At many institutions, this past year has accelerated the implementation of more digital engagement practices.
As more and more students take their classes online (full-time or hybrid), the necessity of augmenting the in-person work of community building is no longer in question.
This shift has put a lot of professionals out of their comfort zones, and a concern of institutional leadership might be that once campuses reopen, there will be a backslide as their team goes back to their old ways — only having incorporated digital engagement strategies under the pretense (whether explicitly or implicitly) that it was all temporary.
Some faculty and staff still hold the belief in-person activities are always superior and should be the primary focus for all student engagement. But this past year has shown us the tremendous power of digital engagement. No matter where students are, there are always opportunities for connection.
As you work to build consensus regarding this idea among your colleagues, here are some points to consider about the importance of digital engagement.
A major benefit of digital engagement is its enhanced accessibility. You can supply audio readers for visually-impaired students, closed captioning for audio-impaired students, and other accessibility tools for students with disabilities.
This would be difficult to do in a physical space that was not designed to be accommodating for everyone, but if an online or commuter student is at home attending an event, they’ll likely already have what they need on hand.
Events on campus are often physically inaccessible, or even if they are technically accessible, they require an off-putting amount of additional effort for students with disabilities. For example, wheelchair users may be forced to take a long detour around campus in order to get to the student center’s accessible entrance. But a live-streamed event allows students to bypass this entirely and score a front-row seat to the program!
Greater accessibility can also lead to greater transparency.
Information for students can be distributed through multiple channels, not just email. You could host a live video town hall with a dean of students to discuss important campus topics. Or academic advisors can sign on to Reddit to chat with students through an AMA (Ask Me Anything) about a new major.
Allowing for active discussions with more people at the table keeps a campus community connected, whether in person or online. More stakeholders feel heard, involved, and invested in decisions that are being made, and digital engagement platforms allow for more people to be able to join in on these conversations.
If an event is in person, not everyone will be able to make it and may miss out on a great opportunity. Having a digital event that has been recorded allows for anyone to circle back to rewatch. Plus, people who couldn’t attend live can still feel like they were there!
Digital programs also allow students to show up on their own time to connect with each other and various campus offices. This could involve an on-demand video library of recent speeches from guest speakers or you could use a platform like Slack or Discord for students to asynchronously engage with each other at any time. You could also allow students to request help from a general support chatbot that can redirect them to the right person on campus.
Students often have odd schedules that don’t neatly correspond with your office hours, so it’s important to get creative in making engagement opportunities on a flexible schedule. This also means making sure everything is mobile-friendly, which is a basic feature of most digital tools!
Utilizing digital engagement tools can provide you with substantial data and analytics to better inform your work. I always like to say that data allows higher ed professionals to use high tech for high touch. We can see which students are engaging — where, how, and when. This can help us make decisions regarding staff availability, program timing, and interventions for supporting students more proactively.
We all have a part to play in this work engaging students. We’re all part of the same campus community and the value given by our community connections are all important and unique.
No one should fear that there will be “extra work” to do in going or staying digital. This is the work of engaging students at your institution. This is what it takes to make every student feel like an equal part of your campus community. The effort you put into digital engagement will serve all of your students, not just a segment of them, so focusing on digital engagement will always be time well spent.
These practices don’t solely serve online or hybrid students, they also support the success of commuter students, adult learners, and students who work full-time and need to be able to engage in the campus community asynchronously.
Virtual offerings will continue to be a culture shift for many institutions, but it is worth making sure everyone is on board and understands the importance of digital engagement efforts.
You can do so by showcasing anecdotes from students about how they felt engaged in the community for the first time. Perhaps highlight how many more students attended events, both in-person and virtually, including those who watched the recording long after the event.
Essentially, you can show how the modest investment in these tools pays dividends in the long term when it comes to student satisfaction, engagement, and, ultimately, retention. The return on this investment of time and money is clear, and over time, it will become an integral part of all of our work with our students.