Utilizing virtual engagement tools to boost student learning and campus connections
“Pivoting our orientation approach was a challenge we never saw coming and certainly never envisioned having to build with such little notice. But we did! It was even easy and fun, and we loved having Presence as a partner that believed in our ideas and helped enhance them.”
It’s an all-too-familiar, relatable story: Arkansas Tech’s student affairs professionals spent many, many months preparing for their 2020 first-year student orientation — only to have much of it thwarted by COVID-19.
For Meighan Burke, Chelsea Lairamore, and their team, this short notice was less than a week; just four days before their first session was set to begin, the campus closed down its residence halls and banned all in-person social activities.
TECHAdvise, their in-person advising and course registration program, was envisioned as key to orienting students to life at ATU and setting them up for long-term co-curricular success. In past years, these in-person half-day sessions have served to register students for classes, issue student IDs, host academic advising sessions within small groups, connect incoming students with current student leaders, teach students about housing and financial aid options, and so much more.
To meet health and safety regulations, much of that could no longer be done in-person. They had to engage and support students virtually through online pre-orientation sessions that would be complementary to an in-person, socially distanced TECHAdvise. Trouble was, they had barely a weekend to plan and set up a virtual programming track to welcome new students to ATU.
“We were asking ourselves questions like ‘How can we get student information about Greek life and about leadership?’ ‘How can we tell them all they need to know about residence life and commuter services in a really engaging way?’ And beyond just delivering information, how can we have students complete essential requirements that they would ordinarily accomplish on campus? We also wanted to make it into something that students would be excited to participate in, rather than something they just had to do. That was really important to us.” — Meighan Burke
They had to adjust and innovate — offering students impeccable virtual experiences that would perfectly complement in-person programming — and they needed to set it up fast.
Fortunately, ATU’s Campus Life team put on their virtual superhero capes and came to the rescue by utilizing Presence in record time.
“The turnaround time was frankly unbelievable! Honestly, I did not know how we were going to pull it off. But with the help of our Happiness Expert Travis and multiple other people in Presence, we did what felt like the impossible. I was — I am — thrilled.” — Chelsea Lairamore
They used the platform’s Experience and pathway builder to build a choose-your-own-adventure-style virtual pre-orientation program, which they named Start Strong. They automatically guided students through mandatory events and engaged them in optional learning pathways. Plus, they gamified events for optimal engagement and integrated quizzes and surveys into their programs to track student learning and satisfaction.
The SA pro team also created additional, brand-new programming to welcome students into the ATU community from afar — meaning that each new virtual program wasn’t just a lesser lead-up to in-person engagement; the virtual experience was equally as robust and alluring as campus itself!
Their TECH Talks series featured a mix of fun and informative presentations on campus life and collegiate success. All students were required to attend at least three of these talks, but thanks to Presence’s analytics, Meighan and Chelsea know that many students attended way more than that! The Campus Life team even sent out reflection forms, created through Presence, after each talk — as suggested by their Happiness Expert — in order to further enhance student learning and gain event feedback.
“We really got some great feedback because of the way that we set it up through Presence. Knowing what students thought was truly invaluable, especially as we figure out what we want virtual programming to look like in the future. The feedback generated through Presence will help us make the experience even better next time.” — Meighan Burke
And to guide students through all these offerings, Meighan and Chelsea didn’t need to print out a single program catalog, nor construct it through another app. They simply curated an on-demand catalog of all their virtual content within Presence! Students were able to see what events they needed to attend and which tasks they need to complete, then do so, and view their progress anytime — all in one place, available through a web portal and mobile app.
Additionally, ATU was able to meet the seemingly insurmountable challenge of issuing student IDs remotely thanks to Presence’s digital form builder. They set up custom workflows and utilized conditional logic to make communication between students and staff (of multiple offices) seamless and organized. Then, one person could head to campus each week, already knowing exactly which IDs to print and how. So, throughout spring and summer 2020, they were able to print and distribute over 700 IDs!
Students and staff alike were thrilled. The best part? They can return to the same tool time and time again throughout the year — for whatever interests and needs arise! That’s because going virtual with Presence doesn’t involve a tool that can only handle orientation; rather, the customizability of all its tools means institutions can design any sort of robust virtual experience.
Ah, and how much extra cash did this virtual programming cost ATU? Not a single cent. As with every institution, when ATU became a campus partner, they immediately got access to everything the company has to offer now — and will ever offer anytime throughout their contract. With Presence, there’s no need to purchase individual modules a la carte; every Presence partner gets the all-inclusive package.
“Everyone on campus — faculty, staff — we all wear multiple hats. We’re always doing 10 different things at once. Presence feels like it was built with that in mind. It allows us to do like 25 different things at once! And it’s all for one, all-inclusive price. The previous engagement tool that we had, the company charged us for every single new piece that we wanted, which was a real pain. It got so expensive. But with Presence, we’ve never heard ‘Oh, in order to do this, you have to buy this piece of equipment or get this or do that.’ We have access to every product and feature and are free to experiment without paying a single extra penny. It’s really allowed us to innovate and collaborate.” — Chelsea Lairamore
This year’s pre-orientation was wildly unexpected for ATU — both in the lightning-fast virtual pivots they were able to make and how successfully Presence helped them engage new students.
In fact, this success has made everyone at ATU, from the Campus Life team on up to institution leadership, enthusiastic about innovating and improving pre-orientation again next year. With Presence as a partner, they view the challenges brought on by the pandemic not as major set-ups but as propellants forward.
Additionally, they plan to dive into data obtained from this year’s virtual experiences in order to show connections between transitional programming and later student success. In this way, Meighan will no longer have to just say “our programs help students succeed” and hope that institutional leadership will trust their assessment; the data will prove this fact!
“We hear the student stories all the time. We hear the ‘this is how this staff or faculty influenced me’ or ‘this is how this program changed my life.’ But to see the numbers behind it as well, it’s super empowering. I also think it creates a really strong argument as far as why the co-curricular experience is so important. And the data that we get from Presence is insane! I don’t have to pull like 30 reports to get one report that I really need. I can just get what I need, when I need it. I think that was probably one of the bigger selling points for us right off the bat.” — Chelsea Lairamore
Other offices, within both student affairs and academic affairs, have expressed interest in utilizing Presence, too! Since there’s no extra cost for this (as Presence is built for the entire institution), Chelsea is pumped to bring in colleagues and share the tech love.
“I can’t tell you how many people — staff and even faculty colleagues — have reached out to me about how they can utilize Presence, too. In student affairs, we know that things like engagement tracking are necessary. We know we have to do these kinds of things for student orgs. But now to see the academic departments that are starting to use it and the questions they have have been super rewarding. People are understanding why I can’t shut up about like, ‘hey, look at all these things you can do, look at all the possibilities that we have because of this tool.’” — Chelsea Lairamore
Chelsea and Meighan are optimistic that Presence will soon be seen all over campus, a tool beloved by many offices each easily configuring it to meet their unique missions and goals.
“I think my favorite thing about Presence is probably the ability to make it our own. And I know that sounds weird, but the more I figure out that I can do, the more I’m able to help other people customize what their department page is going to look like or what their student organization page is going to look like. And that gets students excited, which makes me excited!” — Chelsea Lairamore
Summer 2020 presented ATU with many unexpected engagement challenges. But, the success of Start Strong proved that virtual programming through Presence can erode barriers that previously seemed insurmountable. Chelsea and Meighan are pumped to see what Presence’s comprehensive virtual tools will lead them to adapt next!
The possibilities for ATU’s journey with Presence are literally endless. But one thing’s for sure: Presence’s Happiness Team will always be there to help with the design of every new feature and page, from construction through to roll-out and daily engagement.
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