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Q&A: How Queen Mary University Pivoted to Virtual Open Days

November 25th, 2020 Michael Mayday

2020 has been an unprecedented year for everyone. Those working in the higher education sector have been faced with a unique set of circumstances due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not only have education programmes moved online but, in addition, the virtual recruitment process for prospective students, including Open Days and Virtual Tours, is now a critical part of driving admissions for the next academic year.

We caught up with ON24 customer Jack Fox, Head of Student Recruitment and Widening Participation at Queen Mary University London, to discuss how they went about delivering an outstanding virtual Open Day programme for their 2021 prospective undergraduate students:

Q: Your 2021 Open Day programme has obviously been very different to previous years, what were some of the key challenges you faced when moving your programme online?

A: From the outset, it was about creating a digital experience that rivalled an on-campus experience, and one that gave a real flavour of Queen Mary.  We pride ourselves on being an inclusive institution so we really wanted to ensure that all students, regardless of their background or circumstances, still had the opportunity to have an experience an event that was as close as possible to the one they would have had if they had come to campus. The main challenge was about how we could transition to an online environment and logistically manage a virtual Open Day event. 

Linked to that, there were a large number of stakeholders involved, so to manage this in an acute period of time was another challenge. We have a number of academic schools, so to ensure we delivered the type of content relevant to specific audiences meant that we needed to deliver just shy of 100 different webcasts across one day. Fortunately, we had run a few online events beforehand so we were able to repurpose some of the content, but managing the volume of digital content was another logistical challenge. 

Q: Could you outline the type of programme that you are currently running to attract prospective students?

A: At Queen Mary we have a comprehensive outreach curriculum, which we deliver to a broad range of schools that has been developed in partnership with our current students and informed by prospective students. This forms a large bank of our initial interactions with secondary school students. A key focus is to reinforce our mission to create a truly inclusive institution, so running targeted activity for students from underrepresented backgrounds is a key part of the recruitment programme.

In addition, and as part of the overall recruitment strategy, we run specific recruitment activities, open days and attend HE fairs. The delivery of bespoke activities, such as subject-specific taster sessions, are there to try and encourage students to participate in certain subjects. These one-off sessions are there to encourage interest in certain subject strands and are used to inspire students to pursue a particular subject area. 

At our virtual Open Day there were three components. The first component was to give prospective students the opportunity to learn more about a subject area for a subject talk. The second component was to ensure that prospective students had the opportunity to experience the quality of teaching at Queen Mary via the academic tasters, and thirdly making sure that attendees had the ability to engage with our academic members of staff, current students and alumni via live Q&A panels. Ultimately, we noticed an increase in the attendance rate percentage for this year’s virtual event when comparing it with the physical ‘in person’ event run at the same time last year.

Q: How many events, both live and on-demand, do you have planned over the coming months?

A: A lot… it’s actually hard to quantify it. We deliver a wide range of activities for different audiences. For example, we have recently launched an outreach series to deliver pastoral support in relation to applying for university where there is a session every week between now and January. 

Q: Attracting international students is obviously a key part of your programme – what impact has running virtual Open Days had on reaching students globally?          

A: We have seen four times more international students attending the 2020 virtual open day in comparison to the physical event run last year. The virtual open day specifically gave us an effective platform to allow international students to attend the session.

Q: What were some of the key things you were looking for when selecting the platform to deliver your virtual events?

A: When selecting the platform, accessibility was really important to us — including mobile support.  We also needed to have the ability to manage a large volume of applicants across lots of different activities without them having to log in multiple times. This was very important in relation to the overall experience for attendees. 

In addition, being able to deliver something that’s got a ‘core’ backbone but also provides flexibility and scope for academic schools to tailor the approach and format to the specific subject areas. It’s important to balance flexibility in this area whilst ensuring all attendees have a consistent event experience. Ultimately, ensuring a stable platform was the most important element — we needed a system that could handle a large volume of people simultaneously throughout the day. 

Q: In the absence of being able to visit Queen Mary first hand, how important has it been to ensure that prospective students have the best experience possible during the virtual Open Day events to really get a ‘feel’ for the University?

A: It’s really key – open days can be some of the only times that students visit or experience a campus before making their application and accepting a place.  In an environment where lots of Universities are delivering virtual events it is important to stand out and deliver something successful. 

Q: How have attendees to your virtual Open Day sessions been able to engage and interact with the team and resources at Queen Mary?

A: In addition to the areas we have already outlined, attendees were able to engage and interact with the team,  resources and the Q&A functionality within the webcast. The content has been available to view on-demand post-event so those that couldn’t attend on the day have the opportunity to do so at a later date.  

Q: What have been some of the key learnings you and your team have undertaken when moving the programme online?

A: I imagine everyone always says this but just, where possible, allow as much time as possible to put your programme together.  We achieved a lot in a short space of time.  In addition, we put a comprehensive training programme in place for the presenters and subject leads but a key learning would be to make sure that people have the opportunity to practice beforehand and to become familiar with the platform. Part of this is making sure that it is an embedded, frequently-used tool. 

Another learning is that, going forward, we might not run a virtual Open Day all in one day. We would ideally take a fresh approach and really evaluate what would make an optimal virtual experience, what would make an effective physical experience, and ensure that the components are well aligned to create a new online experience that is designed for online rather than trying to shift a physical event into a virtual space.      

Q: Going forward do you envisage there being a mix of both in-person and virtual open days in the higher education space?

A: We will always keep some form of online events as part of a blended approach to our recruitment activity. In our approach, we will think carefully about how the two can work in tandem to provide an excellent experience for our prospective students and offer holders. A recent example of this is for those that attended our 2020 Virtual Open Day we offered an opportunity to attend a socially distanced campus tour which was a great trial and resulted in some people experiencing the online event and then experiencing the campus in person.

Q: Finally – what has been the highlight/best moment of having to adjust your programme literally overnight?

A: Definitely knowing how resilient the whole team is. We delivered a large event in difficult circumstances.  The team undoubtedly pulled together to work effectively to deliver a successful event.  

To have more than 95 different virtual sessions happening in one day, with approximately 150 staff members involved is a great feeling!   

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today Jack and good luck with the ongoing optimisation of our virtual open day and student recruitment programme.