In 2020, many institutions introduced an online orientation program for health and safety reasons, as a response to COVID-19. While that was necessary while health restrictions kept us from gathering in-person, there are many reasons why an online orientation program can be beneficial for your students, and why you should consider keeping your program for years to come!
Benefits of an online orientation program
1. It can be more convenient for a student
Online orientation programs can generally be completed whenever and wherever a student wishes. They remove the requirement to be in a designated place at a designated time, which means access is no longer restricted by geographic area, scheduling conflicts, availability, or financial means.
2. It can function as an ongoing resource, not just an event
With an in-person program, students are largely expected to retain all the information that is delivered throughout the day. However, we all know they often don’t, and they then need to rediscover this information for themselves at a later date (if ever). With an online orientation program, students are able to revisit content whenever they need a refresher. Since the same place they saw the information originally exists, they are able to easily find the information again.
3. It’s an opportunity to create a more student-centred experience
As much as we try to make an in-person orientation experience learner-centred, there are a lot of limitations, including time, number of people, and delivery format. An online orientation program is often able to be a much more learner-centred experience than an in-person program can be. Learners can choose exactly when they want to engage in the learning opportunity, can work at their own pace, and (assuming the program is not mandatory), can skip sections of the program they feel will not be helpful.
4. It’s less expensive over time
While there may be a large initial investment required to get an online orientation program up and running, an online orientation can be less expensive over time than a comparable in-person program. The staff time and resources to update and run an online orientation program every year is generally less than that needed to plan and run in-person programming, and recurring costs associated with hiring session facilitators and orientation leaders, booking space on campus, and hiring a caterer are no longer needed, or at minimum, greatly reduced. Finally, an online orientation program can be used many different times, for different student intakes, without requiring many changes.
5. You can easily tailor it to specific populations
Most online orientation systems, whether you’ve contracted an outside company or are using your institution’s learning management system, allow you to choose which content is shown to who, based on demographic information within the system. This means you could choose to show or hide specific modules for a specific audience (i.e. show international students a module about immigration that domestic students won’t see, or show transfer students a different academic advising module than a first-year student is shown), without the requirement of creating an entirely different program.
6. You can include a variety of different learning activities
With many in-person orientation programs, there is a large number of students attending all at once. This can make it difficult to create impactful learning activities, interact with students on an individual level, or provide feedback. Large in-person programs often end up being full of talking heads, simply due to the number of students they are trying to program for. Online orientation programs provide an opportunity to include a variety of different learning activities that allow students to interact with the content and receive immediate feedback on their learning.
7. It frees up staff to actually respond to student needs
During an in-person program, how much time do you actually spend talking to students, answering their questions, and responding to their needs? For me, the answer has always been very little; I was always spending most of my time dealing with program logistics, welcoming speakers, and ensuring students were in the right place at the right time. Because most of the work involved in running an online orientation program happens prior to a program even launching, orientation staff are then available to better respond to student needs and requests while the program is happening.
Challenges and drawbacks
Overall, an online orientation program offers convenience, for both you and your students, and can increase accessibility. It’s not all fun and games though; there are some challenges and drawbacks.
1. It requires a different skillset
While running an in-person program requires that you deal with scheduling, logistics, and often volunteer management, designing an online orientation program requires that you be familiar with technology, instructional design, and online learning. Even if you’re working with IT, a learning designer, or an outside software company, you’ll likely need to have some knowledge of the software platform, the technology involved in creating audio, graphics, video, screencasting, and more, and of digital accessibility.
2. There’s less opportunity for peer connection
While this could potentially vary depending on how you create your program, in general, there is less opportunity for peer-to-peer connection in an online program than an in-person program. Online orientation programs rarely help students make connections with other students, and they do not often help connect students directly with university staff for assistance and answers to questions.
3. It requires a high level of commitment, motivation and planning
To participate in an in-person program, you don’t need a whole lot of commitment or motivation. You simply register, put it on your calendar, and show up. Once you’re there, it doesn’t typically require a lot of effort to go through the program. An online orientation is a little different. Because you can schedule it whenever you want, you can also consistently procrastinate. If you get bored halfway through, you can walk away. It’s easy to get distracted by other things on the internet while trying to complete the program. In order to make it to the end, you need to have the commitment and motivation to do so.
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