Higher education: where digital meets physical

27th October 2020

Sheppard Robson Partner Rupert Goddard speaks with David Burgman, Managing Director of student marketing agency Raptor, about key opportunities for change at universities that weave together physical and digital campuses, and what adaptations could be applied to improve universities in the future. David discusses what students look for from their digital university experience and the shifting relationship between our estates and our screens.

R: What have you noticed about the changing relationship between the physical and the virtual campus?

D: I think pre Covid-19 it was two separate worlds, but the pandemic has accelerated the understanding of how digital can complement physical.

For example, we’ve taken the concept of a physical Fresher’s Fair brought it to life in the digital, so that students can build campus familiarity before they have full access to the actual campus. For brands, there's no reason why a physical site space can’t be converted to digital—it reaches them in a different way. When students come back to their room after a day of lectures they engage with these brands in different ways and times than they typically would.

R: As a digital agency that works for brands interested in engaging with the students as potential customers, how has your company pivoted to providing digital interfaces for students and universities, and what are universities looking for in this process?

D: We realised that September is the busiest business time of year for student marketing programs, with Freshers weeks, fairs, et cetera, and we wanted to know how universities were going to adapt to this—how they would manage all the student societies, sports teams, and all the other interactions and social activity that goes on physically.

So, in April we asked several student unions about their plans for September, and everyone that we spoke to said they didn’t have a plan in place yet. We asked them if they would be interested in a digital version that ticks all the typical boxes of signing up to societies, allowing exhibitors to take space, and so forth, and they all were very interested.

R: That makes total sense; what did that look like?

D: We started developing something that—unlike other similar services out there—was really geared toward this Gen Z audience ranging age 18 to 24, to be engaging, fun and exciting.

We began working from each University's campus map, almost like the big brochure you use at a theme park, with a fun layout that incorporates the university’s design as a 3d model, with local cultural elements as well. For example, at The University of Northumbria, featuring the Angel of the North, or for Sussex University the beach and the pier, to give students who won’t be able to actually walk around the campus or city a sense of where things are, so that when they eventually do get onto campus they will already be familiarised with where everything is from landmarks to their canteen and classes. We also made the designs all unique, to reflect the individual design of each campus, so the University of Birmingham features its classic clock tower, while the University of East Anglia features brutalist designs.

R: Was this process of digitising just mapping physical space or more abstract qualities too?

D: The maps have become a kind of expansion of their brands and personalities of the place, rather than as just a generic digital tool. For example, at Sussex University, which is known for its student activism, the map features protesters, which you can click on and learn about this history, which helps build an understanding of the universities as a whole.

R: At Imperial College they have clearly embraced your model, and they've developed something that plugs into the particular kind of engineering and mathematical mindset of the school, with designs that echo old school video games and a coding aesthetic.

We've done number of projects in the past where smart buildings have been on the agenda, and it's always been challenging for the universities to adapt the sometimes archaic systems to respond to the demands of smart buildings. I wonder if this is platform could help manage that kind of data and transition as well.

D: Of course, and that’s the other thing about data—we're able to now see and understand the whole journey of a student, from the interests they select to how that translates to what societies or brands they engage with. For universities, this can feed into the architecture of the campus to make it work for students and how they engage with the campus.

R: I think this could also help with how universities communicate with their students, rather than quite dry, technical emails, this could provide a friendly space that to ask questions, find out information, understand that the topography of the campus—all before you really engage with it.

Looking forward to a time where we can be less concerned about the current situation, do you see these models retaining their popularity?

D: I hope so, and I think in the forthcoming couple of years the idea would remain particularly relevant to adapting to smart universities, as you mentioned.

There is the potential for adding lectures online or being able to interact digitally with societies. I think this complements the physical, rather than replacing it. You can't beat the interaction of face-to-face for a brand or a society; however, it’s a good added resource for extended hours and access if you don’t’ have the chance to visit physically.

R: Yes, that transition is really key, especially for first year students taking that step from home. It’s a really mentally challenging time, and there's a lot of work done on our residential projects around student welfare, so that when they arrive, they are looking out for the students.

D: It helps students to connect with other like-minded students while they can't actually meet physically, and things like a messaging service or Twitch, the live streaming platform, could aggregate many different societies into a schedule and programme, so students get a taster on all these different activities. Building these connections digitally can help students with their confidence and their mental health prior to actually being able to meet in person.

R: I think while that may be a challenge to many universities, there is an opportunity there as well. If they can make this primary digital interface for students—for questions, student welfare, information on fees or course inquiries—all in a really friendly and engaging way, universities can streamline and run more efficiently, and focus their buildings on the places where students interact, rather than the administrative side of things. This could also free up students’ time (and head space) to enjoy a campus for connecting and interacting with like-minded people, which is key during the academic year. I think that is really the journey that universities now really need to go on.

David Burgman

Managing Director, Raptor