Interactive campus calendars are a great way for colleges and universities to engage current and prospective students by elevating and promoting upcoming social events on campus. At present, however, they remain largely underutilized by many institutions of higher ed.
UCLA’s web programmer Joseph Maddela recently pointed out to Higher Ed Live that a social calendar has its own distinct purpose vis-à-vis the school’s academic calendar, which is why UCLA’s “Happenings” page has its own separate page on the school’s main website. Focusing on sports, arts, and lectures, UCLA’s social page does include a link on the side to the academic calendar, but the main emphasis is social.
How to set up and maintain an interactive campus calendar? There are essentially three ways: having a school’s own staff develop it; hiring a third-party vendor to create it, or utilizing an open source platform. UCLA developed Happenings in-house. “The campus calendar is a pool of events, and in our back end, we can select which events we would like to appear on Happenings,” Maddela explains. Maintaining the page in-house allows UCLA to filter upcoming events and handpick one or two each day to feature as being of particular interest to students.
The key feature of an interactive calendar is that it be dynamic and engaging for the user. Instead of simply looking at a static calendar of events, here, the user can click on any event announcement for further information, purchase tickets, add his or her own comments, and “Like” it on their own Facebook page. Students have begun using the comments section to inform their friends that they’ll be attending particular events—thus aiding the school in further promoting various functions.
An important point to note is that if a school is not posting its social activities on a Facebook page, its students are likely doing so on their own pages. One upshot of this is that if the school decides to make any changes to an event’s time or location, those students will not likely go back and track the changes on their Facebook pages. Misinformation breeds confusion, and there doesn’t seem to be a quick and easy solution to this problem yet.
For schools that don’t have the computer programming resources to create a social calendar onsite, outsourcing to a third-party vendor is an option. Several schools including Emory University use Trumba, which appears rather static, and doesn’t include images—an important feature for attracting students to social events. Some use Calendar Express; others use R25, which actually bills itself as a “Class and Event Management System”. The only service we would recommend, however, is Localist—used by Cornell and Johns Hopkins, among others—for its more attractive presentation. Maddela points out one disadvantage to using any third-party vendor. “From the programmer’s standpoint, the first thing I would ask is: how portable is the data?” Serious problems of portability arise if the vendor goes out of business.
Some open-source solutions exist, as well, for schools that might be limited on time or resources. One example is Bedework, used by Duke University; another is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s own Event Publisher. One advantage to these programs is that if a programmer has questions or problems about coding, answers are more likely available from a shared online community.
Regardless of how an interactive social calendar is built, two major considerations any school should keep in mind if they are thinking of creating one are: how much work will it require for the school to maintain, and how attractive and engaging will it be for students to use? In addition, there are certain features that a very useful calendar should have. First, it should filter for the type of events users are seeking. Also, users need to be able to share the information with others. Attractive images are necessary to draw the viewer’s interest. And the calendar should have an editorial voice that encourages viewers to attend certain events.
While the ideal way to create a social calendar might be by using a school’s own programmers, ultimately what matters more is that it be very interactive, so as to engage the user and encourage him or her to get more involved in life on campus. Since this is a goal shared by all in school marketing, admissions, and student affairs, the future of interactive social calendars seems wide open.