The University of Chicago Re-Engages Alumni Through Online Learning


Photo Source: The University of Chicago Alumni Association

Not every interaction generates an immediate return. Brands often have to engage target audiences multiple times to establish relationships and get them to perform desired actions.

Take the University of Chicago, for instance. The school is exploring the benefits of engaging former students through an online learning community to drive donations later down the line.

A brief history lesson

Emily Bembeneck, associate director of pedagogical innovation for the University of Chicago’s Graham School, said the school’s alumni weren’t “super connected” to their alma mater. Bembeneck wanted to re-engage the university’s alumni and create an “enduring” learning community that would remind them of the positive experiences they had on campus, which would, ultimately, help the University of Chicago meet its long-term fundraising goals.

In addition to increasing the university’s bottom line, Bembeneck wanted the community to be a place where alumni from different graduating classes or degree programs could connect and where the university could collect data on their interests and habits. 

As a result, the school implemented Jive’s online community platform and launched its digital learning experience, AlumniU, this past September.

An introduction to digital

But getting faculty and alumni to engage with AlumniU was going to be a challenge.

Bembeneck described the University of Chicago as a “very traditional” school and said the institution didn’t have any online degree programs. So, AlumniU served as an “experiment” for how faculty could participate in online, social learning to reach new audiences.

She also said that the alumni weren’t used to communicating online. Before AlumniU, the main ways they could connect were through in-person events or through an online alumni page where they could watch webinars and get event information. Many internal stakeholders and alumni also weren’t used to engaging in online communities like reddit. So, they associated AlumniU with social platforms they were familiar with, like Facebook. As a result, many stakeholders confused the AlumniU community for a content distribution platform, Bembeneck said.

“[The stakeholders] don’t know what it means to have conversations online,” she noted during a session at the JiveWorld conference in Las Vegas.

So, the school took baby steps by providing its faculty with training and by making the online community noncommittal and straightforward for alumni.

Community engagement 101

Here’s how the community worked. The University of Chicago would email alumni announcing the new AlumniU class schedule. If alumni were interested in taking a class, they could “follow” the class online. The University of Chicago would then count these follows as class enrollments and send alumni who followed the class the appropriate course materials, such as the syllabus. Students could drop in and out of the classes as they pleased.

Each class is about four to six weeks, Bembeneck said, and can cover topics ranging from fairytales to philosophy. Every week, students are asked to do three activities, like writing a blog or participating in discussion threads. There are also live and video sessions with which they can engage.

To encourage alumni to engage in conversations and create content, the University of Chicago “scaffolded” its participation opportunities, Bembeneck said, which involved following a poll. introduction, discussion question model.

In the beginning, students were asked to answer a poll question, which helped alleviate any initial tensions. “People feel like they can contribute without any judgment or any worry,” Bembeneck said.

Next, alumni were asked to introduce themselves by indicating who they were and why they were taking the class. Finally, alumni were asked to participate in more thought-out discussion questions or activities, like blogging. Bembeneck stressed the importance of having these questions and prompts be direct.

“People need structure, even when they might not think so,” she said. “They do a lot better in those kinds of environments.”

Participants could earn badges for their participation, and the university sent out class highlight emails to generate further interest.

Siloed setbacks

As if building this community wasn’t enough of a challenge, Bembeneck had to overcome the additional hurdle of working in a “dual governance” — one where the alumni relations and continuing education teams worked on separate teams with separate deans.

While she said this siloed structure brought up questions of program ownership, she also said that it forced the two departments to collaborate and share responsibility.

For instance, when it came to the program’s content, Bembeneck’s continuing education team was responsible for establishing the framework, strategic goals, and engagement principles. The alumni relations team, however, was responsible for platform optimization, data reporting and analysis, and partner and training programs. Similarly, Bembeneck’s department focused on program retention while alumni relations focused on acquisition.

Lessons learned

When it comes to performance metrics, Bembeneck focused on tangible KPIs, like engagement. Doing so, she said, helped her acquire more program advocates. “It’s communicating to our teams in a way they understand,” she said.

So far, the community has 3,025 users, as well as a 33% active rate per quarter. “We’re working on growing that,” she said. She also said that the community helped the University of Chicago reach new alumni segments who were historically less connected and learn more about its former students through post-class surveys. The school can match community data to its institution data (like an alumni’s major or graduation year) to uncover new learnings and make the AlumniU experience more relevant.

As for lessons learned from this experience, Bembeneck said it’s important for stakeholders to have a clear understanding of the community’s value and to tell stories through one’s data. She also said that she needs to stay “positively proactive.”

“Don’t wait to be asked why you’re doing this,” she said.

In addition to these lessons, she said that it’s important for brands to speak the language their stakeholders understand and to never underestimate the gaps that can exist in terms of understanding how a program works. As she put it, “You need to meet them where they are.”

Update May 8, 2017: Bembeneck clarified that it was the stakeholders who confused AlumniU for a content distribution platform, not the community members as previously stated. This has been corrected and her quote and the last paragraph have been clarified as a result. Also, additional information about the newly discovered segments was added.

Jive covered DMN’s expenses to attend Jiveworld.

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