Engaging Students At A Distance: How Universities Can Respond to COVID-19

Asian woman student video conference e-learning with teacher on computer in IT room at university.

by John Mackenney

posted on 04-08-2020

Everywhere you look, COVID-19 is changing life and work as we know it. Organisations are pivoting to this new reality, finding new and creative ways to connect with audiences at a time when connection has never been more restricted.

For universities, this challenge is particularly pronounced. Global travel bans have prevented many international students from returning to their studies; some have deferred or even withdrawn from their courses, while those planning future study abroad are rethinking their plans.

These decisions have enormous implications for a university’s bottom line. Australia welcomes over half a million international students each year with 28% of those students coming from China. When you consider the annual fees paid by each of these students ranges somewhere between $30,0000 – $50,000, you start to realise the extent of the financial impact COVID-19 is having on the sector.

But as with any challenge, organisations are finding new means to respond. For universities, this moment is presenting innovative and creative ways to engage students and develop their capabilities as digital businesses. Universities are faced with two fundamental problems that need to be solved in order to drive engagement and mitigate student churn risk during this crisis.

Universities need to be able to communicate up-to-date, consistent information to their current students and staff; and they need to find a way to transfer the university experience to a distance learning environment.

Adobe is working with universities to help solve these problems. We’re finding our tools help create great experiences and communities among students so they feel a sense of belonging and a sense of connection with the university, even when they can’t be there in person.

Engaging with students

To minimise churn risk, it’s critical to engage with international students on the channels they’re spending their time. In China, for instance, WeChat is the primary social channel for how people communicate — its users send a staggering 45 billion messages via the platform every day.

For Australian universities, the best way to successfully and organically reach Chinese students is through branded spaces, or WeChat mini-programs, which function inside the platform. As the strategy and technology partner, our job is to work with brands to develop WeChat mini-programs. In doing so we not only provide a mechanism to communicate directly into that channel, but with our analytics we’re able to understand how people are interacting with the content, then tailor personalised offerings accordingly.

These analytic capabilities create a 360-degree view of each student which allows universities to firstly determine how likely a student is to churn or stop studying, then respond quickly with deeper engagement tactics.

Various countries and various students have different challenges that they’re going through in response to this crisis. To deal with that, universities have to be able to deliver much more personalised and nuanced messaging to be effective at this time.

Content that connects

Transferring the university experience to a distance learning environment might seem like a tricky endeavour, but innovative and creative content offerings can help bridge the gap.

Given the current circumstances, universities need technology that’s flexible so they can adjust their approach in terms of how they attract students to the university and keep them engaged once enrolled. Things like virtual open days, live streaming lectures and events, and conduct virtual campus tours improve the experience for your students.

To continue attracting international students, Australian universities need to start rebuilding their brands abroad, particularly in countries like China. One key focus (and something significantly overlooked) should be delivering a world class web experience. The current problem is that every university in the country serves their web experience from within Australia and outside the Chinese firewall.

What this means is the sites are slow, and the poor content experience causes prospective or current students to stop engaging.

Tackling website performance and experience has become a global trend. Major brands, from Sony and Unilever to the big cosmetics and luxury brands, build their own websites within China because the performance is vastly superior. Today, Adobe is supporting universities to build websites within China to have a much faster response rate and offer a far more seamless experience.

COVID-19 is presenting some seemingly insurmountable challenges. While many will be difficult to endure, we’re seeing others inspire innovative and creative thinking to help bring the world closer together. To help encourage some of that innovation and creativity throughout this crisis, Adobe has made Creative Cloud available free of charge to students enrolled at Australian universities.

Want more? Join this Adobe webinar where John Mackenney explores how universities can continue to engage their current and future students during COVID-19.

Topics: Education, COVID-19, APAC