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Are ‘open days’ still relevant?

With ‘open day’ season drawing to a close, colleges are welcoming prospective students and their families for the final time this year. As such, now is the time to encourage and influence those students who have not yet made the important decision of which institution to see them through the next stage in their education.

There has been a huge change in further education over recent years, with technology now an integral part of everything from marketing and administration to examinations and learning but it is yet to fully influence open days. Instead, open days see prospective students (with a growing entourage of family members) taken around each department, being pushed around like cattle. It is very much a physical experience. However, this isn’t necessarily the most effective way to show students what the culture is like – or the type of experience that they can expect.

There is currently a stark contrast between a college open day and that of a university. The highly commercial UK university market, with its ever-increasing fees, is working hard to get students through the door. UK universities are getting smart by adapting their recruitment efforts and offering personalised survival packs and a festival-type atmosphere, engaging prospective students in a rich experience and giving them a real taste of campus life. Normally set in the summer months, these events are often led by student ambassadors who have been especially chosen to give rich peer-to-peer reviews and help inspire and direct decision making.

Across the pond, the US market is going one step further, with community and junior colleges offering an especially memorable experience, with each campus a destination for local communities. Celebrations are held in full Mardi Gras swing, complete with parades and heaps of energy. Students are treated to a full day of events, and can choose which parts of campus they’d like to visit.

In contrast, UK colleges usually host open evenings, generally held in the winter months, with half the departments closed. These are hardly engaging environments, and can’t really answer the key question of potential: “will this institution provide enough value for my time?”

The University of London provides the perfect example of an institution that is adapting to today’s digital world. The university launched a successful social media campaign that was designed to entice and engage its prospective students with a fun competition. As they wandered around campus, students had to find their name card and then take a ‘selfie’ in front of it for a chance to win a prize. This highly interactive event created an infectious environment and engaging experience for students – and was therefore far more effective than simply filling their heads with talk of success rates and facilities.

I have worked with other institutions to develop personalised apps in order to interact with prospects more effectively. This is highly engaging and very easy to organise, yet when we looked, only 20% of universities were using an app for this purpose and, to our knowledge, no colleges were using them at all (happy to be corrected).
We’re currently working with leading UK institutions to enable visitors to travel around campus with just their mobile device as their guide – using Information Advice & Guidance (IAG) – for interactive tours that provide them with a rich sample of the campus experience.

Apps of this kind have been created to create a more ‘community’ feel, and are enriched with information, advice and guidance about courses tailored to each student. Something known as ‘beacon technology’ even allows physical proximity to be measured, which means that a prospect’s phone will ping when nearing a relevant part of campus, and also provide some relevant advice and guidance along the way. The system is designed to get the most relevant information to the right person at the right time at the right location.

So are UK college open day events still relevant?

In my view further education institutions need to work smarter and harder to lure in new prospects by thinking of innovative ways to show off the facilities they offer. The latest technological advancements are helping to improve every aspect of the education system. I would love to see more colleges innovate through the challenge to showcase the excellence FE offers.

Cailean Hargrave is head of education at Portal, the education technology consultancy

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