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Technology is playing an increasingly important role in the once-traditional university open day. Patrick Truss reports

An open day is the first chance for many students to look around a university, check out its facilities and get a feel for the local area. Similarly for universities, open days are an opportunity to showcase what they offer and attract the next generation of students. ‘Our research has found that across the university we convert 26% of those that attend to ‘firm accepts’,’ said Lyn Holder, head of outreach and enquiry management at Birmingham City University.

Even with the onward march of technology, open days are still quite traditional in many ways, typically still involving talks, course information, and tours of the local area, designed to give students key information about the university and the courses it offers.

‘We encourage prospective students to get as much course-specific information as they can, because we think that should be the primary basis of their decision,’ said Ian Denning, recruitment communications manager at Coventry University, adding: ‘But they also want to know about accommodation and the services we provide, such as study services and libraries.’

Effective communication is clearly an important part of this, both during the open day and in giving prospective students information beforehand, and technology has a central role to play here. Online videos and web campaigns can be used to showcase university facilities before the open day, so that students can get the most out of the day when they arrive. ‘We’ve used online video and film for a long time now. We were one of the first universities to really pick up on the power of YouTube – we’ve had our own channel for four years,’ said Coventry’s Ian Denning.

The information students want may vary according to how well they know the city; in the case of Birmingham City University, many of their students are drawn from the local area, so they are possibly less interested in finding out about social opportunities. ‘The key thing for students is to find out about the subjects they’re interested in. They want to meet with academics, with students who are studying in those areas, get a feel for what the subject they’re interested in involves, where it’s taught and what facilities it’s got. I would say the subject is the key factor for people coming to the open day,’ added Birmingham City’s Holder.                 

SOCIAL SENSE

The various social media websites can also be used to encourage students to register for the open day in advance. Around 8,500 students have attended Birmingham City’s open days this year; with these kinds of numbers Holder said it’s helpful to be able to plan ahead. ‘We encourage people to register online through our website, using posters in schools and colleges and other communication channels. Obviously that gives us a real feel for how many people are going to come so that we can make sure we’ve got everything in place,’ she outlined.

With Birmingham City University spread across three campuses, effective communication can help make sure people get to the right place at the right time, so that the whole open day runs smoothly. ‘We can keep communicating with students who have registered online right up until the time they arrive. 

We e-mail them an open day pass which they print off and bring with them,’ explained Holder. ‘That means we don’t have to get them to input any details when they arrive. We simply welcome them and take the pass from them. It really speeds up our registration, it means we haven’t got to keep people waiting in queues.’

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This not only helps the open day run smoothly, but is also the basis for ongoing communication with prospective students, both before and after an open day. ‘As recently as five years ago we would send out a paper prospectus and open day programmes – everything was on paper, now it’s all done electronically. People book electronically, all of the communications are done through e-mails and phone calls. We ask people to download and print documents themselves. It all works very well, it’s pretty seamless,’ said Denning. The university can also use this information to send students targeted communications directly related to their interests. ‘We do a monthly newsletter that’s related to individual subject areas, so students would get the relevant newsletter each month about the subject that they’re interested in. This obviously helps us in giving them the information they want and supporting them in converting from applicants into enrolled students,’ continued Holder.

During the open day itself many students will, of course, want to use their own technology, and today’s tech-savvy generation are often enthusiastic users of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which can help generate publicity and interest around the event.

While university staff obviously don’t want to be intrusive on social media, it can be extremely useful on open days as a way of quickly dealing with problems and answering queries. ‘If people aren’t sure about processes or what’s going to happen on a particular day or so forth, then we’re more than happy to give them that information using social media channels,’ stressed Denning.

The University also encourages students using Twitter to use certain hashtags during an open day and uses online videos to showcase new facilities, which Denning believes can encourage people to come and see them first-hand. ‘Online tours have to work hand in hand with virtual tours – you can’t get it all from a virtual tour. In many ways they should whet the appetite, especially in the case of something like our new engineering and computing building,’ he continued.  

A large amount of information about universities is now available through the Key Information Set (KIS) and various websites, yet it’s still important for universities to provide it on open days, particularly given the introduction of tuition fees. With students and their families being asked to pay a significant proportion of the costs of their education, Holder said students now put a lot of effort into preparing for open days. 

‘They want to know about what’s on offer, what they’ll study, where they’ll study, where they’ll stay, what it will cost them,’ she said. Much of the information on things like postgraduate employment rates is available through KIS, yet it’s important for universities to provide it themselves as well. ‘We provide a lot of information on our website around issues like employability for the courses. We do also have a focus on that in the open days,’ added Holder.

‘The jobs that a course could lead to is a prime motivator behind going to university. We’re very focused on the fact that the courses we offer lead on to professional careers, that’s one of our key selling points.’ 

KEY ISSUES

This has, of course, always been a key issue for students, but it is perhaps even more central to today’s generation, who are keen to get a return on their investment in their own education. While Denning agreed that technology is important in both attracting students to university and in the provision of education when they get there, he believes that the traditional forms of teaching are still central to higher education. ‘Of course we’ve got lots of online resources – a lot of our lectures can be recorded and played back later. But those face-to-face meetings, those tutorials, seminars, and discussions, can’t be replaced by technology,’ he said.

Similarly, while students can research a university online, look over its facilities and analyse statistics, they will always want to see it first-hand to find out whether it’s right for them. Denning concluded: ‘Open days have always been important and I think they’ll remain important in future as well, because they’re face to face, they’re seeing the real thing. They’ll always have a place in university recruitment and admissions.’

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