Visit Modern Campus

Living Up to the Virtual Student Experience

Although institutions have been able to pivot quickly to the remote environment, many are still grappling to maintain a strong student experience, especially online. 

Moving to the remote environment has shaken up many institutions’ infrastructures, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now, faculty leaders have the chance to revamp their university both structurally and culturally by shifting focus to what really matters—the students. The old ways of creating a student experience will no longer work in this new normal, and student expectations have changed. In this interview, Carolyn Callaghan discusses how institutions can deliver these on-demand student needs, the importance of seamlessness and how the virtual environment has changed the student experience. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant challenges involved with serving students entirely remotely through the institution’s virtual channels?

Carolyn Callaghan (CC): COVID-19 showed who’s doing what and how well they’re doing it. What we found was that resources and resourcefulness were critically important. You’re limited by your bandwidth options. If you had the infrastructure to scale up, you continued pretty seamlessly. However, if you went from entirely residential to entirely online, the shift was very difficult for many. Some did it quite well, some did not. But we’ve all been dealing with moving quickly towards more virtual education for the past six to ten years.

What everyone wrestles with is student experience. How do we connect people with our university and our faculty? We know that is so very important. When we look at the for-profits and some of those mega online schools, we see what they’re doing successfully. They have 24-hour call centers.  They reach out and are super high touch. They make sure that students have someone to connect with at all times, which is critical.  

Something else that we’ve all discovered is that our policies and procedures don’t work. You can’t just say one size fits all. Many administrators come from that very residential student base mindset. Administrators from all divisions need to listen, connect, understand what that online student experience is. 

Evo: Do you believe supporting a virtual student experience has to do more with an institution’s infrastructure or its culture? 

CC: It has to go hand-in-hand. Infrastructure needs to be there. Institutions have to be investing back in growth. You have to be intentional about what that growth looks like. And in that, you have to have the philosophical stance and culture that go along with it. If we put a policy in place, and it adversely affects online students, you then have to backtrack and figure out how to reshape it based on the students. This can be hard and time-consuming for a university or administration. 

Evo: How have staff had to adapt to deliver this high-quality, highly personalized student experience to learners when it has to be all online?

CC: We thought it was going to be a struggle when we went home to work remotely. What many of us found is that we could do it pretty seamlessly. We could still reach our goals and our students. So, they’re still giving a personalized service—making sure students get what they need—and then advocating and working with offices across the virtual campus to make sure that seamless service is happening. As everyone’s looking at best practices, if you look back, you can see where the strengths were. Schools that did well had a learning assessment for faculty and students. They looked at what was needed for them to be successful and addressed changes as quickly as they could. 

That said, there were schools that could not adequately train students and faculty for course shift in two weeks. Many just focused on the basics. Some schools even enlisted the more advanced faculty members to train those who needed it, and it was the same with students. Some institutions were successful by getting student governments involved. If everyone leans in together to use as many tools as we can resource, we can move forward together.  

Evo: How would you define seamlessness and its importance in their engagement with the institution?

CC: If you break that down to the core pieces, when a seam rips open, things get disjointed. Those “seam rips” are places where you can easily lose students along the way. That’s where you know processes are broken. So, when talking about putting together a seamless experience, it’s about listening to students and where they get lost in the process. 

You have to think about your learner and understand who they are. Many of our learners are millennials, so they expect things to be on demand. They want an instant return and they should get that answer.

We need to always have the learner profile at the top of mind. When you decentralize, students have to go through a lengthy process with all the offices. It can get to a point where the student feels frustrated and quits. Students may find that the mega online school that they know will give them that seamless experience is the better alternative. Be mindful of your students and analyze their expectations. We’re all trying to figure out what post-COVID looks like. The more we can forecast out and use our knowledge about our students, the better prepared we’ll be. 

Evo: Are there any other aspects of a truly seamless digital learner experience that you want to highlight?

CC: I really believe that high-touch aspect is key. Students want someone who will listen. All of us want someone who will listen. We want to know that we matter. 

Evo: How important is it to find the tools and services, and the right infrastructure enhancements that ensure the burden of seamlessness doesn’t fall on manual staff effort?

CC: It’s all about the tools—and there are always more tools added every day. The tools my seven-year-old is using now and what he used in March are completely different. Teachers had the time to experiment over the summer to see what works and what doesn’t. 

It’s the same for universities and colleges. As we know, systems and platforms may change frequently.  We need to continue to think about the “seams” where things are breaking and match tools or transition to tools that remedy the situation.  We are constantly adding tools that will help us go from a very manual high touch to more automated.

Then, paying close attention to your communication plan goes hand-in-hand. We’re constantly surveying every new tool that comes out of the box to evaluate what it is, what the fit is for us, and what the fit is for our student body.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to deliver a truly seamless digital learner experience?

CC: What I’ve noticed is that my experience was further complicated by a change in employment, so tools and processes were different.  I have learned through this transition to quickly dig in and understand the audience, stakeholders, and culture. Come at it from that angle and build it. Never lose sight of the student-centered mindset—no matter whether they’re a digital or a residential learner. You understand the residential student very well. Now, I’m asking you to understand the digital learner just as well. It takes advocacy, work on relationships and constant communication with stakeholders.  Sometimes stakeholders are simply not exposed and don’t think about the remote students who are not right in front of them—find a way to take them on that student journey.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Author Perspective: