Moving new student orientations to a fully online or blended format has made these programs more affordable, convenient, and accessible for students and their families, and more efficient and streamlined for college and university staff.
As colleges and universities worldwide have adapted to offer primarily remote instruction in 2020, changes to new student orientation programs have been necessary as well. For many institutions, the goal has been to design a fully online or blended orientation experience that encourages the same level of engagement and sense of community as an in-person program. Observing how these orientations develop to meet these challenges will be exciting. During this time of change, three notable benefits of online or blended orientations have emerged: increased convenience, affordability, and accessibility. While many institutions may go back to an in-person orientation in future academic years, colleges and universities should consider maintaining at least a portion of their orientation programs in an online format within their institution's learning management system (LMS).
In April 2020, the instructional design team at the University of Florida (UF) partnered with staff in the New Student and Family Programs and advisors across campus to develop a fully online version of UF Preview, the orientation experience for new students and their families. The instructional design team employed their expertise in education, technology, and user experience to help create a more efficient orientation program that provides a number of benefits to students and families and aligns with national trends.
UF Preview is a two-day in-person orientation that is offered more than sixty times leading up to the start of the fall semester. This in-person experience is invaluable. Nothing can completely replace the feeling of awe students get as they take their first steps in their new campus home, make some of their first college friends, and meet their mentors. However, students often feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of information they receive during orientation. Similarly, advisors and staff find themselves answering the same questions and sharing the same information with students and families in all sixty-plus orientation sessions.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the instructional design team assisted with the transition of UF orientation content to the institution's LMS, where advisors and staff could record sessions, outline requirements and resources, and provide tips and checklists that would replace the information that they had historically delivered in person to students. The result? Advisors shared that students were more confident and prepared to engage in meaningful conversations with their advisors and peers during the synchronous sessions. Students and families had access to content that they could review multiple times, whereas the content presented during a fully in-person orientation can only be viewed once. For staff, developing asynchronous sessions and materials meant that content only needed to be created once instead of repeating the same content at each orientation session. Making content available in the LMS also allowed staff to personalize learning for specific populations, track student progress, and collect targeted feedback for improvement.
Using the LMS to enhance the orientation experience is now a standard practice at UF. Students come out of the experience not only prepared to begin college, but also prepared to take courses online.1
One of the most quantifiable benefits of an online orientation experience is improved affordability. Students and families no longer need to spend money on travel, lodging, food, and dependent care. Offering flexible scheduling of synchronous sessions with advisors, campus organizations, and peers provides additional cost savings because it eliminates the need for students and families to take leave from work. Removing these concerns may reduce stress and allow participants to engage more deeply with the content.
Offering an online or blended orientation experience may be a new way of approaching higher education affordability, which EDUCAUSE has listed as one of the top 10 IT issues of 2020.2
Much like the trend toward using open educational resources (OER) in courses to decrease cost, providing an equivalent online orientation experience may also increase access for students and their families. UF Preview includes more than seventy videos as well as many documents and resources from across campus, all of which can be accessed asynchronously. Over the summer, instead of traveling to campus for a two-day orientation, UF students and families signed up for a weeklong blended orientation session. They perused orientation resources at their convenience throughout the week and then participated in two or three short synchronous meetings. Students and families were able to access orientation materials in the learning management system for a year after their orientation week.
Another benefit of moving UF Preview online is the ability to leverage technology to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines. While there may be assignment deadlines and small synchronous sessions, the experience is mostly self-paced.
By creating an online or blended orientation, students can be connected with all sorts of resources and services across campus—from peer mentors to administrators—setting the foundation for a positive learning experience. Helping students make connections with their peers and the campus community helps to create an inclusive environment. UF Preview greets each student with a warm welcome and culminates with a one-on-one session with the student's Preview advisor. During this session, the student receives assistance registering for their first semester of courses. This personalized conference helps to strengthen the learning community that was established at the beginning of orientation.
One of the main components of UDL is providing learners with multiple opportunities and formats to access and engage with content. Because information is presented in a variety of ways throughout the orientation—and because everything is hosted in the LMS—students can review content as needed while also becoming familiar with the LMS that they will use for their online and blended courses.
By leveraging asynchronous and synchronous communication tools, such as captioned videos or hosted videoconferencing with transcription, and providing documents in multiple formats, orientation teams can proactively facilitate an accessible learning environment and create content that meets the needs of all learners.
Prioritizing affordability and ease of access can help to ensure equitable student success from the very beginning of a student's higher education experience.3
Preliminary feedback from students who went through the UF online orientation was positive, though students asked for increased interaction with their peers. As online orientations are reassessed for future, post-pandemic use, designers and facilitators may want to focus on improving or expanding some synchronous aspects of the orientation to enhance student engagement and interaction.
Although the process is difficult, restructuring orientation programs into an online or blended format provides students and their families with a more affordable and accessible experience that allows them to revisit content whenever they like. This year has been challenging, and if 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we need to effectively adapt to unexpected challenges as they arise. Orientation programs are often the institution's first opportunity to engage and interact with a student. It is imperative for colleges and universities to create an inclusive experience that is welcoming to everyone. While the traditional in-person UF Preview experience will not be replaced entirely, moving the orientations online has offered some advantages. When orientations move back to an in-person format in the future, institutions may opt to combine online and in-person components, leveraging lessons learned from a challenging year to benefit students and staff.
For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Student Success web pages.
The Transforming Higher Ed blog editors welcome submissions. Please contact us at [email protected].
- Megan Eberhardt-Alstot and Jaimie Hoffman, "Transforming Your Orientation from On Ground to Online: Creating an Engaging Student Experience," EDUCAUSE (webinar), May 19, 2020. ↩
- Susan Grajek and the 2019–2020 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top 10 IT Issues, 2020: The Drive to Digital Transformation Begins," EDUCAUSE Review, January 27, 2020. ↩
- Nani Jackins Park, "The New Normal: Don't Leave Equity Behind [video]," EDUCAUSE Review, June 2, 2020. ↩
Leslie Mojeiko is an Instructional Designer at the University of Florida.
Allyson Haskell is an Instructional Designer at the University of Florida.
Stephen Carter is an Instructional Designer at the University of Florida.
Shannon Dunn is the Assistant Director of Instructional Design at the University of Florida.
© 2020 Leslie Mojeiko, Allyson Haskell, Stephen Carter, and Shannon Dunn. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 International License.