Tufts University in Massachusetts typically offers eight optional pre-orientation programs organized around different themes, such as Wilderness—a five-day hiking or canoeing adventure.
This year, those pre-orientations were virtual; students logged in from their homes and watched presentations and participated in small-group workshops. Most of these programs were done over Zoom. “The pre-orientations ran for only a couple of hours a day, and students were engaged and gave positive feedback,” says Joseph Golia, director of campus life.
For the regular undergraduate orientation, which is required for all incoming new and transfer students, the college used presence, a campus-engagement platform. The orientation ran for five days; half of the 1,800 freshmen class was on campus and the other half had not yet arrived.
Students attended mandatory programs such as an alcohol education event with a well-liked speaker and were able to select from a variety of optional programs. They logged onto the platform so Golia’s team could track attendance.
To play up the community aspect, some program directors gave out t-shirts and other swag on campus or sent items to students’ homes prior to the orientation.
Although lectures and meetings worked well in the virtual environment, Golia says it was hard to recreate the in-person feel. “We did our best with YouTube videos of student performances but it wasn’t even close to having the experience of going to the theater and watching the show,” he says.
One high point was the student organizations fair that the college held on the virtual event platform Remo. “There were 350 student organizations and several departments involved, and it was a huge success,” says Golia. “We also used Remo to hold information sessions during orientation for SMFA, our School of the Museum of Fine Arts.”
As hard as it was to do orientation virtually, Golia says they learned there are ways to effectively mix virtual and in-person events. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to fully in-person because of our space constraints," he says. "In fact, we may end up streaming some of our campus presentations from now on.”
Can You Supply Virtual Burgers?
For Santa Monica College (SMC) in California, the challenge of transforming a 5,000-person orientation into an online one was daunting. “We invite more than 6,000 students to our orientation and it’s a ton of fun,” says Kiersten Elliott, dean of academic and community relations. “Lots of families attend and we have five In-N-Out Burger food trucks.”
Elliott’s team used Brazen, a virtual career fair tool. Although it was easy for students to navigate, Elliott found it challenging because while many of the presentation features allowed for sharing information to large groups, the format did not offer opportunities for students to network and socialize.
However, she was able to make students feel more welcome and learn about the institution’s resources via a plethora of workshops such as “Explore Your Career & How to Choose Your Major,” “Special Programs and Student Support Services,” and “Maximize Your Experience @SMC!” Faculty, staff, and career counselors collaborated on the events.
“The orientation went well, but next fall we’ll have more Zoom chat rooms so students can see each other,” says Elliott.
Creating a Seamless Experience
At SUNY Empire State College—which offers in-person, online, and blended classes at more than 30 locations in New York state and at eight international campuses—the administration had been developing a fully virtual orientation even before the pandemic. “You could attend a face-to-face orientation or do our virtual one in Moodle, our learning management system (LMS),” says Nathan Whitley-Grassi, director of educational and emerging technologies.
SUNY Empire’s orientations are more about navigating the college and being successful, but Whitley-Grassi says they are also very visual and appealing. Developed around a storyline with a series of interactive modules, the orientation includes check-ins in which students engage with live people. Through articles and videos, students learn how courses are offered and about the mentoring program. They also explore resources for their specific program, degree planning, and responsibilities and expectations.
“Students can customize degrees here, and we want them to be fully aware of the possibilities,” says Whitley-Grassi. “Students who take advantage of this are really happy with the outcomes.”
A 20-person committee with representation from every office helped to create the virtual orientation. “We have to work together to make the experience seamless for everyone,” says Whitley-Grassi.
Revisit as Necessary
“We’ve gone through several transitions with our orientation,” says Dena Tuschen, director of bachelor completer services for Rasmussen College, which has campuses in six states and online programs. “Several years ago, we moved to offering more centralized content via live sessions over WebEx. Then we started hosted it in Blackboard, our LMS.”
Most recently, Rasmussen moved the orientation content into Comevo, a web-based orientation software, to make it mobile-friendly for students. The Rasmussen orientation focuses partially on helping students learn how to use Blackboard. They read articles, take quizzes, watch videos, and can even take practice courses to better understand the technology.
“The orientation helps students know about the resources available to them,” says Matthew Strum, student services coordinator. “They also become familiar with tools from all the departments, they learn about student clubs and how they can get involved, and they get connected to our social media. Essentially, they learn how to be successful from day one.”
The orientation is available 12 weeks before the start of classes each term, so students can take it whenever they choose. And, since it is on Blackboard, students can revisit it whenever they need.
Other Virtual Resources
- vFairs: Offers interactive functionality, such as chat tools, video vaults to archive videos, and a virtual briefcase in which students can store documents.
- 6Connex: With a focus on virtual events, the platform offers exhibit halls, booths, and lounges as well as live chats, polls, and other social networking features.