First impressions matter. The first encounter, the student onboarding process, between the student and college, sets the tone for the future relationship. When it goes wrong, it can contribute to student dropout and dissatisfaction, which are currently skyrocketing in the US and elsewhere. Did you know that up to 32.9% of students never complete their degree program, and most of those never complete their first year? In 2020, it was estimated that 39 million Americans started but never finished their degrees. That’s a cost of around $16.5 billion in lost tuition revenue and a massive societal problem.
In The College Dropout Scandal, David Kirp outlines the social implications: increased debt, lower career prospects, mental and physical health issues, and disengagement from the local community. Students from ethnic minorities, with disabilities, or from lower-income households are all more likely to drop out. The rising cost of living is only making it worse and leading potential students to skip higher education entirely.
From student orientation to student onboarding
Universities and community colleges know all of this. This is why the student onboarding process is such a big deal, and a lot of effort is put into it. Yet, there remains ample room for improvement.
Working in higher education, I have witnessed “orientation” morph into a longer process of onboarding. It’s no longer a matter of supplying students with an overload of information in their first week, it is now an effort to connect students to peers and the culture of their institution. It has become less about information and more about building community and an approach to student success that works.
However, there remains a presumption that the physical onboarding processes are what matters. For on-campus students, this is certainly the most obvious aspect of onboarding (and the most expensive for the institution to produce, thus the focus). However, digital onboarding, especially in the learning management system (LMS) is just as important. If used well, the LMS can be a great tool for creating a smoother onboarding process for all students.
Why is the student onboarding process so important?
Let’s put aside for the moment the statistics about dropout rates. These are important, of course, but they are not the only angle. There is much talk in education circles about making learning student-centered. The same is true for student onboarding. Colleges that take the time to work with students to consider their goals and link those to their courses are more likely to see students thrive; their choice of study is more likely to be attuned to their interests and ultimate goals.
If we want students to thrive, they need more support to make the best choices for them and encouragement to engage in extra-curricular activities. An onboarding process factors in the probability that students will feel overwhelmed and uncertain when they first start and that alienation is a real possibility. A formal process of support that places their career goals and interests at the heart of their choices while also checking if students are adapting to college life allows the college to identify blockages and issues for students before they become a big deal.
How to use the LMS for a good digital student onboarding experience
The LMS is the online hub for students, playing a vital connective role between the institution and the student. It is, therefore, a perfect place for embedding the onboarding process. While an LMS is mostly for class activities and resources, if used well, it can also become a space for nurturing community and belonging. Learning platforms, such as CYPHER, are perfect for building good digital onboarding experiences.
Here are a few examples of how you might do this:
Provide a window into the institution
The LMS has many features that can help to create a better digital onboarding process for all students, whether or not they are studying in-person, hybrid, or remotely. At its most basic, it is important to provide information and organize an LMS that mirrors how the institution works.
Enrolling students in properly populated classes on the LMS allows them to see that structure and view the syllabus, lessons, calendar, and deadlines, which helps the tutor in class planning and supports students in their studies. If associated tools are properly embedded, then students are more likely to understand the LMS as the college's online hub. One example is to add Zoom links in the LMS calendar so students will be able to access sessions immediately. However, they’ll also find other useful tools such as Turnitin, emphasizing the importance of academic integrity from the start.
Using the LMS as a hub for students helps to build an immediate connection and a sense that the college is well-organized. To properly achieve that aim, the LMS should be customized to fit the institutional color theme, including the logo, and have a welcome banner. These all add to that sense of being part of the institution.
Read more: Top 5 LMS benefits for HE students
Get enrollment right
This is where things often go wrong. Enrollment issues happen every year as updates and changes to the platforms inevitably bring new challenges. It is important to involve support staff to check for problems, especially in the first few days of enrollment. The key is to do everything we can to ensure student enrollment works smoothly. Again, this is all about first impressions.
Institutions have many options for enrollment, including sending access codes to students, email invitations, or enrolling them directly into the system using their information. Students can also be added to a waiting list if your courses require them. However, the good part is that students can also buy classes directly from the LMS catalog if your university is using the e-commerce feature.
Use the LMS for connection
The LMS is not just an information repository, but a communication tool for professors, students, administrators and other institution staff members.
Students can communicate via the LMS using chat, instant messaging, forums, newsfeeds, and groups. They can also add each other as friends, which is a good idea if you want to implement a buddy system in which older students can help new ones during the student onboarding process.
It’s best to have all these communication systems in place before students even start, so they’ll be able to ask questions, get help, and connect.
Develop learning paths
It is worthwhile looking beyond classes when using the LMS to ensure that it is truly the online hub for students' connection with the institution. Developing a personalized learning path is a good example.
These self-paced learning paths should not just be about their field of study but also connect to important information, such as library access, study skills training, information about the institution (including its history and values), careers, personal finance tips, and health support.
They could contain a fun video in which various departments and instructors introduce themselves, and even tips and tricks about navigating the campus, city, or finding the best spots for hanging out.Of course, they shouldn’t be mandatory, but students will surely find them very useful.
Add a human touch
Finally, don’t forget the human touch. An LMS can be a lonely place if it’s not used properly, but adding a touch of ourselves can make a difference. This is one reason why using communication tools is important, but that is not enough. For example, you might organize Alumni talks using forums or Zoom, so that new students can learn from their peers who have already graduated and are set on their career paths. CYPHER takes this a step further with mentorship accounts.
Add pre-recorded videos for welcome messages, instructions, or support offerings, to add a human voice to the study material, especially for remote students. Be involved in the class chat and make some time during the first weeks of the semester to have informal conversations via video conferencing — it will make all the difference.
Creating a smooth student onboarding process
The onboarding experience via the LMS offers structure, connection, and information, as well as a means for students to see their learning progress. This is another aspect of online onboarding; the need for it to build a process that is visible and flexible so that it can be used to guide and nurture the student throughout their studies and beyond.
Students need to be able to see that they are making progress and understand where to go to get advice and help when things don’t quite work out. If we learned one thing from the pandemic, it is the need to be kinder to each other and extend the same opportunities to remote and hybrid students as we do to in-person ones.
An LMS is not a repository, it is an online space for humans to connect. It’s important to think of it this way.