Building Next Generation Online Orientation: Personalized and Accessible

A person using a laptop while drinking tea

Co-Authored by Tess Diver
Originally published on The evoLLLution.

So often, orientation is a one-size-fits-all firehose of information that may or may not be meaningful to students. When we think about the student experience, particularly for online learners, institutions should consider the expectations that students bring into the environment. Today, empowered consumers expect a personalized online experience that enables them to get what they need when they need it. This increase in consumer expectation is often referred to as the “Amazon Effect” (Phelps, 2017) and higher education is not exempt from it.

The “firehose” approach to student onboarding contradicts current research and consumer trends, which indicate that a student’s desire and ability to learn are enhanced when they have greater control over their learning experience (Redding & Temple University, 2014). So, what is the balance between too much and not enough? How do we empower students to “shop” for what they need from their orientation and not become overwhelmed by information they don’t need? These are two questions we asked ourselves as we reimagined an online first-year experience (OFYE) that could serve the diverse needs and expectations of thousands of students.

To get started, we first considered who our students are. In recent years higher education has seen rapid growth in non-traditional student enrollment, and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is no exception. Like many institutions, SNHU’s population includes working adults, first-generation students, and students returning after many years away. We examined student feedback, analyzed data, interviewed stakeholders, and reviewed industry trends and research to learn as much as possible about the challenges facing new students. Furthermore, we utilized a design-thinking approach and imagined what a personalized, just-in-time orientation experience could look like. We experimented with a course framework that enabled us to meet consumer demand and expectations while remaining agile and responsive to our future needs and diverse student populations. Here are some of the things we included in our first iteration.

Make it Personalized

Utilizing native checklist functionality and release conditions inside the existing LMS, we designed an activity that enables students to curate personalized content within their orientation course. In this activity, students select from a list of self-identifiers, values, and interests to release relevant content. Some examples of self-identifiers include military affiliation, first-in-family background, and international home base. In addition to self-identifiers, students select from a wide range of interests, like study and time management strategies, developing grit, finding balance, and staying motivated. By selecting a topic, relevant modules are released into the student’s orientation course. This model removes the “firehose” aspect of the orientation process and enables students to control the information they need. By opting in to relevant content, students can manage their experience, thereby increasing its value and cultivating an internal locus of control, which has been shown to correlate to engagement and academic success (Gifford et al, 2006). Furthermore, by asking what matters to the student and connecting them with the right resources, the model increases a student’s sense of belonging to the university, regardless of where they are in the world. With the addition of personalized content, orientation is no longer a momentary experience, but rather a continuous resource that can be drawn upon when it’s needed.

Extend Access

Once students have a personalized online orientation, it makes sense that they should be able to access it when they need it. But when is that? What is the difference between what students need prior to the term versus what they need while the term is in progress? These are the questions we asked students and stakeholders as we considered more options. Although most orientations end before terms start, we determined that keeping it open was essential. Extended access enables students to return to or revise their personalized content as they need it. Orientation now provides the just-in-time experience that today’s consumers (and students) expect.

Implementation Success Criteria

In 45 business days we developed a personalized orientation experience, increased student access, and rolled out a new orientation course, all while staying positive and goal driven. Here are the biggest contributors to the project’s success:

1. We involved the right people in a design-thinking process

We took a design-thinking approach, which enabled us to keep students at the center of the problem we were trying to solve. We started with questions like: How might we extend access to orientation? How might we create a personalized experience with a scalable model? Using this method, we dodged potential roadblocks by involving the right people early and often. Some of the stakeholders we included may seem obvious, like admission representatives or advisors, but some may not, such as the Registrar’s Office or academic technology. Together we developed creative solutions that met our students’ needs, and we did it fast.

2. We shared the “why” for increased buy-in

We sought to inspire the hearts and minds of our stakeholders as we described the impact that a personalized, accessible experience could have on student success. In return, we received their vested interest in the success of the project and a spot at the top of their priority list.

3. We tested our ideas

The philosophy of build, measure, and learn (Ries, 2011) was central to our development approach. Students and internal stakeholders provided unexpected breakthroughs and improvement ideas as they experienced a personalized framework and customizable content. This iterative development method enabled us to improve the student experience and support operational processes quickly.

4. We had expertise and clarity of roles

We had the advantage of an experienced project lead with in-depth knowledge of the student experience. We also had a group of dedicated team members who understood their roles and were willing to go above and beyond to make the project a success. With a clear vision and well defined scope, we set out to change the world (or our small slice of it).

Student Insight is Driving Us Forward

Now that we have deeper insight into what matters to our students, we are using this data to drive additional relevance and value into the student experience. For example, academic advisors can use their student’s self-identifiers, values and interests to provide contextualized support. We can systematically trigger experiences and messaging to students based on what matters to them. As an institution, we can identify themes in recurrent areas of interest. These types of insights will be powerful tools that will enable us to connect with students in new, inspiring ways, exceed their expectations and support their success.

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Gifford, D. D., Briceno-Perriott, J., & Mianzo, F. (2006). Locus of Control: Academic Achievement and Retention in a Sample of University First-Year Students. Journal Of College Admission, 19118-25.

Phelps, Stan. (2017). Mind the Customer Expectation Gap. Forbes.

Redding, S., & Temple University, C. L. (2014). Personal Competencies in Personalized Learning.

Ries, E. (2011). The lean startup: How today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses.

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