The beginning of a school year is as exciting as it is an anxious time for both new and returning students. They are full of questions about what the future holds. This is truer of 2020, when a pandemic has engulfed the entire world. They are looking to your team at the university to offer reassurance and support.
An effective orientation is an important way of achieving that:
- It would help you with student retention and persistence.
- It would offer your students the opportunity to build close relationships with the campus community and find the right resources / support.
However, with COVID-19, your tried-and-tested on-campus activities are no longer feasible. You need to recreate the interactivity and positive engagement of your previous orientation programs — only now, you need to do it online.
From our experience working with forward-thinking colleges and universities around the world, we’ve curated a few student engagement strategies for building a successful online orientation program. Whether your semester is conducted in-person, hybrid or fully online, these ideas will help you plan a virtual event that would engage your students, build community, and convey the values of your institution.
1. Make accessibility a cornerstone of the online orientation experience
As exciting as orientations are, they can also be intimidating for students. Without the in-person interactions that make the experience comfortable, the virtual campus can feel lonely and unhelpful.
To help ease the transition, make the online orientation as accessible as possible:
- Make all the material (including the slides and audio transcripts) available live as well as be downloadable. This will help students without a stable or high-speed internet connection access it whenever they can.
- In your presentations, use clean fonts, high-contrast images, clearly structured headers and minimal animation to attract and retain focus.
- Incorporate thoughtful touches like live captions, descriptions of visual elements, additional time to read the slides, and repeating audience questions to make the program inclusive for disabled students.
- Introduce your students to all the support services available to them, like counseling, accessibility, advising, tutoring, etc. and encourage them to feel free to use them.
- Make mobile phones a key touchpoint. Even those without laptops and broadband are likely to have cellphones and mobile internet.
2. Include your student leaders, campus advisors, and mentors for inspiration
Got international student ambassadors? An award-winning quidditch team? Fun mascots? Bring them all online too — give your students the full orientation experience.
In fact, an upside of going virtual is that you can squeeze in face-time with a variety of student leaders who could inspire and motivate your incoming cohort. You can also open up breakout rooms based on student interests, or set up one-on-one interactions with advisors and mentors, as part of your online orientation.
3. Go beyond virtualizing your existing sessions
Recording all your usual panels, keynote addresses, and talks as webinar lectures might seem like a quick and easy solution. But online orientation is a completely different experience, to say nothing of the exciting opportunities it offers to innovate.
Approach it not as an on-campus orientation going online, but an online orientation taking shape.
- Think of fun icebreakers, social events, polls, videos, and other media, and mix it all up.
- Offer personalised and guided experiences online (something which would be much more difficult in person).
- Introduce asynchronous experiences — of watching recorded sessions later — in addition to synchronous sessions that they can participate in live.
- Open up online community channels and invite new students to join their favourite groups.
- Include parents and answer their questions as well.
4. Plan for breaks, check-ins, and community-building
Being on campus among a large group of equally-puzzled new students is completely different from sitting on their bed in their PJs watching an online orientation. When there is no way to bump into someone near the water cooler, the rich human experience can be lacking.
Understand and proactively enable these:
- Schedule small-group discussions and breakout sessions.
- Allow for ample breaks — students need time to process and reflect on what they’re hearing.
- Check in with them from time to time to ensure that they’re doing okay or if they need additional support.
- Include pertinent sessions on self-care, stress management, time management when working from home, and so on.
A meaningful and effective orientation is the first step to a student’s successful education journey. While the circumstances this year may be different from ever before, your goals remain the same.
In 2020, though, you’re in a bit of luck. Because today, there are advanced campus technologies, unlike ever before, that allow you to offer a great virtual orientation program — perhaps even one that’s better than your in-campus ones.