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For many institutions, their campuses are an essential part of their identity -- the physical manifestation of their history and values. For students, those campuses represent new beginnings as they leave their families or home countries. Such places provide the setting for the connections, as well as social and academic experimentation, that yield growth and maturity.

The pandemic has changed all that. With campus activity on hold or under duress, higher education institutions have faced an incredible challenge: to find new ways to communicate with diverse audiences including prospective and existing students, faculty and staff members, alumni, donors, and more. Across the world, people have turned to digital tools to connect with one another. Solutions have ranged from simple replication of activities to more complex reimagining of paradigms. It’s clear that as higher education grapples with the pandemic, technology has an important role to play. From coursework to admissions to fundraising campaigns, colleges must adapt to thrive in this moment.

Building on 20 years of experience working with institutions like Columbia University, Cornell Tech, Michigan State University and Wellesley College, we’re partnering with colleges and universities to examine how technology can help them navigate these recent seismic disruptions. Here are illustrations and descriptions of four ideas that have emerged from our working sessions that touch on class interactions, partnerships, communications and admissions.

Student Exchange

One of the most positive trends we’ve seen is higher ed’s embrace of digital conferencing tools. Many institutions are, understandably, focused on simply connecting professors with the students enrolled in their courses. But just as in-person conferences have served as centers for knowledge exchange among faculty members and practitioners, digital platforms might encourage more visionary approaches to partnerships across institutions. Imagine connecting communities of students from different institutions around parallel courses. Or consider providing opportunities to connect with peers across cultures to invite new perspectives and approaches. In other words, take advantage of the nature of -- and new familiarity with -- distributed learning to expand conversations.

Properly designed, such a platform can provide incredible variety and flexibility within an easily navigated experience. Algorithmic scheduling tools can manage vast pools of participants and moderators, matching available times and filtering for criteria like geography, academic level, language and more. Integrations with livestreaming and videoconferencing tools can automate the distribution of invitations and preparatory materials.

Dynamic Storytelling

With their campuses often out of bounds this semester, colleges and universities need to differentiate themselves to prospective students in new ways. Many institutions have for years been experimenting with storytelling through video. Those faculty profiles, student stories and campus life vignettes remain important assets, but they are one-way streets. Current circumstances offer an opportunity to augment more traditional “broadcast” thinking with new models that emphasize the agency and participation of your audience.

Imagine creating a communications tool that encourages small groups of prospective students to discuss their selection process, the colleges and universities that they are considering, and how they feel about your institution. Or consider a platform that allows prospects to read bios from participating alumni and faculty and then send requests to chat with the people who pique their interest the most.

Today’s students are already sharing their decisions and process informally via private social channels, and they are being inundated with opinions from well-meaning strangers and trolls alike. By creating an owned channel with modest moderation, a college or university can empower the prospect. At the same time, it can illuminate its values, exhibit both confidence in itself and trust in the applicant, and start building institutional communities long before the prospects ultimately enroll.

Virtual Visits

For higher ed institutions looking to reach students who may not be able to visit their campuses, rethinking virtual tours may prove valuable. Much as using Google Street View provides information without personality, most digital campus tours lack the humanity that elevates these distinctive places into vibrant communities.

So consider instead small-group, docent-led virtual tours. The latest generation of potential students already connects online, engages friends online and even dates online -- so an experience that balances the benefits of microcommunities of peers with a relevant, personalized introduction to your institution would fit their expectations.

With recent advances in and acceptance of livestreaming, it’s easy to imagine a virtual guided tour where a docent answers questions in real time, and students toggle between the speaker, campus scenes and maps, and a lively chat. Smaller groups allow the docent to respond to specific questions and to curate the experience for the needs of each group. For colleges and universities anticipating a return to campus in the coming months, virtual solutions like this act as an important bridge during a crucial admissions cycle. For those planning to remain remote for a good while, this solution allows them to use their campus and team to make their value proposition more accessible and personal.

Command Central

Perhaps the most ubiquitous need we’ve observed is for colleges and universities to centralize communications around emerging information. The locations impacted by the pandemic have shifted significantly over the past months, and higher ed communities want to know the latest updates. Many institutions are relying on fragmented systems spanning homepage alert banners, blog posts and announcements on social media. While each of those elements play important roles, institutions must develop more strategic solutions to collect information and establish consistent communications funnels across their digital ecosystem.

By creating a COVID communications hub, an institution can more easily support coherent messaging while helping content managers drive visitors to up-to-date information including local virus transmission rates, fall and winter planning announcements, past post archives, and media contact points. With colleges and universities having increasingly embraced modular website structures and dynamic content management systems, we’ve found many institutions can take on this recommendation with internal staff resources.

It’s important to note that a communications hub like this shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. Colleges and universities spend tremendous amounts of energy and money highlighting what makes them distinctive, yet digital solutions often replicate what high-profile institutions offer or mirror what peer institutions provide. By tailoring resources to the specific needs of your community -- including the broader pool of businesses and residents that rely on your college or university as an anchor institution -- you can deliver meaningful value and deepen connections at a time of need.

Even before the pandemic, American colleges and universities faced significant challenges -- among them, including declining state appropriations, changing demographics, increased competition between institutions and a political and economic climate that has contributed to declining trust in higher education in this country and that has damaged its prestige in the eyes of international students. Now institutions face paralyzing uncertainty around every facet of their operations. To survive, they will need to find solutions to old and new problems alike.

American innovation so often starts at colleges and universities. As institutions face the challenges of the COVID era, that innovation must extend to how they think about technology. Digital experiences and platforms offer opportunities both to respond quickly to immediate needs and to rethink long-held assumptions about how institutions connect with audiences and convey their distinct values.

While common strategic, experiential and technical elements arise in our conversations with institutions, final solutions for individual colleges and universities are as nuanced and varied as they are themselves. The concepts in this article are only the tip of an iceberg waiting to be explored.

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