Orienting, Not Informing

Creating belonging from Day One.

September 6, 2016

For the past few years, I’ve been working on making changes within our institution’s New Student Orientation (NSO) process. For some institutions orientation is about level setting, about placement inside a program. For the elite, where students have been heavily filtered, it can be purely about creating a sense of belonging to a brand. For most of us in Higher Ed, it’s a time of great temptation. Do we academically remediate? Do we explain what university is? Do we tell them how to find their classes? Is it the final step in the recruitment process?

While the current obsession is to focus on how well institutions prepare their students for the job market and other ROIs, we do have to ensure that students get to the finish line (graduation), learn soft skills (employers like those too), and, one hopes, have a good experience in the process.

The problem is our ideas tend to drift off in the direction of broadcasting important information you need to know once we try to scale passed about 100 people or so. Lets put that online! And - while I may be to blame for introducing the words “Massive Open Online Course” into the current higher ed lexicon (sorry) - I don’t believe institutions ought to be trying to MOOC our way out of orientation with mass online orientation experiences. Or rather, I don’t think online orientation can be the sole approach we take, if our goals include retention and - at the core of retention - belonging.

When what you do is promote change in education, via communities and digital platforms, it surprises people when you start talking about orientation and the first week of school.

But what makes the process of change interesting to me is that it forces you to examine first principles: what is this thing that you are trying to do? Why would someone do it? Who are the people you are trying to do this with? If you can envision yourself jumping for joy six months from now, what just happened to make you jump?

The transition from high school to university is just that kind of compelling challenge. At an institution like ours, close to a fifth of our student body can turn over every year… more than 800 new undergraduate students will join us this week. Whether they stay - whether our institution becomes a part of how they see themselves - is partly on us and how we respond to those first principle questions.

Each one of our students arrives with some cultural understanding of what a university is. Some may be gleaned from movies or TV, some from guidance counsellors, teachers, parents, siblings, literature. There is no one ‘university’ that corresponds to these disparate visions. The contemporary university (for most of us) has to be a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.

The temptation in addressing this challenge is to try and make your university ‘A Thing’ and then tell people about it.

When looked at from this perspective, it sounds like an awesome idea for an online course. A big one. A course you might even call ‘massive’.

At first glance this could seem (and seemed to me the three times we tried it) to be the easiest way to address challenges that students were having when they came to university. Online, we could give them an introduction to their science courses. We could give them information about parking, about student life, about the way that our Registrar’s Office works. We built our first MOOC-style orientation course in 2009, well before the word was in common usage outside of Canadian connectivist circles.

The problem with taking a MOOC-like approach to orientation, however, is that it ignores the complexity of the change you are trying to make in orienting learners to higher ed. The students coming to our universities are coming from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. They need a variety of information. Many, in fact, are coming to the university to gain the very literacies that are REQUIRED in order to be able to learn online. If the very cadre of students you are trying reach are the ones most likely to populate MOOC attrition rates, then orienting them online as part of a huge group is not likely to leave you jumping for joy six months from now. If the intricacies of Student Support or higher education administrivia are beyond many new students’ zone of proximal development, offering them optional videos is not going to scaffold the critical learning experience required.

I am not suggesting that online learning is the problem either. Students are not necessarily more prepared to internalize this information face-to-face. My view of NSO was changed forever in the midst of a discussion with a focus group of student leaders, wherein one of them looked at me and said, “look Dave, you’re not going to teach anyone anything new in four days. If I don’t have a place to put this information going in…I’m not going to know it all coming out… you’re wasting your time with these training sessions.”

Point. While information can be handy, information doesn’t create change by itself.

What I was hoping for in designing this year’s process of orientation is an experience that starts students on the journey to believing that they can. That they can learn. That they can find help/information when they need it. That they can confront the challenges that emerge at university. That they can use their networks to offer the support they need to do whatever it is they want to do.

In our local context, that approach has been framed under the label “resilience,” though not in the simplistic, neoliberal “grit” sense that the word’s taken on in US education of late.

Rather, we developed a resiliency model that spoke to us, and committed ourselves to the idea of ‘healthy connections’ as our objective for orientation. We’re trying to create experiences that enable students to make healthy connections to each other, to their student mentors, to faculty and staff, and to our local community, all in their first few days on campus.



Each day of NSO this week is led off by a mentor-led dialogue (in small groups: 2 mentors for every 15 first-years) that addresses the issues that are going to be taken up that day. We’re looking at issues like “choosing to build community: how,” “adulting,” and “getting through your first two weeks of classes.” These mostly involve fishbowl-style discussions and other activities aimed at helping students develop language with each other, make connections with other, and understand a few of the options they have, rather than at getting them ‘the’ answer to any of these issues.

You can’t tell people to believe they can do things any more than you can sit people in a classroom and tell them to make healthy connections with each other. It’s an experiential process. Deep down, I think we’ve known this for years. If you look at the hazing rituals that are so a big part of what many of us may remember orientation or frosh week being years ago, it was about providing a shared experience that sometimes allowed people to find people they could rely on. Unfortunately for many, those shared experiences often happened at the bottom of a bottle, or in any number of dangerous and damaging circumstances. Change - a huge culture change - was needed.

So if we’re jumping for joy six months from now it will be because we’re seeing our student mentors having difficult discussions with the first year students they mentored this week. It’ll be because those mentors built trust enough to become the conduits through which first year (and other!) students connect to the supports they need when they need them.

We hope, like anyone else does, that this leads to higher retention rates, but by far my bigger hope is that it leads to more students feeling they belong here, and that they can make university work for them, in their own ways. No amount of information is ever going to make that happen.

Dave Cormier is an educational activist, researcher, online community advocate and the Project Lead for Student Relations Management at the University of Prince Edward Island. He has published on open education, Rhizomatic Learning, MOOCs (Massive/Open Online Courses), and the impact of technology on the future of high education.


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