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Will Campus Life Translate to a Virtual Environment?

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

From remote working to online socializing to virtual learning, COVID-19 has forced us to embrace a new reality rooted exclusively in virtual interactions. We are pivoting our notions about traditional academic environments, and reflecting on how educational institutions’ responses are leading to a paradigm shift in the learning experience. But, what about the campus life experience? How will that change as we move from a mostly physical campus experience to one that is completely virtual?

As a university’s vision for a virtual campus is now in beta mode, the time is ripe for experimenting with embracing new ways of authentically connecting with students and figuring out what works best.

The student experience is crucial to defining the university community. While the primary driver for college selection by students and their families is based around an academic major and the strength of the program, once a student arrives on campus, the primary driver of their success is determined by their connectedness to fellow students. Research has shown a strong correlation between rates of engagement, retention, and ultimately, graduation. A support group of peers to rely upon for academic, social, and other needs is instrumental in helping students successfully navigate the campus experience.

As students and faculty settle into the current reality of a 100% virtual campus, educational institutions are facing the challenge of retaining students by capturing the on-campus serendipity and interplay that is so critical to student success.

The current student body majority — Gen Z — is comprised of digital natives who are hyper-connected to their personal devices, and thus, their network of peers. They know how to be alone together, and now they need to be together alone. In many ways, we cannot attempt to replicate the exact experience of traditional college life, full of first-time experiences and spontaneous moments like watching Ultimate Frisbee on the way to the dining hall and deciding to join that club, or being moved by a lecture given by a political activist, or making lifelong friends with a student on the same dormitory floor. Instead, we must seek new ways of creating similar connectedness using today's relevant platforms and best practices to educate and entertain, while building institutional affinity. This is a perfect moment to bridge experience and technology.

To connect experience with technology, institutions should:

  • Focus on how to interconnect natural human behaviors within the virtual world.
  • Learn from the platforms students are already using socially — look at how they are engaging with one another through technology, and leverage both the platforms and methodologies.
  • Meet students where they are and interact with them in the digital space.

Universities should understand where and how their students are already engaging online, from Instagram to TikTok to Twitch, and authentically embrace these new platforms by expanding their unique campus culture to these virtual spaces.

For instance, TikTok, the app based on users uploading quick video clips, boasts over 30 million active users in the U.S. with the average user spending 46 minutes a day in the app – this presents an opportunity for teachers, school clubs, and university-wide events to virtually reach students on a platform they’ve already embraced through trending hashtags, virtual challenges, and so on. In fact, at the University of Florida, which boasts the first verified university TikTok account, student reaction has been filled with pride that their school is “in the know,” and has generated positive comments, and attracted the attention of pre-college TikTok users too.

Additionally, campus administrators should reassess the technology they are already utilizing — virtual learning platforms like Blackboard — and discover new ways to use them to connect and engage with students. While it won’t be possible to recreate the interactions of physical campus life, there is an opportunity to create new traditions, engagements, and celebrations online — and having fun doing so.

To make technology work better for them, institutions should:

  • Increase their speed to market by leveraging existing platforms, making updates as necessary.
  • Reduce any bandwidth throttling within the organization.
  • Champion the use of personal devices and give students, faculty, and administration the freedom to use them in the ways they want.
  • Work to create simple interfaces that rely on three touchpoints or fewer to get users to the content or experience they want.

While universities transition to digital platforms to provide academic continuity, they should also focus on transitioning their campus culture and community to a virtual environment as well. In doing so, university leaders should keep in mind the dynamic synergy between the academic and social aspects of campus environments. As campuses go virtual, keeping students holistically engaged with their university’s culture and community in tandem with its academic programming, will boost students’ wellbeing, retention, graduation, and overall success.

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Chuck Rudalavage
Chuck is Co-Managing Director of Gensler Philadelphia and a leader in Gensler’s Education practice for the Southeast region, with a focus on designing academic facilities including projects for Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Cornell, and, Princeton University. Chuck has over 20 years of experience assisting clients in strategic academic master planning, feasibility studies, student facilities programming, and the development of planning initiatives. Contact him at .