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Welcoming students back to a ‘virtual’ campus: using technology to support student wellbeing

For anyone returning to university, the apprehension and unknows that Covid-19 presents will likely be playing on student minds. Indeed, Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity and Headspace in Australia, have been providing unprecedented levels of dedicated support to both students and staff to help them through this period, and publishing up to date  guidance and resources on a regular basis.

Many universities are rightly focussing attentions on new first year students (as discussed in the first blog in this series) but ensuring second and third year students remain happy and feel supported is just as important at this current time. A recent Wonkhe Podcast discussed a huge range of subjects that universities need to consider as a result of the pandemic, including, how universities can help students stay motivated to learn (at more of a distance) and the importance of making it easy for those in need to access both academic and emotional student support.

Access our Student support and wellbeing webinar recording

It’s therefore essential that Universities have a robust student support and welfare service in place to support all students upon their return and as they progress through the final years of their degrees. Here are some suggestions for welcoming your students back to university life...

#1 Keep everyone informed - be ready to answer all their questions!

Keeping everyone informed of changes to university life and setting student expectations (some of which will be new and temporary!) has never been more important. There will be a number of questions that students have about how their new academic years will look in light of the coronavirus outbreak, so providing clarity and reassurance is absolutely essential. Providing a bank of FAQs on your university website or student portal is a great way to disseminate any useful information, and support student mental health and wellbeing during times of uncertainty. It’s likely your information teams will be inundated with questions regarding the current situation, so sharing common questions and answers will help manage the workload of enquiries coming into the university.  Be sure to include answers to questions about accommodation and fees, should students not be able to physically return to campus at the start of the year.

#2 Provide support options via a variety of channels – time to consider Live Chat!

During these uncertain times it is likely that students will want to speak directly with a member of staff or student services to discuss any concerns, so providing a Live Chat functionality to facilitate such conversations may be a worthy investment. Other similar functions include chat-bots or virtual agents where artificial intelligence software can stimulate conversations using pre-set answers, a useful tool for directing students to a bank of FAQs.

University of Bristol in the UK, for example, already provides a virtual chat function using pre-created chat messages that enables the Student Welfare team to provide quick feedback to students. The team can then convert the virtual chat into a case in the CRM if further information is required to answer the question. The university’s Student Welfare team is also now looking at deploying chat bots onto multiple web pages, enabling offer holders, prospective and current students alike to ask for help - wherever they are on the website.

#3 Engage returning students – gather valuable insights and nurture relationships

Email campaigns are an effective way to reignite existing relationships with returning students after the break (and since social distancing kicked in), helping to ensure students return to their studies in the new academic year. Be sure to share information on:

  • Planned approaches to tackle the challenges presented by Covid-19
  • Virtual learning, lectures and group work
  • How to access tutor support and likely timescales for responses
  • Whether deadlines will be affected, and so on

Software such as Click Dimensions, Dot Digital and Gecko Forms can be used to keep in planned contact with students, with the added benefit that responses to communications can be captured in CRM and used to measure how students are engaging with what they are receiving. Indeed, whatever tools you use, measurement is key to improving your engagement rates: most tools provide reports that will give you valuable insights on which students are engaged having received and read the marketing messages, and those who are less engaged and need some further nurturing, making it possible to proactively reach out to those less engaged, providing one-to-one support and improving student retention rates.

The use of social media campaigns (e.g. via platforms such as Facebook, Twitter etc.) are also an effective way to re-engage returning students, and are worth considering as part of your broader marketing approach.

Student support and wellbeing recording

4# Events don’t always have to be in person

Live virtual events are just as affective and a great way to re-engage with returning students, whilst presenting an opportunity to address any concerns or questions returning students may have. For example, an informative virtual event could be held by senior members of the university to present to students the proactive steps the university is taking to manage the impacts of Covid-19 on their university experience, and what they should expect their new academic life to look like. Students will want to feel safe in returning to University so communicating proactive steps and being transparent is key.

Continuing to provide a robust student support and student welfare service to all students during this challenging time should be a key priority for universities, including both remote and face-to-face services. Encouraging students to utilise this support network can be challenging but a great initial starting point is to host a range of tailored workshops and support events for anyone to join. In turn this is a great way to ensure students feel their mental health and wellbeing is of top priority and supported throughout their university journey, not only supporting those who need regular help but also supporting a wider student audience who require a little extra support during this challenging time.

If possible, offering one on one appointments will provide students with much needed reassurance. For example, Sheffield Hallam University already hosts a number of online events and is looking to offer more events virtually during this time. The university also provides an Appointment Booking portal, so that students can book appointments with its Student Support and Welfare teams to discuss disabilities, extra learning needs or finance.

#5 Could a ‘one stop shop’ virtual drop in centre be a viable option?

Like with all markets, organisations across the globe are embracing technology to deliver solutions to its customers in new and exciting ways, seeing additional benefits as a result. Could this now be the time for universities to take welfare support to the next level, operating in the virtual world? Rather than operating a psychical help desk type drop in centre for students to access welfare support, this could be the perfect time to explore the virtual alternative, where students can access all initial support and welfare services via a virtual ‘one stop shop’?

For more ideas and information on how to use technology to support students  through these difficult times – Access our latest webinar recording >