First impressions matter. We put effort into our handshakes, our dress and even our posture when meeting someone new because we know these “little things” help create a positive experience. We want people to come away from any engagement with good feelings, building a strong foundation for future interactions.
For the modern campus, your digital experience is your handshake.
It’s not just a chance for learners to scroll through your flashy website, but a chance for them to see what it might be like to work with you. And as with a limp handshake or a slouched posture, a clunky online experience leaves a learner with the impression that future interactions with your school will be difficult, time consuming, and a barrier to their academic growth.
In the era of Uber and GrubHub, these experienced consumers won’t be coming back for round two.
Online Learners Prioritize Seamlessness
Services like Amazon, YouTube and Google have made user experience their guiding ethos. Whatever their users have come for, these companies let them do it in as few steps as possible, and make each necessary step quick and painless.
When a user searches Google for “men’s shoes”, they’re met with results most closely related to their query, a map showing them the best shoe stores in their area, related searches and a drop-down menu answering questions like “what are the best men’s shoe brands?”
Not only is their core need fulfilled (search results), but every need surrounding that need has been addressed as well, in a comprehensive and simple format that’s made it a mainstay on every home screen in the world. Google’s best-and-brightest considered the user’s journey, and built their entire digital experience around that journey.
In higher education, a student’s digital experience is frequently an afterthought. In some instances, prospective learners have to spend hours struggling to find even the most basic program information.
With most formal education taking place online, many institutions have been surprised to find their online presence incapable of providing what learners expected.
A survey by DJS Research showed a third of postsecondary students to be frustrated with how difficult their school’s administrative processes are. Globally, 90% said they want one app to engage with their institution, instead of multiple sites and apps that confuse them. In the U.S., 33% of learners said bad administrative experiences made them think less of their school.
Students aren’t happy with their digital experience, and in an overwhelmingly digital age, it’s putting a roadblock between your visitors and registration.
Here are four digital barriers keeping your prospects from becoming your students.
1. A Clunky Website
The Google query mentioned above puts everything its user might need in the same place. When a learner is considering your web design program, is the course info, course fees and start dates on the same page? If not, your visitors are likely scrolling and clicking away incessantly trying to find the information they need before they enroll.
David Leasure, the former provost of Western Governors University, said trouble navigating a school’s website is a major barrier to student engagement.
“When we aren’t seamless, or when we cause friction in the interface, we waste the student’s time,” Leasure wrote in an article for the EvoLLLution. “They don’t only miss out on spending that time to learn what’s important; they get frustrated. If we don’t follow all the way through with a positive user experience, they’re going to question whether it’s a worthwhile thing for them to do and struggle to complete the course.”
You and your school put phenomenal effort into your offerings—don’t lose potential enrollments by scattering details arbitrarily throughout your site. Consider the learner and centralize everything.
2. No Self-Service
Self-service gas stations took over for a reason: A customer who can get what they need without needing to talk to you has all of the tools to make informed, easy purchases on their own.
This is the experience consumers expect, and it’s an attitude the modern campus needs to embody if it’s going to compete with other free educational resources and MOOCs that make registering a self-serving process. Do your learners need to talk to or email administrators before they can become your students? If your registration processes require an intermediary, you’re depriving learners of the best part of modern commerce: doing it themselves.
A customer who can get what they need without needing to talk to you has all of the tools to make informed, easy purchases on their own.
During his time as President and CEO of the Corporate College at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), Bob Peterson told the EvoLLLution that the school’s support team were used to dealing with students frustrated they couldn’t enroll on their own.
"With our old non-credit registration system, our online registrations were at about 20 percent. Our team would receive phone calls on a daily basis from non-credit students who were angry and exasperated because they weren’t able to successfully register online," Peterson said in an interview. "How many people don’t call and just walk away and go to another college to take a workforce training non-credit class?”
“It was clear that we were losing students because people just got fed up," he concluded.
In the case of fully-digital courses, how long do your learners wait before they have your program materials? It further incentivizes enrollment when students know they’ll have access to course materials the moment they’re paid for. They can get the ball rolling on their academic and professional development instantly. It’s the same immediacy they get from other e-commerce companies, and its time CE divisions include it in their priorities.
President and CEO of the American Distance Education Consortium, Ian Tebbett said transactions in higher education need to give students instant access to the product they’ve just paid for.
“Students then need immediate access to their purchase (courses) and 24/7 support if there are any issues that need resolving,” Tebbett said in an interview. “This is what we expect when making an online purchase and online education should be no different.”
3. Long, Tedious Processes
One need only look to e-commerce megaliths like Amazon to know the rewards of a quick transaction. When considering and making a purchase through the company, every step is calibrated for their ease: Any previous purchases inform the algorithm of their preferences, making it easier to find items they might like. Does your website use guided pathways or user search histories to show students what they want? While many learners may be “just browsing”, most have some idea about what they’d like to pursue before they pour through your offerings. You can use their past searches to make sure they’re seeing relevant courses the moment they hit the homepage again, or build guided pathways that lead them to offerings most aligned with their interests and needs.
Director Web and Multimedia Marketing, Division of Marketing and Communications at University of North Dakota, Tera Buckley said without pathways to appropriate programs, students had been left to scour all avenues of the school’s website for offerings that spoke to them.
Like other online shoppers, learners may abandon a purchase that’s too laborious to complete.
“We had information about UND programs in four different areas: the catalog, department site, online program listing on our extended learning site, and admissions page. You’d have to go multiple places to get information—and it wasn’t always the same information or even updated,” Buckley said.
When it’s time to pay up, any user who’s made a purchase before has all payment information saved and at the ready. Credit card and address information are up for review, along with when the item will be in their hands. A confirmation email is sent and a tracking number is issued so the customer can know where they stand until their order arrives. Does your website offer fast and easy checkout? Like other online shoppers, learners may abandon a purchase that’s too laborious to complete. Knowing they can browse, review and register in as few clicks as possible influences their current and future transactions with your school.
4. An Unappealing or Sketchy Online Presence
It’s all too common for books to be judged by their covers, and higher education institutions can just as easily fall in a student’s estimation for a “bad cover”. Does your website look like it was constructed with all the worst parts of early 2000s web development? Aside from being a headache to click and read through, learners are cautious about providing sensitive personal information to a site that looks like the emergency exit for the entire internet. Make your web pages look as professional and forward-thinking as your institution. Students are people too, and can easily correlate your outside appearance with the savviness of your offerings.
Lisa Barr, Director of Project Development in the Office of Global Initiatives and Extended Studies at CalArts, said the CE division’s online appearance wasn’t helping them reach the learners they needed it to.
“We faced the constant challenge, both internally and externally, of explaining what we do and who our target audience is because there’s confusion,” Barr told the EvoLLLution. Once implementing Student Lifecycle Management (SLM) software to improve their digital experience, Barr said the visible quality of the site improved significantly—and quickly.
“One of the things that [we like] is the ability to control the look and feel of our outwardly facing site,” Barr said. “The fact that we could, out of the box, create something that was visually pleasing and easily understood was a huge benefit.”
Director of the Summer Institute at CalArts, Hilary Darling said they’ve customized their pages to speak less generally to prospects: “We have the power to make decisions about how our public facing pages look to market more effectively to each specific audience.”
Are you active on multiple social channels? If you’re not, it can give younger learners the impression that you’re out of touch, or don’t care about connecting with them where they live (online). Instagram, Twitter, Facebook… these are where modern learners spend a lot of their time, and they’re going to give preference to institutions that they’re most familiar with. Be familiar, and be friendly: Post frequently on multiple avenues of social media, and engage respectfully with commenters.
Program Head in the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University, Jaigris Hodson wrote that participating in dialogues with students where they live makes you familiar and accessible to them.
“Students sometimes feel like just a number when they engage with postsecondary institutions, but social media provides institutions with an opportunity to actually let students know you care,” Hodson wrote in an article for the EvoLLLution. “By being an active participant on the social media channels that your students use, you have the opportunity to participate in the conversations that they have about you, and position yourself as a reliable source of information.”
Break Down Barriers to Enrollment
Higher education providers have been slow to rise as their landscape moves from bricks and mortar to ones and zeroes. Today’s student demands to be engaged with on their terms: ease of use, self-service and universal accessibility.
A seamless digital experience is one that makes registration not only easy, but enticing to prospects who prefer a modern campus, compatible with their lifestyles and learning modes. And now more than ever, that’s most of them.
Belinda Elliott-Bielecki, Director of Marketing and Communications at University of New Brunswick College of Extended Learning, said an institution’s registration process is a critical point in the learner’s journey.
“If universities fail at the enrollment and registration experience, they could lose the customer altogether,” Elliott-Bielecki said. “It needs to be easy to use and intuitive, otherwise people might decide it’s not worth the hassle.”
Delivering that level of seamlessness likely comes down to the technology you’re using to manage your institution, according to Western University’s Director of Continuing Studies Carolyn Young.
“Our students, our customers, expect the experience to be like the way they’re treated in a bank or the way they can shop on Amazon,” she said. “If they go into a website and the educational provider has answers to their questions, links to different parts of the websites that will keep them informed, it builds this trust and confidence in choosing the school.”
“There are ways you can use the online experience, specifically through your website, to make a student feel confident about their decision to enroll in our courses and to continue taking courses. It is a great way of retaining students,” Young continued. “An effective system is crucial to facilitating this customer experience.”
Download this white paper to learn how you can leverage high-quality, student-centric digital engagement to deliver the customer experience today’s learners expect.