By Cait Etherington September 09, 2017
In the 1970s and 1980s, freshman orientations were primarily about games, drinking, and partying. In the 1990s, rising concerns about injuries and litigation prompted most colleges and universities to step in and start using freshman orientations as a means to address at least some broader educational concerns, including basic study skills, safe sex education, and drug awareness. Now, as a fully wired generation arrives on campus, universities are again rethinking the freshman orientation. Specifically, a growing number of universities and colleges are now offering part of their freshman orientation online.
In the past, orientation weeks were generally organized by students rather than staff or faculty members and focused purely on the social. Today, orientation weeks are increasingly organized by staff and being used as a strategic period of onboarding. Like businesses, colleges and universities are now asking themselves what their newest members need to know to be successful and using the small window of time before classes start to put this vital knowledge into students’ hands.
Kelly Ann Sanders, a recently retired admissions counsellor who worked at four different U.S. colleges and universities over the course of her career, welcomes the new initiative. “There used to be a lot of chaos during orientation week…I’d rather not even think about what it was like in the 1980s,” says Sanders. She adds that moving orientations online may also reach college and university students who can’t afford to attend an orientation week event: “I really welcome the content that we now have during orientations but also the shift to using online platforms. I’ve worked at private universities were most kids do attend orientation weeks, but I’ve also worked at local colleges where many kids are working full-time and just can’t take a week off, before classes start, to run around playing games and attending a few important workshops. As we move the essential aspects of orientations–for example, units on study skills–online, we’re also doing a better job reaching the least privileged kids on our campuses.”
Most colleges and universities now have some sort of online orientation. In some cases, it’s a simple required module solely designed to ensure all new students know how to log into the universities learning platform prior to the start of classes. In some cases, the activity is designed to direct students to use a specific part of the university’s online learning platform. In other cases, the university is asking students to complete essential modules (e.g., on sexual assault) to be in compliance with efforts to address chronic on campus problems.
Rutgers University in New Jersey requires freshmen to complete three online courses. If they don’t complete the courses, they can’t register for the Spring semester. The courses include Not Anymore, which is designed to help prevent sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence and stalking; AlcoholEdu, which is designed to inform students about how alcohol affects the body, mind, perceptions and behaviors; and Transit-Financial Wellness, which is designed to empower students to manage their finances successfully.
To ensure that students don’t skip their online orientation, most colleges and universities impose at least some consequences for non-completion. Students at Rutgers must complete the university’s online orientation to continue studying at the university. UT Dallas takes a similar approach. Before students attend their on-campus freshman orientation, they must complete the university’s Freshman Pre-Orientation Online Module in eLearning.
In some instances, on campus offerings are combined with online learning. At The New School in New York City, for example, all undergraduate students now have an online learning portfolio. Part of their on campus orientation in late August asked new students to post a response on their electronic learning portfolio. The intent is primarily to ensure students understand how to access and use the online learning tool, which the university hopes they will use throughout the course of their degrees.