Engaging freshmen before and after arrival at Humboldt

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Last Monday, we talked about a trend we’re seeing on Ning; admissions offices creating Ning Networks for their admitted students to connect with each other before arriving on campus. Today we’re posting the final interview we’ve completed with a Network Creators of one of these Ning Networks. Up today, we chat with Charles Klein of Humboldt State University.

HSU Class of 2013

Charles Klein is the university web manager at Humboldt State University. He set up a Ning Network for Humboldt State University’s class of 2013 — it’s centennial class. With the school already extending its presence to Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, setting up a Ning Network was the logical next step in extending their social media presence.

Here’s what Charles had to say about setting up a Ning Network.

How are students using the network to connect differently than past years?
In the past, the only means incoming students had to meet one another was during one of the mandatory orientation sessions over the summer. This was fine since students had time to connect, though the goal of these events is to orient them to the campus and register for their classes. The network has proven more beneficial on a number of levels. Students have more time to interact and get to know each other in a low pressure environment. The network was setup in February, which was before the application deadline and the housing deadline.

This year we had undecided students whose decision was based completely their experience with the network and the people they met. We also had a large number of students meet and decide to become roommates in the residence halls. A nice anecdote — one student contacted our counselors and told them that he was deciding between HSU and Sonoma State, and the network pushed him over to choose HSU. Then he met two other guys on the network who lived in the L.A. area near him, they met up IRL, decided to be roommates, contacted housing to assign them to a triple, etc. This anecdote proves the value of the network not only for enrolling new students, but these three students are far more likely to stay at HSU after their freshmen year — retention is a difficulty we have because of our remote location, and the more connections these students have when they arrive (or before), the better.

Have you seen any particular events or interactions that have really surprised you?
I think my greatest surprise was the civility of the network, and the respectfulness students show one another. We opted to keep the network as hands-off as possible, and let them start their own groups/forums/blogs, etc. The “on task” nature of the network has survived, students realize that it’s setup and run by the University and use it to talk about the Univ. We knew that a social network would be a success for this generation of students, but were surprised by just how popular it has been. The students discuss their personal feelings about moving and coming to a place that is, in many cases, several states away from their homes. I’m surprised by the collegial atmosphere, considering these are high school students venturing out on their own for the first time.

What feedback have you heard from students about the social network?
The anecdote in my first response is just one of many. We’ve also heard from parents who are relieved that their student will know not just one other person when they arrive here, but many. Incidentally, because of the feedback from the parents, we’re planning on starting a new network just for parents and families to use…

What features are your members using?
We allow free-reign over groups, forums, chat, blogs and their profiles. We chose not to allow photos and music. Our staff uses RSS feeds and Notes in the right hand column to show news, events, our Flickr feed, and upcoming deadlines.

Is the network open to parents, professors or current students? If so, how are they interacting?
This network is only open to the incoming freshman class, though they’ll have access to it for their time at Humboldt State. We think introducing profs or parents, or even current students who are in a different maturity space, would dilute their experience at this point.

What have you learned about the class of 2013 from running HSU Class of 2013?
Research shows that these students are technologically savvy, and they definitely fit that description. They easily figured their way through the interface to use the features, with no explanation from us. They also proved to be thoughtful about their decision to go to college, and concerned about academic quality, institutional reputation, financial aid, housing, etc — things that we assumed parents only wanted to know. They had great discussions with each other about these topics, and it was enlightening and refreshing.

What are you or the staff getting out of the experience?
I think the most important take away for our staff, especially the Admissions counsellors, has been the value of keeping their hands off the process. Our goal in creating the network was to increase our yield of admitted students who actually come to campus. This is a passive and highly successful way of accomplishing that task, without bombarding them with e-mails, brochures, post cards, etc. Most of the staff was open to letting it run itself, and after a few weeks the others came to appreciate the importance as well.

Do you think this is influencing your accepted students’ decisions to attend Humboldt?
Absolutely. Aside from the dozen or so anecdotes, we also have our admitted students complete a survey during their orientation. This year we’ve included the Ning network in our list of things that affected their decision to attend so that we can track and get statistical evidence to reinforce the anecdotal.

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