As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to spread, most universities around the United States have been forced to extend their spring breaks, switch to all online classes, or end the semester early. This includes many students having to pack up their dorms and move out of campus housing on a very short notice.
With students packing their bags and heading to their hometowns all around the country and world, or simply staying put in their dorm rooms to practice social distancing, universities are faced with an unexpected but unavoidable drop in face-to-face engagement time with students. However, this does not mean university marketers and communications should lose all hope until the virus passes. This unexpected crisis just goes to show how essential it is for universities to have a robust online presence where they can still engage with enrolled and prospective students.
Communication is Key
As universities move to online classes or temporary closures, it is vital that students remain in the loop on how the university is handling the situation and planning to move forward. Every university’s situation is different but whether you are completely closing for the rest of the semester, temporarily moving to online classes, or asking all students to leave campus, your website needs to remain up-to-date with information on how students should proceed.
Not only will students want to know what the university’s plans are as the situation changes, but they will also look to their school as a resource for how to stay safe and healthy and how they can stay connected and engaged even while off campus. University marketers and communications offices will need to keep the website as up-to-date as possible with the latest information, as well as sending out frequent emails for students who may not think to check the website on their own. If your current content management system makes this frustrating or complicated, this may be a sign that it’s time to upgrade, once things have calmed down.
It’s also important to make sure that your website and all the content you are putting out is optimized for mobile, as students, parents, faculty, and more will likely be checking in daily from their mobile device to quickly access updates on how your institution is handling the situation. Many will also be opening emails from their mobile devices, so it’s important that they can easily see and access any information on pages your emails are linking to.
Keep the Student Experience Going
Even though students aren’t on campus right now, it is still important to keep them engaged with your university. Students are disappointed to have to end their semester unexpectedly, and are missing out on clubs, extra-curriculars, and most (if not all) students abroad have had to unexpectedly end their adventures overseas. Because of all of this, morale is definitely low, but by keeping students interacting online you can keep them hopeful, and excited to re-enroll in the fall.
Luckily, with the technology we have today, it is easy for students to have real-time communication with each other, faculty, and staff at your university. Many universities who have moved to online classes have opted for a model that lies somewhere in between standard lectures and the typical online class model where students review materials on their own time. By having lectures over video conferencing at the regularly scheduled class time, universities allow students to still collaborate with each other and their professors, while still remaining safely in their homes.
This model may be applicable to some clubs and extracurriculars as well, and if possible universities should encourage student organizations to continue to interact virtually. By encouraging students to stay engaged with their student organizations, and providing helpful resources to make this possible, you can keep your university’s campus life going, even if students are off campus. This will ensure that once students can return to campus, they will be excited to do so and life at your university will be just as dynamic as ever.
Attract Prospects With Your Online Presence
Campus closures have not only affected currently enrolled students, but prospective students as well. Many schools are being forced to postpone or cancel campus tours, so it is more important than ever that your institution’s website showcases what is great about your school. Your website should be easily navigable for prospective students to be able to find the information they need, and should really give them a sense of what it is like to be a student on your campus. Having components like student stories, faculty bios, easily searchable program directories, and a virtual campus tour allow prospective students to envision themselves at your institution without ever having to set foot on campus.
No higher education institution ever expected or wanted to have to temporarily close their university, but this unfortunate circumstance just goes to show how important it is to have a strong online presence for both your currently enrolled and prospective students. The best thing a university can do in this unfortunate circumstance is use the technology we have today to keep student life going and keep website visitors informed and active.