Supporting the Value of Place in a Virtual College Experience

COVID-19 has accelerated the already increasingly virtual nature of the modern college experience. When learning, communicating, and socializing can be accomplished online, what are the tangible values of a campus center and what is the value of the physical campus fabric? KSS organized a panel to explore these questions and offer insight into how to engage community through the built and open environment, social media, and other methods of messaging to communicate the value of place to students who are fundamentally digital natives. KSS Partner Mayva Donnon moderated the discussion among Joshua Luce, Assistant Dean of Engagement and Director of Student Involvement at the Barbara Walters Campus Center at Sarah Lawrence College; Elliot Felix, Founder of higher education strategy firm brightspot strategy; and KSS Partner and higher education expert Petar Mattioni.

Creating Serendipity Remotely

Throughout COVID-19, student life programming has taken numerous forms from fully virtual, to hybrid, to in-person (with precautions like masks and social distancing). While institutions are going to great lengths to engage students through creative events like drive-in movies and virtual open-mic nights, communications are a significant challenge in providing effective programming. As Elliot Felix noted, proactive outreach and high touch communication are key to engaging students and building relationships, but without chance encounters and the ease of in-person communication, “how do we create serendipity remotely?” At Sarah Lawrence, Joshua Luce says they are encouraging students to be proactive in creating those serendipitous moments for themselves—to take initiative to reach out to the person who made an interesting point in class or performed at open mic night. As the pandemic goes on, making the extra effort can feel draining, but is essential to cultivating connection.

Building as Backdrop

With a majority of students learning remotely, whether from home or their dorm room, institutions and individuals continue to use the physical environment—‘the virtual campus’—as a backdrop to formal and informal communications. Petar Mattioni explained that from the perspective of a designer, authenticity is key—buildings that capture the authentic essence of an institution and its campus community are powerful spaces for connection and become part of our memories of a place. When shared on social media, that power comes through. For example, in the early stages of the pandemic Sarah Lawrence students who were craving connection to campus requested that those who were on-campus share images of everyday activities and places. College President Cristle Collins Judd took on this challenge personally, sharing images of buildings and landscapes, even a series of benches and doors that articulated the uniqueness of Sarah Lawrence. Examples like these show that while the value of place has long been recognized, it has rarely been as clearly articulated, and by so many.  

Instagram of Sarah Lawrence College President Cristle Collins Judge Sarah Lawrence College President Cristle Collins Judge uses the power of social media to connect students with campus

Value of Experience

Elliot Felix’s firm brightspot strategy conducted a national student survey asking students how they would allocate their tuition and fees across various categories in relation to what they most value (see graph below). Students dedicated an average of approximately 40% to classes—less than half the cost of their education. This survey expresses how important it is for institutions to understand that education is so much more than classes. Felix suggests colleges and universities take this into consideration post-pandemic and dial up emphasis on and spaces that support community, culture, creativity, and collaboration to align what is being provided with what students value.

brightspot Strategy nationally-representative student survey, Dec ‘20, n=450Source: brightspot nationally representative student survey, Dec ‘20, n=450

As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions like these help us share knowledge and experiences to discover the best way forward. We’re interested to see how this conversation and the virtual college experience evolve over the coming months and eventually in a post-pandemic world.