How to host a successful virtual student orientation

Jun 11, 2020 - Cat DiStasio

The coronavirus pandemic has inspired a lot of questions about what the world will look like in the coming months. Chief among them is how colleges and universities will welcome students in the fall. Approaches will be as varied as course offerings, especially as some areas may still be struggling to flatten the curve. Many university leaders are turning to virtual student orientation events as a way to keep students, faculty and staff safe without sacrificing traditions that help students start the year off right.

A virtual student orientation can equip students with all the same necessary information and resources that in-person orientation events usually provide. Although classes won’t start for a couple of months, hosting a successful orientation online requires university leaders to get started early, especially if you’re still unsure what campus activity will look like when the term begins. Careful planning and preparation will help you tackle this challenge and continue serving your student population.

Plan and communicate early

It’s only June, but you’re already thinking about how the school year will kick off this fall, and so are your students. New and returning students both have a lot of questions about how they will register for classes, access academic advising, navigate financial aid, and all the other trappings of college life. Planning a virtual student orientation and sharing the plans with students as early as possible not only helps students answer those questions, but demonstrates that you’re taking their health and safety seriously — a key concern not only of students, but also their parents.

Look at the program agendas of past in-person orientation events and think about all the elements of student life. Design a virtual event tol cover all the same bases, and then some. A successful virtual student orientation will help students connect with academic advisers and financial aid officers for one-on-one consultations (which are best conducted via video chat), as well as guidance about housing, dining, parking, and other campus resources. Once you’ve created an outline for the program, share it with incoming students so they know what to expect during the event, and consider including a form for students to submit questions in advance, so you can ensure your virtual orientation addresses the most frequently asked questions.

Welcome videos

Since the primary objective of a student orientation is to welcome students to campus, your virtual event should send the same message. University leaders should address orientation attendees, either in pre-recorded welcome videos or via live broadcast videos (or a combination). Live broadcast videos give students the opportunity to ask questions and get answers in real time, so consider which topics are best for Q&A event sessions. As with all virtual events, videos don’t necessarily need to be professionally produced. A smartphone or webcam can be an adequate tool, provided the speaker is a well-informed authority on their session’s topic.

Connect students with staff

Incoming students typically come with loads of questions about classes and registration, financial aid, billing, housing, and all the other components of student life on campus. In addition to general info sessions, allow students to chat (via text or video) with advisors, professors, and any other necessary support staff they might have questions for. Although virtual event platforms are typically easy to use, it’s also key to ensure that your staff and faculty are comfortable using the new technology prior to the orientation, so conduct training sessions ahead of time to alleviate frustrations during the orientation.

Creating virtual community

The decision to host a virtual student orientation isn’t an easy one but one thing is clear: it’s an effective way to give students the information and resources they need while reducing health risks for everyone involved. With enough thought and planning, a virtual student orientation can accomplish most of the goals as traditional in-person events, even as other aspects of campus activity come into focus over the coming weeks and months. Even if you’re not able to conduct in-person classes in the fall, virtual student orientations can still help students feel connected to the university community.

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