International students can get an impression of the UU anywhere in the world with VR glasses Photo: UU

Virtual information for new students on the rise

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They’re cheap and draw crowds of a thousand visitors: online open days. Many universities use the virtual technology to introduce prospective international students to the university. The UU doesn’t have an open day like that, but has its own ways of reaching international students with new ways of communication.

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As fun as a study programme may sound on paper, the final decision to study in one place or another is often made only after visiting an open day. But what do you do when, at that crucial moment, you live hundreds of miles away from the university you’re interested in?

Phenomenon
Last week, Radboud University in Nijmegen organised a virtual open day for the first time, especially for foreign students. A thousand students, from over a hundred countries, had signed up for an online visit to the campus, according to news site Vox. Between nine a.m. and five p.m., they could attend live presentations, virtually explore the campus, and chat with students and employees.

The Radboud isn’t the first university to introduce an online open day. In other countries, the phenomenon is already wide spread, and in the Netherlands, it was first done by Wageningen University. Wageningen is known for its international student body, and was always present at student fairs abroad to let prospective students get acquainted with the university, says spokesperson Simon Vink. “You need to be there where your target audience is.” And that audience, these days, is online.

So, the WUR has been experimenting with online open days since 2015. Currently, they organise two each year. “Our experience is truly very positive,” says Vink. “They’re not just cheaper than a stand at a fair, they’re also more efficient. Interested students have direct contact with current students, and that wasn’t possible before.”

Vloggers
The online open days are popular. Of the current WUR Master’s students, one in five visited one beforehand. Last year, the average number of visitors was around 1,700. That number had once been higher – with a record of 2,880 in March 2017 – but has dropped since the WUR has opened up its online campus 24/7 in November 2017. Visitors can tag along with vlogger Nancy to seminars, or see how Italian student Alan interviews a study advisor.

“More and more institutions are organising online open days like Wageningen does,” says Eduard Pupupin of internationalisation organisation Nuffic. The technical universities are the most advanced; universities of applied sciences are lagging somewhat behind. “There’s the same question everywhere: how can we offer prospective foreign students an adequate view of where they’ll end up?”

Preparation
An open day isn’t the only option. Universities are experimenting a lot. A virtual campus – a digital map, with or without information blurbs, 360-degree videos and other clips – is already the norm, and in Twente, you can explore the campus with an animated drone.

An open day seems to take a lot of work. “Live broadcasting takes a lot of time, and it needs to be interactive to be interesting to our target audience,” writes the organiser of the Wageningen open days. “We start organising ten to fourteen weeks in advance.” So far, the intensive preparations seem to be the only downside to the online open days. Abroad, commercial parties have eagerly jumped into the virtual visit market, says Nuffic’s Pupupin. But the Netherlands aren’t quite there yet.

What does the UU do?
Utrecht doesn’t organise an online open day for international students. It does have a number of initiatives to let students virtually get acquainted with the UU. Next week, for instance, a Webinar Week is starting, in which students can get to know a Master’s programme of their choice, and can individually chat with online buddies.

The UU also tries to inform prospective international students using social media. Students can ask questions to UU students who help run the UU accounts – see for example this Instagram Q&A.

The UU has also made a VR video, offering a look into the atmosphere of the city of Utrecht. When visiting a fair abroad, curious students can use VR glasses to take a look in Utrecht. The video will soon be posted online, to be watched anywhere in the world.

There are no plans to organise any virtual open days for prospective students at the UU. Experiences, feedback and research shows prospective UU students value ‘offline’ events, such as the current open days for Bachelor’s and Master’s students. The real life visit to a programme, city, and university is an important factor in the choice for a study programme, the university says.

 

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