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Digital Student Engagement: Transforming the Higher Education Experience in Developing Countries

Engaging Students using No-Cost/Low-Cost Digital Platforms in Student Affairs/Life

Notebook. with a pencil, phone and sign - Digital Student Engagement
Designed in Canva

As the global pandemic of COVID-19 continues to disrupt, higher education is rapidly transitioning to digital platforms for many aspects of its operations. Institutions around the globe are transforming to digital formats or a hybrid. As schools struggled to reopen in August, most of the attention focused on the new landscape of academics and the courses delivered- be it digitally, in-person with appropriate considerations, or both. The reality of a reopening was dimmed for universities/colleges from Europe to South America, North America to Africa, and from Asia to all other places in between. As January 2021 quickly approaches, institutions are still navigating their reopening and in what capacity to accommodate their academics.

But what about the other aspects of students’ college/university experiences? As a result of the pandemic and abrupt disruption of their studies, students are understandably having high levels of emotion and disappointment about the drastic change in their expected experience. While institutions in the western hemisphere are more likely to have a robust system, and staff to utilize in making the adjustments to the student experience, some places in our developing and emerging nations are struggling. International higher education in some regions of the world does not possess the technological infrastructure, financial resources, or even the human capacity to move academics online, much less the student experience and services. From the government and higher education governing bodies to the higher education institutions themselves, it is highly likely they may not have the expertise or funding to execute a robust technological system for courses, let alone the student experience.

"What we define and deliver as student engagement must be transformed.” Dr. Josie Ahlquist, Digital Engagement Strategist in US Higher Education

While moving such services and experiential learning into a virtual platform may be challenging, it amounts to a retention tool. Thus schools are using creative ways, inexpensive resources, and retraining for their mode of work. As an international student affairs/life professional, who has lived and worked in both developed and developing nations, I share my thoughts and advice to help in this necessary transformation.

The digital student experience is the new community building for student development units. It can be a space to provide our students with the connection they yearn to discuss current issues, coursework, breaking the feeling of isolation, and gaining some semblance of connectedness to the overall institution. Since it is not business as usual and the digital spaces are more vital, let’s take a moment to explore some basic suggestions. Look at the platforms that already exist in your global, digital space or on your campus as there is no need to reinvent the wheel but instead use the platform you might have avoided or underutilized. At times, we might have also discouraged or warned our students about the distractions of social media and online activities but given our present global circumstances, the tables have turned. These digital spaces are no longer distractions but vital tools for communication and bridging the gap in engagement that once occurred in-person.

Where to Begin In the growing digital world of student affairs/life, there are five general formats which can be used to engage students in learning that takes place outside of the classroom. These no-cost or low-cost formats and digital spaces were suggested for their ease of use as there is little to no training necessary, and many students are already using them in their interpersonal social spaces.

Groups/Chat Rooms — create them based on interest, topics, meetings, or programs.

Webinars — Both you, as staff, and your student leaders can host interactive or informative sessions. These types of sessions typically require registration and a commitment to meet the desired participation.

Live Q & As — the live drop-in or out format provides students with flexibility. They ask a question, get their answer, and leave or hang out for the entire session.

Live Streaming Programs — provide a drop-in and out option but is geared towards entertaining or social interaction. Yes, just for fun!

Pre-recorded Post — such sessions are more for information or self-directed activities. Again, giving students topics and flexibility for when they can participate or get updates.

Photo: Praveen Kumar Mathivanan/Unsplash

What Platforms to Use Now that we have established some formats, let’s talk about platforms. Based on my working experience at two institutions in two developing countries during this pandemic, I know all too well the challenges of capacity. So, here are some free or low-cost ideas for hosting.

WhatsApp or WhatsApp Business, Slack, and Facebook Group or any internal equivalent would be great for your group meetings, small informal programs, or a quick one-question survey.

On the large scale webinars, seminars, or information sessions, you should opt for an online meeting or conference program. Several options like Zoom or Go-to-Meeting have free versions but may have some limitations to capacity or time. Many of us have left Skype behind but it is still a viable option with its recent and various updates. If your institution is fortunate to have a GSuite framework, then you have Google Meet as a convenient option.

For activities like Live Q & A or Program Streaming, check Facebook or YouTube Live. There are places where your students already engage with friends, so it will not be new to them but you might have a learning curve to overcome.

Your pre-recorded messages, conversation, or information can be audio or video. If you opt for the audio route, consider a podcast. This radio-style format can work with various free podcast apps. For a video, it can be as simple as recording using your mobile device or a webcam and microphone via your computer. Do minor edits if needed, and it is ready to post!

Lastly, have an established and dedicated student engagement page on the school’s website or a Facebook page. Use this media for posting to create a consistent place, during this time, where students can find messages- be it announcements, virtual office hours changes, and promoting student club programs.

"Indeed, one study concluded that “e-service-learning — the marriage of online learning and service-learning — holds the potential to transform both endeavors by freeing service-learning from geographical constraints and by equipping online learning with a tool to promote engagement” (Waldner et al., 2012, p. 145).

Photo — Karla Fraser/Roseapple Global via Canva

Expect Challenges I would not be doing any of you justice if I did not mention that there will be challenges. As staff members, you might still have a learning curve in adapting your skills to the new format of digital engagement. I recommend engaging some of the students to help you learn and transform. Let’s face it, our current college students possess the knowledge. Other challenges might be the infrastructure, the quality of connectivity in the area where your students reside, and engagement remotely might be inadequate. In such instances, events/activities that are live or live streaming will be a challenge. Unfortunately, you might not know much about this issue, but your pre-recorded options and posts will keep students updated.

Another challenge might include the restrictions or limits placed on the various social media platforms by your insulation or regulatory agencies. Since the pandemic continues, some limitations might have reduced to allow the types of engagement we seek with students. You might also encounter the challenge of students experiencing digital fatigue. Between classes, we attempt to keep them bonded to campus and being at home with home responsibilities. Some students may lack time, interest, or both in building a digital community until they return to their physical community on campus. In this case, know that again, there might not be much you can do. However, I would suggest learning what your students are interested in, then engage them in topics and activities they suggested during non-peak, academic times.

Having undertaken some transformations in recent months, I can attest to the learning curve of staff and some students. I also witness our student life team’s dedication and diligence to ensure that students remain connected to the campus. In developing countries like the one I work in currently, it feels improbable to successfully engage students digitally especially having to simultaneously navigate a steep learning curve while transforming the student experience to digital formats. Notwithstanding, regardless of where you are on the globe as a student life/services practitioner, and whether you are at a government or private university/college, continue forging ahead. We refocus our efforts because we work each day to educate our next generation of leaders.


****Karla or Roseapple Global is not receiving and will not receive compensation for mentioning any brands or services listed in this article. The information indicated are sources of reference to help you create your no-cost or low-cost digital platform. Additionally, do not hesitate to contact us if you are interested in learning more or requesting a proposal from Karla from Roseapple Global about ways they can assist your institution in making the transformation.

Article is also published on LinkedIn and Medium.


If you enjoyed this story about entrepreneurship while living overseas, then please comment as well as share it on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Thank you!

-- Karla A. Fraser, Digital Student Engagement: Transforming the Higher Education Experience in Developing Countries, Roseapple Global, LLC


Roseapple Global provides expat coaching and guidance for individuals or groups. We serve all aspiring or continuing expats and specialize in assisting higher education professionals. We also offer to consult for student-facing units of higher education institutions internationally. Our services focus on developing or improving the administrative and operational areas of your departments. We help you unlock your potential, maximize your ability, and equip yourself with resources and tools for your journey or your student-facing unit. Contact Us

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