Telling the story of student engagement,
one data set at a time
“I’ve been working at FVSU for nearly 18 years, so I know that we’ve long struggled to quantify engagement. With Presence, we finally can. We have numbers to prove the impact of our work.”
The student affairs team at Fort Valley State was tired of hearing, “There’s nothing to do on campus.” They heard it constantly — claims about a lack of student engagement and the value of it in the first place.
But these myths weren’t being spread by students; they were originating from institutional leadership! VPs and deans contended that they heard whispers of students being bored on campus without enough programs to attend or student orgs to join.
The student affairs team knew that wasn’t true. As the folks running programs and advising orgs, they saw students engaging in exciting ways each and every day.
They only had anecdotes though. It was their team’s stories pitted against institutional leadership’s stray observations. Brian Byrd, FVSU’s director of student life, knew that he needed better proof. He needed data — numbers that were reliable and accurate — in order to paint a full, vivid picture of student life.
FVSU had previously relied on other software for engagement data, but the process for collecting it was cumbersome and the scope was limited. And in 2018, the platform altered much of its functionality (as a result of the company being bought out), leading to massive confusion among students and staff. Plus, FVSU completely lost access to some features they had been using day in and day out — told they could only get them back if they paid for upgraded modules.
“When we first brought on Presence, some students asked ‘why did we have to change?’ And we said, ‘hey, we didn’t leave Org Sync; Org Sync left us.’ We were given Engage, and we can’t do what we want — or need, really — to do with it.” — Brian Byrd
At the same time, another challenge had long been brewing: A disruption to their tight-knit community.
Like most historically Black colleges and universities, FVSU prides itself on being more than just a collection of students, faculty, and staff; they’re a family. But, in recent years, those family gatherings have changed — and not always for the better. As Brian explains it:
“20 years ago, you didn’t have cell phones with the internet on them. So everyone came to the student union to find out what was going on on campus, and that would lead to some great interactions. But now, with social media, there tends to be less of students coming together in person. They’re in their own silos. So, when we host a program, we know that students often won’t arrive when it first starts; they’ll wait and see if people are talking about the event on social media and then they’ll decide if they want to come. It really changes our dynamic of interactions.” — Brian Byrd
The internet was seemingly an impenetrable barrier to the organic in-person community building of the past. Then Brian and his teammates had an idea: What if they could bring all of the online silos into one place, essentially creating a virtual student union — a place where students could find out about upcoming events and discover new student orgs?
That’s when a teammate mentioned Presence, which they knew offered such a hub. Plus, as a data-driven company, it would also give them the numbers they needed to prove the department’s worth! It was a single all-in-one solution to multiple problems.
After seeing the platform, the FVSU team discovered that Presence had all the features they were looking for… and more! And unlike FSVU’s previous tool, they got access to all of Presence’s features on Day One, including unparalleled support from the happiness team — all for one set price. They didn’t have to wait long to use it all either; the Happiness Expert helped them set up and debut Presence on campus within just two months of officially becoming customers!
Most immediately, they were able to free themselves of paper forms. This meant saying “so long” to messy, impossible-to-read handwriting; “farewell” to students crumpling up forms in their backpacks; and “adieu” to the tedium of typing names into Excel.
Instead, they’re creating their own customizable digital forms. These include forms for registering new student orgs, submitting budgetary requests, registering campus events, and so much more. And with automated workflows and conditional logic built in, communication between students and among campus offices is infinitely smoother.
Student leaders are especially relieved to no longer need to beg and corral event attendees to sign check-in lists.
“In orientation 2019, we literally had stacks of paper to try and track all the events and programs that each student went through. The orientation leaders had to keep a bunch of paper forms, holding on to them from Monday to the next Sunday. By the end of the week, half the students lost the papers or they forgot to get them signed.” — Brian Byrd
That’s now a problem of FVSU’s past. Attendees simply swipe their student IDs via any awaiting phone or tablet. It saves time, keeps things organized, and unlocks more accurate data than standard attendance lists.
“After using mobile check-in, students have all said ‘that was so much easier than having scribbled names on paper.’ Especially for groups that have to send out national reports – like sororities and fraternities — they ask us, ‘is there any way to get a roster?’. And we’re now able say ‘You already did the hard work for us by doing the sign in. Here, we’ll send the complete spreadsheet to you.’ And they’re like ‘that’s it?!’ It’s infinitely easier than they’ve come to expect from the drawn-out processes of the past.” — Brian Byrd
Another streamlined process involved post-event feedback forms. To put it lightly, students were not fans of filling these out on paper. The digital versions that FVSU uses now are far superior! Students who host programs no longer groan at the prospect of asking their peers for feedback, plus Brian and his team get access to a wealth of opinions — about individual programs and student life as a whole.
“It becomes less about, ‘oh, we went to orientation and it was fun.’ We start to see there’s a science behind what we’re trying to deploy. And then if students start to report back any programs they’re not pleased with, then that lets us know moving forward how we need to adjust the program.” — Brian Byrd
And to Brian’s immense delight, he is now combining the positive feedback with the data that Presence automatically compiles from mobile check-in to boost Student Affairs’s reputation! The numbers can’t lie, and they’re telling the true story of engagement.
“We’re now making the argument that student affairs is about way more than just ‘having fun.’ Like, this is the actual value that we’re bringing to the institution. We’re able to say here’s 10 thousand, 20 thousand, 30 thousand hours of engagement. It’s become something that we can quantify and make tangible versus debating it in the abstract.” — Brian Byrd
Together, these easier processes — digital forms and mobile check-in — have cleared away obstacles that previously kept students from engaging and helped bring the extended FVSU family closer together. More students are breaking out of their niche silos and trying out things they never have before. They’re also able to find out about events, student organizations, service-learning opportunities, and more via FSVU’s student engagement portal, powered by Presence. It’s the virtual student union Brian dreamed of!
For his next trick, Brian is looking for magic. No, he’s not seeking to book a magician for a campus event; Brian and his team would like to find FVSU’s magic engagement number.
He’s inspired by the student affairs team at Valdosta State University, who used Presence to discover that 10 events lead to retention magic; students who attended at least that many programs per semester were 95% likely to persist onward! Brian knows that if he can find FSVU’s own magic number, then he’ll speak directly to the institution’s bottom line in conveying engagement’s incredible impact on retention. It’s something that he never would have conceived of before using Presence and seeing the data his team’s getting.
Brian and his team also plan to integrate high-impact experiences into Presence via the Experience feature. FVSU will connect multiple programs and opportunities together through shared learning outcomes. They’ll guide students down learning pathways with built-in reflections, along with points and real-world incentives to gamify continued engagement.
Brian will start with FVSU’s Greek Life service-learning program, Cultivating Leadership And Wildcat Service, aka CLAWS. It existed long before Presence but they’ve never had a way of tracking students progress within it, nor clearly communicating what events “counted,” until now.
Service hours are a big deal at FSVU, among Greek and non-Greek students alike. It’s a major part of campus culture, as the university prides itself on its communal reach far beyond enrolled students. So, being able to track the exact hours through Presence has already become a major win!
“Students are able to log into the system and see how many service hours they have. Instead of them calling or emailing our office, which they used to do constantly, they’re able to just head to Presence and it tracks it for them.” — Brian Byrd
Service learning has slowed down since March 2020, due to the pandemic, but FSVU looks forward to reaping the benefits of acquired data soon. Brian will also be able to brag about the total number of service hours completed by students, and institutional leadership will love promoting it.
Another future project that Brian can’t wait to tackle is… SmartTranscripts, an evolved co-curricular transcript designed by Presence to empower students in quantifying and articulating their essential skills. FVSU’s students and staff already know that the institution churns out exceptionally talented scholars, but next, they’ll be able to tell the story of each individual student’s co-curricular learning. It’s a way of showing employers that HBCU graduates make for world-class professionals.
“You get an academic transcript that shows you how good of a student you were. A SmartTranscript will convey the beyond-the-classroom experience. It shows like ‘this student was parliamentarian for two years, then a treasurer, and a president’ and quantifies the precise skills the student learned from those leadership roles. Now, when a student graduates, in addition to those academic skills, they’re showing that they can manage going to class and leading a group. It shows how well-rounded a student really is and how much value FVSU campus programming added to their skill set.” — Brian Byrd
SmartTranscripts will also allow students to self-reflect on their past experiences and take stock of how they’ve grown from within the FVSU community – not to mention, get motivated through gamification and learning pathways to fill in skills gaps and progress further.
Fort Valley State has been educating students for over a century. Now, by harnessing industry-leading technology, they’re showcasing the full breadth of students’ learning outside of the classroom, too. Simplified processes are making engagement easier than ever before, powerful data is putting numbers to stories, and Experiences will soon guide students towards essential skills valued by employers. This family’s future is looking bright.
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