A new app lets students connect and administrators monitor

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Incoming first-year students have always found ways to connect with each other before they start college, especially through social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Now a new app is trying to enter that market, fostering connections among incoming students while simultaneously letting administrators join their conversations.

Unibuddy, a student recruitment platform for higher education, launched a new product last month called Community, which is an app that connects admitted and incoming first-year students to group chat rooms devoted to different interests or identities, including sports, music, race and sexuality. A community is formed when an institution’s admission officers invite newly admitted or committed students to download the Unibuddy app. Once students sign up for Community, they can add their interests and find relevant groups they want to join—groups that were either created by the institution or added by other students.

Nina Bilimoria Angelo, Unibuddy’s chief marketing and strategy officer, said that so far more than 400 institutions around the world—including Indiana University at Bloomington and Marymount Manhattan College—are using Unibuddy’s Community feature.

Students already know how to connect with their peers. Even before they set foot on campus, many join class Facebook groups or Instagram pages and share their handles for Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter. Diego Fanara, CEO and cofounder of Unibuddy, said the company created Community because students are shying away from Facebook—and Instagram and other apps don’t allow users to form large group chat rooms. Plus, the Unibuddy platform allows new students to connect not only with other incoming freshmen but also with administrators, faculty and current students, which is harder to do on social media.

“We’re recreating WhatsApp and Facebook groups, but in a closer, more secure environment, especially because we know the new generation, they’re not on Facebook,” Fanara said.

The site also allows administrators to monitor the app to ensure it remains a “safe space,” both Fanara and Bilimoria Angelo said. Bilimoria Angelo noted administrators can jump into a conversation and remove or block students from chat rooms if they’re being inappropriate—which is also harder to do on traditional social media.

“Let’s let students have authentic connections and conversations with each other and let’s let them find their people and find their interests and explore campus life through the eyes of current students, through the eyes of other prospective students,” Bilimoria Angelo said. “But then also let’s allow for monitoring by the app by an administrator to make sure that it does remain a safe, secure space for students to have those authentic conversations.”

Data Privacy Concerns

Brian Kelly, director of the cybersecurity program at Educause, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology, said via email that apps like Unibuddy’s Community are part of a growing trend of higher ed institutions using data and analytics to monitor and improve student outcomes.

According to a 2020 Educause student survey, a majority of students are comfortable with institutions using their personal data to help them achieve their academic goals. However, some students worry about institutions misusing their personal data.

“Students who do not trust their institution to use their personal data ethically perceive a lack of transparency, generally lack trust in their institution, and believe that their institution is profiting from their data,” Kelly wrote.

But most students seem fairly blasé about their college’s policies regarding technology and privacy. According to a Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse last year, 37 percent of students said they were aware that their institution had a data privacy policy, but they did not read it. By comparison, 36 percent said they weren’t aware their institution had a policy, and 12 percent said they were both aware of and had read the policy.

At the same time, 26 percent of students said it was “very unacceptable” for colleges to share personal data with third parties, compared to 29 percent who said it was “somewhat” unacceptable and 20 percent who thought it was neither unacceptable nor acceptable.

Kelly said Educause makes four recommendations institutions should follow to put students at ease about data privacy: inform them about what data are being collected and how that information is being stored, used and protected; seek consent from each student regarding the collection and use of their personal data; allow students to view and update their own data on demand; and give them the opportunity to opt out at any time.

Kelly noted that in Educause’s 2020 survey, undergraduates overwhelmingly felt supported by their institutions through helpful online technological tools that advise and guide them.

“The purposeful use of technology in education boils down to ensuring these tools and technologies are contributing to student success outcomes,” Kelly wrote. “It’s through safe spaces formed between the student and administrative personnel and advisors with a technology device or platform that conversations around student success and support can be had.”

Personalized Messaging

Unibuddy’s Community app also gives administrators insights into how students interact with each other, in part by sharing data on frequently discussed topics, such as financial aid, orientation, housing or something else.

“What Community does and the rest of our products do is really understand what are the key interests of students and what drives their motivation, their intention and what they want to talk about more,” Fanara said. “So that we can then provide these insights to institutions so that they can take action to better tailor their messaging or personalization and their support.”

Chris George, dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, said he was drawn to the Unibuddy Community app because it was an easy way to connect new admits with current students and other administrators.

St. Olaf started using the Community feature in January, and in the first three months more than 100 admitted students connected with each other and sent more than 300 messages, according to Unibuddy. Coincidentally or not, St. Olaf’s yield is up 4 percent this year for the incoming first-year class; last year, the college saw a 3 percent decrease in yield.

“I think it’s been incredibly successful and a great opportunity for us to be a part of the conversations, for students to ask us questions,” George said. “Because ultimately, we want our prospective students to engage with current students, and they have told us that that’s an important piece.”

George said the pandemic made St. Olaf rethink how it connects admitted students, since many students couldn’t attend a campus tour or event before they arrived on campus.

“As a residential college, a campus visit is really, really important,” George said. “But the pandemic changed that, and we want to extend our community out. This gave us an opportunity to think differently about how we can use virtual tools, whether it’s through the Community chat or through Zoom.”

On St. Olaf’s Community app, students can join a group called Diverse Abilities and Accommodations on Campus, one for BIPOC students, or an LGBTQIA+ group, as well as groups devoted to athletics, music and assorted clubs and activities.

George said St. Olaf administrators monitor the Community feature for insights into what common questions admitted students are asking so administrators or current students can respond.

“I think the opportunity to potentially have a moderator in a way that we could engage with students was a big piece of that decision for us,” George said. “Students just want to learn and know more about one another.”

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