Bringing the University Open Day experience online
How to showcase the campus experience to new students throughout 2020 lockdowns
Bishop Grosseteste University (BGU) has been educating students in the historic heart of Lincoln for over 150 years. Like many organisations, BGU had to quickly adapt when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in the UK and once BGU had ensured the safety of its students and staff, thoughts turned to the next academic year.
Student recruitment is vital to the university, and one of the key ways in which they attract students is through open days, when students visit the campus and hear talks about their courses and student life.
Clearly, a normal Open Day would not be possible during Covid restrictions, but BGU still needed a way to showcase their single-site campus and range of courses to potential students. Can we create a Digital Open Day experience which would, as best as possible, recreate the open day experience in an interactive online environment?
With 40 different subjects to cover across undergraduate and postgraduate levels, as well as topics such as admissions and accommodation, this would be no small task but we started by thinking about the traditional open day experience. Why did students travel from all over the country to visit the campus? What was it that they wanted to find out? What are the key messages that appeal to them? And how could we provide these things to them in new ways?
To help answer these questions, we created personas - characters with different goals that they wanted to achieve. Like Carla, a prospective student who wants to find out more about BGU; Mr and Mrs Roberts, Carla’s parents who want to help their daughter make the right choice; and Stephanie, a history lecturer who usually delivers a subject-specific talk during the open day. From there, we expanded on these personas and asked ourselves what they hoped to achieve.
This research helped us to draw up a Moscow list (must have, should have, could have, won’t have) to define the scope of the project. We determined that the Open Days must have:
- Interactive chat with multiple ‘rooms’ running simultaneously
- Single homepage hosting all elements, rooms for each subject area
- Pre-recorded video content (e.g. introduction from vice-chancellor, course presentations)
- Easily accessible ways to apply for courses
- A ‘live’ feed where website content can be scheduled to support video content
BGU had an existing bank of good quality video media, so this was included in the Digital Open Days, along with new pre-recorded subject-specific presentations, leaving lecturers free to answer questions using the live chat feature.
Content such as text, images and quotes would need to appear at specific times on a half-hour cycle. There would also need to be a ‘live’ feed on the homepage, with a video, banner and a curated live chat to talk about general questions. Most importantly, we would need a way to control everything using the highly flexible Craft CMS, so that BGU staff could add content with just a small amount of training.
We adopted a collaborative, agile development process throughout the build, receiving feedback from stakeholders while building the website. This helped us to define a number of additional requirements which had not been considered in the initial scope. For example, it became apparent that pre-recorded videos would be much easier than live ones - this would reduce the impact of technical difficulties and allow subject staff to concentrate on answering questions from students in the live chat.
We still wanted to simulate the experience of watching a live stream though, so we had to work out a way of making videos autoplay from the right moment, depending on when visitors joined the room. We also expanded the proofing features so that admins could set the ‘time’ to see what visitors to the site would be seeing at a particular time.
Another feature which we added after initial feedback was the registration system, which would capture the name and email address of anyone attending the Digital Open Day. Anyone who had signed up for the Open Day but did not attend could then be invited to future Open Days.
With a conventional open day, talks would be spread throughout the day, allowing the same member of staff to give talks for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. We simulated this experience by adding the option to enable or disable rooms at particular times, so that undergraduate rooms would be open in the morning and postgraduate rooms open in the afternoon, allowing one person to manage both.
Just six weeks on from the first concept, we had a working system in place, containing 45 subject specialist or topic-based rooms and many hours of video content. The portal was launched in time for the first Digital Open Day on 13th June 2020.
The Digital Open Day was a great success. Over 300 prospective students took part, and there were high levels of student engagement across the rooms, with very active chat conversations. The portal received high praise from University staff, including subject specialists who used the chat features to interact with potential students. A programme of further Digital Open Days took place throughout 2020 and 2021, helping BGU achieve record student applications despite Covid lockdown restrictions.
The Digital Open Days portal is way beyond our expectations, and it went down extremely well with staff and prospective students. Having looked at some other universities’ online open days, ours is light years ahead of the sector. We are really going to stand out with this.
Ben RookMarketing Manager, Bishop Grosseteste University