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Open for business

Natalie Nezhati reports on UK universities harnessing technology to meet the steadily rising demand for virtual open days

Posted by Hannah Oakman | January 27, 2016 | Technology

A virtual open day at Leeds Trinity University begins unexpectedly in Leeds Bradford International Airport. We watch as English and journalism student, Sergio, totes his bags through the arrival gates and contemplates his new home. Over the next few minutes, we see Sergio immersed in a lecture, socialising with new friends and, eventually, celebrating at a graduation ceremony with fellow students, Sophie and Danielle.   

The Leeds Trinity event is rich in content and intuitive in design. A 360˚ guided tour allows smooth movement from area to area with an on-screen event bag for collecting downloadable information along the way. Prospective students can wander the campus from the comfort of home, pausing to zoom in on the title of a text book or poster advertising an upcoming gig.

“Students want to be in control and move at their own pace,” says Jim Tudor from the Future Index, “They want interaction and they want to bypass anything they’re not interested in.”

Outside the campus, virtual visitors pass a traditional English pub, small museum and adjacent red telephone box as they make their way to reception. From here, they might visit the multi-faith prayer space, drop into a live-streamed presentation or wander through the Students’ Union. 

Since social validation is key to this demographic, the open day encompasses a live chat function, as well as considerable integration of social media. Visiting students can access a ‘networking lounge’ and even download ‘V cards’ from other users. The Leeds Trinity experience is run by iVent, virtual event specialists who also work with the University of York and Manchester Metropolitan University. With costs in the region of £20,000 a year, iVent clients can expect a fully customised and exceptionally high-quality open day experience.

“We provide the platform so that the university is free to manage the content, such as virtual seminars, auditoriums and discussion board topics,” says iVent director, Gavin Newman. “It’s very much self-service but we are on hand 24/7.”

While the term ‘virtual open day’ is sometimes misapplied, the most effective events will always constitute a real-time element, allowing applicants direct access to subject specialists, admissions officers and, most importantly, current students. Social integration is key and student-produced content can be a powerful way of establishing credibility.


“Who better to give them information they can trust than those who are currently enjoying a fantastic student experience?” asks John Blanshard from Unite Students, the organisation behind the acclaimed ‘London Student Experience’ video.

There are many ways to create a virtual open day and just as many price points. A basic and inexpensive solution might consist of a simple microsite used in conjunction with video conferencing, such as ‘GoToMeeting’. A more advanced event, however, might encompass branded booths, interactive lectures and, in the case of Australia’s Deakin University, a two-minute, drone-led tour of the entire campus experienced from a virtual room. 

 “Often to find the more innovative practice you have to look outside the UK,” says Smile’s Technical Director Nathan Monk. “But the technology has come into its own over the last six to 12 months and I think we’ll see some really interesting output in the next year.”

As virtual events become increasingly creative, universities find they must work harder to attract an applicant’s attention in a competitive international market. A compelling virtual visit might well prompt a live visit to the campus, spark fresh interest in a course or even convert an existing offer holder.

While many UK universities have opted for the ‘on-demand’ open day, this format can lack the live, personal interaction and authenticity that students have come to expect. Lincoln University mitigates this by heavily personalising their open event and encouraging students to tweet questions directly to a university representative. The result is a content-driven experience carefully tailored to a student’s chosen subject and level of study. 

Often, the most effective virtual events are highly targeted to a particular subset of applicant, such as business students from China or postgraduates from Brazil. The event can then be scheduled around time zones and cultural holidays, with opportunities to address issues relating to visas, financing, accommodation and language support. Some universities will even run sessions for the parents and grandparents of overseas students who might be footing the bill for tuition.

“Live chat is a really powerful tool. We’re dealing with a generation of students who want instantaneous answers.”

“We ran an Open Day and marketing campaign for the University of Birmingham targeted at the North American market,” says Nathan Monk. “We achieved a 245% increase in applications overnight. There’s so much power in targeting a niche audience.”

Just like an on-campus event, a virtual visit should differentiate a university from its competitors, showcasing the beautiful grounds, ancient architecture or innovative teaching and learning. An experienced open day provider should take the time to learn about the university and its particular requirements in a process that Smile refer to as ‘the discovery phase’. 

Smile’s ‘virtual campus’ is a multi-purpose platform with many uses besides virtual open days. For instance, a university might also use the platform for applicant visit days or the pre-registration of international students. Individual faculties can even set up their own virtual campus using Smile. At the University of Warwick, the Department of Economics runs its own open day with a range of talks covering admissions, course structure, graduate job prospects and the tutorial system. There’s also a 360˚-campus tour, subject-specific information to download and a range of specialists available for questions.  “Live chat is a really powerful tool,” says Nathan Monk. “We’re dealing with a generation of students who want instantaneous answers.”

Smile’s off-the-shelf ‘Virtual Campus’ is available at £810 per month (£9,720 per year) for an unlimited number of open days. While technical support is always on-hand, the product is designed to be as straightforward as possible to use and can be set up in just five days. 

“It’s important to apply ideas from around the world. Technology is evolving and audience expectations are changing”

With so many options for creating a unique virtual experience, a first step might be to work with an agency to discover the possibilities. Smile run customised ‘hack days’ from as little as £500–£800 and exist to show how a virtual open day might be used in ways that a university hadn’t considered. “It’s important to apply ideas from around the world,” says Jim Tudor, adding: “Technology is evolving and audience expectations are changing.”

With edtech ever-changing we are certainly witnessing an interesting time for higher education, and universities need to make sure they are finding new ways of bringing their courses to life. 

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