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15 Ideas for Remixing Digital New Student Programs

Dr. Josie Ahlquist with Pearson, Assistant Director in New Student & Family Programs at Florida State University, and Megan Huston, Program Coordinator for Orientation at California State University – San Bernardino

Summer! Summer! Summertime! For most orientation, transition, and retention (OTR) professionals, summer is usually filled with incoming students and their families. From ensuring they are enthusiastically welcomed, prepared for their transition to college courses, and introduced to various university resources and organizations to support their success and community building, summers can seem non-stop. Rethinking, recreating, and transitioning those programs online has been no easy task, but it is happening. 

Orientation programs have been using various platforms to welcome and transition incoming first-year and transfer students. These platforms have included, but aren’t limited to, Advantage Design Group, Comevo, Innovative Educators, Discord and even learning management systems like Blackboard and Canvas. Using these platforms and combining them with other tools, such as Zoom and social media, has laid the groundwork for what’s to come next. Not only have these programs taught us a lot about our institutions and technology tools, but they have also prepared our students for the inevitable. 

So what’s next for Welcome Week, First Six-Week programs, Transfer programs, Convocations, and many of the other programs for our new students?

As we invite students to and back to our universities – whether in an online, in-person, or hybrid format, planning for digital programming is about as debatable as wearing a mask. We have to do it. 

However as I’ve written previously, the work of student engagement must transform – not just take our cornerstone programs and expect them to work online. Attempts to replicate models built for in-person experiences will have shortcomings in digital context, and also ignores the capabilities (good and bad) of technology tools.

Services forced into digital spaces, that are typically orchestrated in-person, call into question the very objective of the program, experience or service. Coupled with layoffs, furloughs and professionals taking care of dependents while working at home amidst a pandemic and civil rights activism – we must take a critical look at why we do what we do and if it actually is for the right reasons. Well that just may be a reckoning completely for higher education. 

Discerning our services, our courses and our processes takes an emotional toll on campus administrators, faculty and student leaders. Transforming our campuses in the midst of a crisis is no easy feat. 

Orientation, welcome week and all new student programs in a “typical” year are also no easy tasks. I found my career path from my orientation leader days. I know the power of relationships ignited by these shared experiences. 

When these experiences must be delivered online, how will you ensure new and returning students acclimate to your campus and become part of your community? How will you keep students engaged and excited? How will you keep parents and families informed and reassured?

I’ve covered this topic before, in the sense of enhancing the in-person experience with social media engagement: 30 Ideas for a Digital-Friendly New Student Orientation. Even though I wrote this post six years ago, in the last few months it has seriously been making the rounds. So I knew I needed to take another look and create a remix. 

When we are forced to go digital in new student programs, what is possible?  

Below I’ve spelled out 15 ideas to make your online-only programs more engaging, informative, and hopefully even fun. Use this list as inspiration, not a rubric. These aren’t listed in order of rank or timeline, and may be extremely successful at one institution, but not the right fit at another. 

Let purpose always guide your approach. Because without intention, all this tech is just busywork. 

1. Develop a student-centered social media strategy.

Your social media pages (and websites) aren’t for you. Set marketing aside for a moment and put yourself in their shoes. What do your students care about most? What platforms are they already using, when do they log online, what gets them to interact? Heavily involve your current students and give them the power to come up with and carry out ideas. Ask students what they think of your website, social media pages and emails. It may be hard to hear – but honestly, it’s the only way we’re going to get to a student-centered strategy. Finally, the more your digital strategy aligns with your goals and learning outcomes, the easier it will be to implement and evaluate.

2. Zoom is a tool, not a solution. 

The ability to interact face-to-face is crucial, and yes, Zoom does it well. But there are many other tools for video facilitation to explore. So many are developed for higher education; which tools are already available to you? On my short list: Canvas, Moodle, Google Meet, Google Classroom, Blackboard, Microsoft Teams, Engage, Periscope, Go2Orientation, Crowdcast. Once you have it, how you use the tool makes all the difference. Remember that you can’t simply record or broadcast a session in the same way it would be delivered live. Be intentional in encouraging audience feedback and participation. This will require strategy development and most likely exploring additional online engagement tools such as those designed for visual collaboration: Shape, Milanote, Miro and Mural.  

Quick Tips for Video Facilitation 

  • Have chat moderators and face-to-face facilitators
  • Use customized backgrounds
  • Incorporate music
  • Add an outside platform like Kahoot
  • Try out polls
  • Take advantage of breakout rooms
  • Use the reaction emoji buttons to get a pulse, but also encourage for emotional responses

Say it with me again – Zoom is a tool. It is not the solution to student engagement.

3. Create a method to collect student-created content.

Advice and perspective from peers is so important to incoming students. Tap your Orientation Leaders and other current students to share your campus from their point of view. Maybe it’s an Instagram takeover, maybe it’s a video montage. Megan says OLs taking over Instagram has had almost double the traction of CSUSB’s typical orientation stories. “Even though they’re all at home right now, it’s a ‘live’ way to hear about the students’ experience, insight, and wisdom that has been so invaluable to our new students!” she says.  Is your campus recreated in Minecraft? That might be a fun new way to guide a campus tour. Pearson calls out the fun video tour created by FSU’s Homecoming Council.

You’ll also need a way to capture content from the new students participating in your programs. Here’s a roundup of Tools that Deliver the Human Touch to help you get started. I’m a fan of Google forms to collect submitted quotes, photos and more. Let students know the form exists, and promote it multiple times to boost submissions. Encourage your students to tag your university account and use your hashtags, so you can easily find and repost. You can also cross-promote platforms, like TikTok videos on Instagram. 

4. Prioritize digital education.

New students may have been using social media as early as middle school, but that doesn’t mean they’ve had impactful training – if any at all. In addition to sharing your university’s expectations of digital behavior, and where to find online resources for community and support, you will need to address digital literacy gaps. I caution you to not fall on scare tactics, however. Rather, frame digital education with a lens to empower students to be leaders online. This would be a fantastic initiative for your student leaders to create and be the face of, as my research shows peer-to-peer digital education can be a powerful force. From digital wellness to how to be a leader online, check out some of my programs for students to help them use social media for good.

5. Go old school. 

Don’t underestimate the power of a phone call. Like a social media DM, there’s a sense of intimacy that allows students to be vulnerable and ask the tough questions they wouldn’t post in a public space. There’s a sense of immediacy that can’t be replicated through email. And a voice on the line is a human connection desperately needed in times of physical distancing.

Consider hosting small-group sessions and one-on-one consultations on topics such as registration, academic advising, financial aid, housing, diversity and inclusion, health, and well-being. Think about how the format/function of 1-1 or small group coaching would be beneficial for certain topics and outcomes. This is a great way to get families informed and engaged, too. Pearson says FSU’s family webinar series has had over 200 participants every week. Tailoring information to this key audience is so important. And like any other piece of great content, record, and repurpose! Share in family network social groups to help promote your next interactive session.

6. Offer on-demand experiences.

It is unrealistic to expect hundreds to thousands of new students to log on at the exact same time and stay engaged – multiple times throughout your major new student program initiatives. You will need to create experiences that can be available on-demand when it works for your students (not just your schedule). Consider mixing mandatory sessions with optional modules. Additionally, not all content is best delivered in the moment/live. Some students may need more time to watch and process and reflect. Plan the programs that can be presented on-demand and be sure to include links to supporting materials or required forms. The additional benefit of creating asynchronous programs is that you can pre-populate content with transcripts, multimedia learning tools (like a workbook, resource list, discussion board), and much more.

7. Invest in skilled community managers. Train them. Pay them. Take care of them. 

Resist relying solely on a team of interns or assuming a “young” professional is an expert of social media because of their age. Cultivating an engaged community requires nuance and skill. Online community managers will need training in advanced strategies and technologies for social media communication. They also need access to the department, divisional, and depending on the account they run, campus leadership. Community managers should also be highly skilled in social listening and assessment. Listening to ongoing social chatter will help you understand if your message is being received the way you intended – and if/when a crisis happens they will be prepared to manage it effectively.

8. Accessibility is not optional.

Remove barriers for students with vision, hearing or learning impairments. Don’t forget about language barriers as well. Enable closed captions, provide transcripts, add alt text or captions to images, use high resolution and high contrast images, translate key documents. Stop posting flyers full of tiny text. Do an audit of all your materials to check the color contrast. Read 4 Things You Need to Do to Make Every Virtual Student Program Inclusive for more helpful tips.

9. Invest in training on the skills for digital engagement and facilitation.

Students, parents and families have more expectations and needs than being talked at. You are also competing for their attention on potentially two or three screens. I’ve been a keynote speaker and facilitator since 2013, and let me tell you that online facilitation is new muscle to flex. But we need to get to the gym quick – so invest in tech tools, experiential training, and a team facilitation model that leans into what digital tools can bring. 

As shared in #2 (Zoom is not a solution), you were given a variety of platforms and practices. But just giving student leaders, staff or faculty a list of options is also not a solution to creating engaging online experiences.

At a minimum create a tutorial, workshop, or course that facilitators can work through to gain the knowledge, competencies and confidence in online facilitation. Your training should provide your team the time to not just learn the tools, but an ability to practice, work through problems solving/tech troubleshoot in real-time, receive coaching, and document their growth. In training leaders of all levels, remember to incorporate tips on body language and tone of voice – in addition to lighting composition, audio quality, and setting up your background whether virtual or actual. Need help training your students, staff or instructors on online facilitation? I’m cooking up a workshop on this! Reach out to get on the list to see the curriculum when it’s ready!

10. Be picky with your platforms.

You can’t be on every single platform available unless you have a full-time social media manager behind them. FULL TIME. Honestly, if social is just a bullet point on your job description you probably can’t successfully maintain more than three. So look to your people – who do you serve? What platforms are they on? 

While it’s tempting, don’t immediately adopt platforms. You must begin with a clear purpose. Know your Why (goal), Who (audience) and What (experience within the community). Your strategy also needs to include guidelines and policies for your community, as well as an investment of moderators/administrators to maintain and monitor the space. They help uphold the 4 I’s of digital communities: Intentional, Interactive, Inclusive, and Impactful. (There’s a handy Moderator Checklist in this blog post.)

Right now if you are looking for a social platform for traditional-aged college students – go all in on Instagram. There are so many opportunities to engage with this platform. Feed, Stories, Live. Do it. Meet students where they are. Feature them consistently. Show them what they can’t see for themselves (just yet). Go behind-the-scenes and get up close and personal. Be authentic.

11. Explore one new tech strategy at a time.

Boldly go where your new student programming has never gone before. But just do one new tool at a time. Maybe you integrate a chatbot to help answer FAQs. You could launch a podcast series on financial services, as this Presence article suggests, with student questions guiding the next episode’s content. Or will you be fun (and educational) with TikTok challenges. Maybe you’ll host your student involvement fair on Flipgrid. Whatever you do, please only add one new strategy at a time and always build in metrics to assess along the way.

12. Build a digital community.

Where will your students find each other to laugh, lead, and just be? Where is their digital living room or quad? You can help them create those spaces and make new connections on platforms designed for groups like Mighty Networks, Reddit, Discord, Facebook Groups and GroupMe. Learn more in my webinar, Building Online Community for College Students as well as in a recent post, Reimagining Your Campus Communities in Digital Spaces. 

Radford University activated the platform Discord in their evening orientation programming, with channels including gaming, camera roll challenge, would you rather convos, service project, digital caricature artist and three rooms for roommate matching. Tricia Smith, Associate Vice President for Student Life, shared how each room was supported by a student OL, professional staff back up and one upperclassman they called a “hype person.” 

Having a team approach to your digital community sparks energy, connections and sustained engagement. Over time the most successful communities have interaction by members more than the moderators. You can activate conversations through consistency. Says Pearson, “We ask a question every Tuesday on Instagram and feature OLs in a question format–like guessing an OL’s facts or we have even done Two Truths & A Lie.”

13. Integrate pre-recorded and live sessions.

Encourage campus leaders to welcome new students with pre-recorded videos that evoke energy and showcase the personalities of each student or campus leader. Live broadcasts allow students to chat their questions and get answers in real time – Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, has been doing live sessions on IGLive since the spring. For large-scale live sessions, look into Airmeet, which has capacity to host conferences and other big events. Make recordings available for anyone unable to attend as scheduled. Even on Instagram, live videos can be downloaded and re-purposed on YouTube to your campus website. Be deliberate with your live content, and ensure it retains its value on-demand.  

14. Up your game with active learning.

If interactive experiences are a given for your in-person programs, they are even more necessary for digital sessions. Students cannot simply consume the information, they must comprehend it and complete any follow-up tasks. Keep them focused on your session (rather than the fridge or their phone) with engagement tactics. Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner at Louisiana State University started this collaborative Google doc with suggestions for Active Learning while Physical Distancing. These ideas go beyond the classroom to enhance new student programs with polls, partner/small group chats, discussion boards and quizzes. The suggestions can be applied to synchronous or asynchronous online environments. Students are more likely to take a quiz, for example, if the next module is “locked” until they pass with an 80% or higher score.

15. Create meaningful online content.

Keep up with your social media accounts so interaction remains at a high level following your digital events. Seek out conversations about the university and especially engage with incoming students. Keep a delicate balance of too much promo (a bulletin board) with too little information (a Twitter graveyard). The happy medium is to provide content from other sources that your community will find beneficial, such as related articles, videos, or images that relate to new college students. Don’t be afraid to use humor and have a personality. This is also the time to drive the conversation on the class Facebook group or on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, as students will post questions and ideas that would be ideal for someone familiar to the institution to respond to.

It is the circumstances of this wildly unpredictable time that make digital engagement necessary for our new student programs. Digital-friendly innovations that you may have been testing, or perhaps only dreaming about, are suddenly needed in practice. Now that we are here, I believe that we cannot go back. Nor should we want to. Incoming students are longing for the sense of connection we can provide in digital spaces. If done well, these meaningful connections can help students persist to graduation, and maintain a relationship with the university as alumni.

Before we advance any further, we must pause and take stock of what we have already accomplished this summer. What have you discovered to be effective? What strategies need to be tweaked? Which tools and techniques resonate with your students, staff, faculty? 

If there’s any encouragement, education, or inspiration I could offer to you, your team, or to your students, I encourage you to reach out to learn more about my keynote, workshop, consultation, and small group coaching options!

How to Build a Vibrant Global Community, Virtually

4 Things You Need to Do to Make Every Virtual Student Program Inclusive

9 skills every social media manager must have

Don’t Just Throw Together a Webinar — The Virtual Events Crash Course You Need

How to Launch a Successful Online Community: A Step-by-Step Guide

Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Classes

Social media crisis plan: What to do when things go wrong

The Complete Social Listening Guide

A Director of Orientation’s Top 6 Tips for Welcoming Students Virtually This Fall

Digital Student Engagement & Community Building Facebook Group 

120+ Virtual Engagement Strategies for Incoming Students

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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