Back in early March, still in the throes of a busy month of visiting schools and HE fairs, I thought that virtual outreach was firmly the remit of our talented digital team. Fast forward six months and online presentations, live chats and podcasts are as much a part of my role as prospectuses, recoils and the trusted clicker! But the question remained, could we meet the needs of prospective students and what would be the legacy of digital outreach?
It wasn’t long into lockdown that our first requests for online talks came through. Initially delivered with some trepidation, it was obvious that, although not perfect, this format was an effective way of communicating information and guidance to students.
After hosting several virtual events and talks including online open days, it became clear that the online format presented many positives for students. They were able to access more events without the constraints of travel time or cost. Open Day attendance of over 2,500 proved this to be the case. When presented with a wide range of subject talks and presentations, students were able to navigate the system so that they could access more talks than they would have done in an on-campus event, with the added benefit of being able to re-watch pre-recorded elements to reinforce their understanding. Unsurprisingly students were comfortable within the online environment and it was refreshing to see a high number of questions put to academics, contrasting with the parent dominated Q&A sessions, seen all too frequently in lecture theatres up and down the country.
We learnt quickly. Resources needed to be adapted, objectives re–focused and timings carefully considered. To make talks engaging we used tools such as polls, chat functions and online quizzes. Student Ambassadors, so key to our work pre-Covid, supported talks and live chats, adding context and relevance with their comments and views on student life.
As restrictions remain and we continue to develop our virtual offer, there are many positives going forward. Universities can help to redress the attainment gaps caused by school closures through online mentoring and guided reading schemes. They can expand knowledge and awareness of different courses by streaming academic talks and they can connect prospective students with ambassadors who have similar backgrounds, one of the most impactful ways to motivate and inspire.
All of this leads to an obvious question: will outreach only be digital from now on? Although online outreach will be around in the future, it seems clear that students still have the desire to visit campus open days and attend UCAS events and focus days. 92% of our online open day attendees said they would like to visit campus in the future. So although online outreach is definitely part of the new normal, it seems like face to face events will return, and I for one, look forward to that.
Sarah Thomas, Access and Widening Participation Manager, Leeds Beckett University