New Orientation Model
When I was hired on as a consultant with the ed tech company Wisr in April 2020 to help institutional clients transition their orientation programs to a virtual format in response to the global pandemic, the CEO and I agreed, this was likely a short-term venture. Things would go back to the way they were after the current crisis ends. Online orientation was a one-year problem and probably not an on-going revenue stream for Wisr. After all, college orientations had been managed in a somewhat similar format for forever. Just because the world was broken didn’t mean orientation was. Well, since then I have consulted with over a dozen institutional partners and presented best practices to over 100 institutions about transitioning orientation programs to a virtual format, and I find myself questioning: did we discover a solution to a problem we didn’t even know we had?
I ran new student orientation for over ten years at the University of Chicago. NSO was an eight-day program serving over 1,500 entering first-year and transfer students at the time. There had been plenty of changes to the program over the years (I still consider it a personal feat that I got that math placement test online!) and it has seen many changes since I left after my last O-Week in 2014, but all in all, O-Week was (and still is) a beloved tradition and often cited as students’ favorite time in the College, that is until Senior Week rolls around.
In my office, I had copies of what we called the O-Book, you can probably deduce what that was, going back to 1934. 1934! Orientation certainly looked a little different in 1934 versus 2014, but, all in all, not so fundamentally different – a little campus culture and expectations, a little advising and course registration, a little fun. Have institutions been running essentially the same orientation programs for nearly a century? Is it time to maybe rethink that decision? Let me tell you why I drank the Kool-Aid.
First, let’s talk about student learning. If we take everything we know about how students learn (I found this to be a handy guide), why do we think current orientation models still hold? Whether it is two days or eight, do we actually expect students to ingest hour after hour of important information overwhelming them from all angles? Are we just checking boxes so we can say they got the information, or is it actually important to us that they learn about available resources, understand institutional policies, and adapt to campus culture? Additionally, Gen Z digital natives expect to be taught differently. According to Forbes, Gen Z wants their educational content to be digital, engaging, and accessible at anytime from anywhere. While the O-Book might now be an app and placement tests are taken online over the summer instead of proctored in person, whatever free time that may have existed has been filled up with more presentations, more discussions, and more information, still representing an overwhelming amount of information to absorb in a relatively short time.
Second, I hope it is not news to you that college access and affordability continue to be hot topics in higher ed. In-person orientation programs come along with fees, time away from work and family, additional or longer trips to campus which include airfare or fuel costs, hotel stays for parents, and meals out. As the first introduction to college life, orientation flies in the face of access and affordability. On the college’s side, running programs that feed, house, educate, and entertain students for two, five, or even ten additional days are exorbitantly expensive to run. Could just a portion of those expenses be reallocated to help meet students where they are by providing an engaging virtual orientation experience?
Third, speaking from first-hand experience, orientation is exhausting – for everyone. Whether a series of short programs over the course of the summer where Groundhog Day is an annual reality (not just a pandemic induced haze), or a marathon week-long program right before classes start, between staff training and students starting classes there are long, long, just plain long days. Sixteen-hour days filled with furniture moving, unhealthy eating habits, suits in 85-degree heat, or worse, rain, overcrowded events, cranky students and parents, etc. Rinse and repeat. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Lastly, we have convinced ourselves that during orientation students forge connections and build long-lasting community. Are students really building the community we think they are? For short summer programs at large universities, maybe students will exchange Instagram handles, but how likely are they to ever see some of these people again once they are dispersed across campus? In pre-class programs, those first few days they are meeting their classmates and people in their residence halls, wouldn’t they be doing that anyway those first few days? Are we calling orientation community building because it offers a good narrative and justifies the time and expense?
Technology allows us to think so much differently about what is possible if, and that is a big if, we are willing to let go of our own long-held beliefs. If invention is the mother of necessity, is innovation the boss lady of a pandemic? We already decided that the future is female, right?
Now is the perfect moment to toss out the way you have always run orientation before and find a new and improved model. You can run every program once in cool air-conditioned splendor, record it, and make it available for anyone to watch at their leisure while tracking who watches it. Students and their families will no longer need to choose between rotating sessions, instead they can learn more about whatever they are interested in whenever they want. Departments who have clamored for space and time to share their resources during your limited program can contribute to create content to feed a robust virtual community. And you don’t have to worry about losing those personal connections. Closed social networks allow students to identify and connect with students who have similar affinities and interests that can then connect to in-person communities when they arrive on campus. And when your students do arrive on campus, the convocations, receptions, first football games, and student activities fairs will provide the celebratory and welcoming atmosphere institutions want to create for their students knowing that the business end of orientation has been taken care of.
Perhaps what we did out of crisis and necessity during the pandemic has actually landed us with a better model more attuned to our students’ needs that also better prepares them for a successful academic career. May I suggest a refreshing glass of Kool-Aid?