus community and a sense of student life that will continue to differentiate their school, even during Coronavirus.

It’s not just the current students who need to be won over. Their parents, many of whom are footing the bill, need to be wooed as well. Next year’s class (and the follow year’s) will have to be convinced to apply, without the benefits of traditional college tours and admissions processes. For many schools, trying to build up a financial cushion to weather the storm will be critical. But that means reaching alumni, with the economy in freefall and a host of worthy charities also clamoring for money, without the normal tools like football games and reunions.

There are a lot of different groups that make a campus a campus instead of a collection of classes. From student groups to parents, admissions to alumni outreach, each of these groups have their own specific needs. But some common tools can be used to support each one.

Student Groups

Wind ensemble and wrestling are off the table for the moment. But many student groups may still be able to have some activities, especially if given some technical support.

  • Can you help set up simple recording facilities for musicians to separately record tracks, and give them access to editing software to combine them into performances? Can dance studios be equipped with webcams for solo performances? (As a bonus, watch your students learn valuable editing skills.)
  • Can individual sports like swimming or track be broadcast so athletes can support each other even if it’s not safe for the team to compete at the same time?
  • Many groups such as magazines and newspapers, political organizations, cultural groups, and so on just need some web conferencing software and a dedicated place for them to keep their recordings and files to continue on almost as normal.

Parents

Ideally, college is intended as a time for students to gain independence. But if many students are literally taking their classes at home, it may be worth trying to engage their parents as well. Especially if that helps convince parents footing the bill that staying with your institution is worth the money.

  • Consider running webinars, especially for the families of incoming freshman, about how to set up distance learning in the home and how to support a new college student learning from home.
  • Inviting parents to join special event webcasts, such as a virtual parents’ weekend, may also help smooth transitions and continue support.
  • Start making commencement back-up plans now. Hopefully by graduation, it will be possible to have in-person ceremonies again. Don’t count on it. This is especially important if you put off full ceremonies for last year’s grads to the fall or next year.

Student Services/Health/Advisors/Career Center

Providing support and advice to students will be both more difficult and more critical this year than ever before.

  • Make sure that confidential 1-on-1 counseling is easy to arrange by video chat.
  • Webinars are a great way to replace seminars, whether the topic is study skills, stress management, academic paths, or resume writing.
  • Setting up regular drop-in office hours, with breakout rooms available for private consultations, can help reduce the friction for anxious students who need to get help.
  • Personalized video emails go a long way to humanizing support. Students, especially this generation, may shrug off impersonal text emails. A video email is more likely to help them understand that the people trying to support them aren’t a faceless bureaucracy but real people who care about them. It makes it easier to establish a personal relationship.

Libraries and Media Centers

If the majority of physical media is difficult or impossible for the student body to access, the digital archives are going to leap into importance.

  • Make sure your media is easily searchable. Rigorous metadata is key. Captions go a long way to opening up in-video search, so video content is no longer a black box to your search engine.
  • With so much video exploding across campus, you’re going to want to try to keep as much of it from getting loose on YouTube as you can. Make sure it’s easy for instructors and students to upload materials to the LMS or your digital archives. This is especially critical when it comes to rights management. Better to not get into battles about Fair Use on publicly facing social media.

Admissions and Recruiting

 

prospective student watching college open house marketing video

The next few years are going to be tough on the recruiting front. Now’s the time to really get serious about digital reach-out.

  • Webinars and webcasts are a great way to talk to high school students about your campus, replacing college fairs or high school visits.
  • Arrange small group sessions or 1-on-1 sessions with counselors by establishing office hours or request schedules.
  • Offer webinars and webcasts specifically aimed at high school counselors as well! They’re also making this up as they go along—give them resources and information about how procedures are changing.
  • Virtual campus tours have a new importance now that students can’t visit your campus in person. There are a lot of opportunities to make yours stand out.
    • Consider VR or AR walkthroughs.
    • Add calls-to-action within the video itself.
    • Use interactivity—create videos that branch and allow students to choose which part of campus to explore next.
    • Add snippets of lecture capture and virtual classroom recordings, so students can get a sense of how online learning looks in case they will need to experience it themselves.
  • Consider offering “passes” so that prospective students can sign up to sit in on a remote learning course.
  • Gather testimonials from current students and alumni. It’s ok if they’re rough or raw—authenticity is convincing. Try creating a wall of headshots with CTA buttons that play the short videos on your website.
  • Use video both for recruiting interviews, but also personalized video emails for follow-ups. Video helps prospective students build a relationship instead of seeing a faceless institution.
  • YouTube is great, but you have very little control. Make sure you have your own video portal where you can make the rules as well.

Alumni Relations and Fundraising

Without the usual rhythms of football games, Alumni Days, and reunions, alumni outreach is going to be tough this year. And with the economy tanking and so many charities reaching out, getting donations will be even harder. But it’s going to be more critical than ever to the long-term health of your institution. Now it’s time to really get creative.

  • Re-purpose lecture capture videos into an alumni-only MOOC. With just a couple of clicks you can easily take videos from, say, World History and put them onto a portal which is authenticated against your alumni directory.  This provides a benefit to your alumni, encourages them to come back to your site, and (since you can know who watched them) can allow you create campaigns to those people.   (“We see you’re enjoying our content – would you consider supporting us?”)
  • If you’re a big sports school, try make an event out of broadcasting some of the most fabled games of yore. Bonus points for running a live forum manned by some of your coaches or well-known student athletes delivering commentary on the great plays of the past.
  • Similarly, broadcasting recordings of performing arts events is a way to reach out to your alumni culture vultures. They’re in withdrawal for lack of live performances anyway—here’s an opportunity to inspire some nostalgia for their college days.
  • Live broadcast is even more exciting—guest speakers, presidential addresses, and awards ceremonies are all good possibilities.
  • We mentioned graduation earlier—this is the first touch as an alumni, so it’s critical. The more meaningful you can make this, the better. If graduation has to be entirely virtual, consider having each alumnus/a create a short video clip which stands for their “walking” in graduation. (For large schools, consider doing department ceremonies that break out after the main address.)
  • Create an alumni virtual yearbook. Crowdsource video creation—ask alumni to create short video clips of themselves and organize them by graduation year.
  • Tie the yearbook into a series of live rooms organized by year to create a virtual reunion. Offer live broadcasts of short lectures or performances as entertainment. Make it easy for alumni to bounce from “room” to “room” to meet up with friends and get caught up with campus life.
  • Video emails are a major tool for alumni reach-out—it’s low-cost and high-touch, especially if you include additional documents and videos along with a personalized message. For example, try recording a video about how you intend to use the money for a capital campaign, or about various programs that alumni are key in supporting.

A school is more than just its classes; to succeed over the next few years in the face of remote learning, it’s time to create a full campus experience, online.