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The University of Colorado Boulder

Creating a customized orientation guide for students’ first-year transition

The transition from high school to university can be an exciting but often overwhelming experience. To help ease the transition, the University of Colorado Boulder used to require incoming students to attend a two-day, on-campus orientation program where students would learn more about campus resources, academic advising and enrolling in courses. However, the face-to-face orientation wasn’t always an ideal fit, says Courtney Fell, Learning Experience Designer at the university. The sessions were content heavy and sometimes overwhelming for students. The experience was sometimes a challenge for out-of-state attendees, who had to coordinate travel and accommodations. Parent attendance was also on the decline, Fell says, which meant they were often missing crucial information about their children’s impending university experience. In an effort to improve the orientation process and better help students set themselves up for success, the university undertook an ambitious project: in only a few months, it created a completely personalized introduction to the school, the New Student Welcome Experience. Students who want to come to campus can attend a New Student Welcome Day, but it is no longer required for all students.


The University of Colorado Boulder

  • D2L Brightspace

The Story

  • Building orientation into the platform
  • Showing students the path
  • Giving students reason to participate
  • Getting everyone on board

Building orientation into the platform

While Brightspace is primarily known for its online classroom functionality, CU Boulder opted to take it in a completely different direction. Building the entire orientation into the platform, students are first greeted with an introductory video, which teaches them how to use Brightspace and provides an overview of the material. Once students watch the video they are given a quiz, in which they can choose various ways of self-representation, such as transfer or veteran status, or even more broadly, living on or off campus.

This customizes the type of content they receive, says Jennifer McDuffie, Director of New Student and Family Programs, and provides two important benefits: first, it prevents incoming students from being overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but more importantly, it caters to the growing demand for personalization among this cohort.

“Students coming to campus are more tech-savvy than those before,” McDuffie says. “And most are coming from communities that have had tech integrated into learning since kindergarten. They’re used to having a system that’s really tailored to their specific needs.”

“One of our challenges in developing an online orientation was, how do we create a customized experience that reflects exactly what each student needs?” she adds. “We want to show students that while they might be one of many, they are an individual who is unique. We can’t customize the experience for every person, but at least we can customize it for the resources you want to see.”

We want to show students that while they might be one of many, they are an individual who is unique. We can’t customize the experience for every person, but at least we can customize it for the resources you want to see.

Jennifer McDuffie, Director of New Student and Family Programs, the University of Colorado Boulder

Showing students the path

After personalizing their experience, students move through four different sections. This includes the “Student Success” section (which contains information about finding your academic path) and the “Campus Resources” module (which provides necessary information about paying tuition and how to request a student ID). The “Academic Advising” section is required for students and explains how to work with advisors and create a class schedule, while “Enrolling in Classes” walks them through the course registration system. Once they pass this section, a hold is automatically released, allowing them to register for their desired classes.

An FAQ section, based on issues that arose during beta testing, lets students be self-sufficient if they have problems, says Fell.

Other handy tools include the discussion boards that lets students communicate with each other ahead of their arrival, a “To Do Checklist,” which allows them to track what might need to be done prior to starting, and a dropbox where international students can submit their immigration forms in a secure environment. The entire orientation can be used by the university’s screen reader users, making it a highly accessible program.

Since the university is attracting an increasing number of international students, McDuffie says it was important that the platform be readily accessible, even in countries where access to certain websites might be restricted.

Hands typing on laptop

Giving students reason to participate

To encourage completion of the non-required modules a broad system of rewards was created, such as coupons for discounts at the university store or even a scholarship to study abroad for a year.

“We know how hard it is to motivate students to participate in online courses, especially when there’s no grade associated,” says Fell. “But the rewards system really encouraged students to finish the modules.”
In fact, an overwhelming 99% of domestic students and 96% of international students completed the required components, Fell says, while three out of four students went on to complete the non-required sections.

Surveys of the incoming cohort found the information was relevant and helpful in their transition, while the course access and quiz completion data were an added benefit for the university. For example, another campus group created an early alert system to identify and reach out to at-risk students using the orientation data.

Professor on laptop

Getting everyone on board

Since its launch, a dozen other campus units have approached CU Boulder’s Office of Information Technology to help create their own programs on Brightspace.

“While professors have been using the platform for years, a lot of non-academic units hadn’t been exposed to it,” says Fell. “This gave the whole campus a chance to play with the technology and see how they could use it.”

What’s more, she says, it was a great way to introduce incoming students to the platform ahead of their academic careers, walking them through actions like how to submit quizzes or bookmark content.

McDuffie adds the online orientation has also become a primary resource for students throughout their first year – something the original in-person sessions could never offer. “Students are referring back to it,” she says. “When they first logged on, they might not have been ready to register their laptop or bike, but then mid-way through the year decided they were. Now they have an easy place to get that information.”

But most importantly, it helped ease what could be an otherwise stressful transition.

“Our biggest goals were to help create a sense of belonging, identify important information, share it in a consistent and accurate way, and make sure all information was accessible to all students,” McDuffie says. “We wanted to create a one-stop shop. There were a lot of people worried about the loss of face-to-face interaction, but all of them have come to say, ‘It worked!’ Because it did.”

Brightspace Excellence Award winner Courtney Fell with D2L CEO John Baker
Brightspace Excellence Award winner Courtney Fell with D2L CEO John Baker

This case was a 2016 Brightspace Excellence Award winner.

Clock on desk
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