Mason turns annual Spring Preview into virtual reality

This year's Spring Preview looked a bit different but was just as successful. Photo provided.

Just by the numbers, George Mason University’s annual Spring Preview was a huge success, with 1,855 registered students and about 3,600 total attendees at the April 23 event.

But this preview was also about the boundaries Mason pushed, technologically and organizationally, to set up a unique event that was both virtual and personal. An online event that did its best to “open” a campus that is shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mason did offer the usual pre-recorded videos about its campus and the opportunities students will have to learn and prosper, but it also set up 66 Webex rooms that were staffed by representatives of the university’s academic units, departments and student organizations. The rooms gave students who have been admitted to Mason and their guests an interactive experience and a chance to get real-time information and answers to their questions.

The Virtual Spring Preview offered a combination of videos and Webex rooms in which prospective students and their families could ask questions. Photo provided.

“We wanted to, in the best way possible, replicate the big spring open house we usually do,” Dean of Admissions Amy Takayama-Perez said. “And it was great.”

During a normal spring preview, admitted students and their guests get a feel for Mason by touring the Fairfax Campus, and meeting and speaking with faculty, staff and current students.

But thanks to the pandemic, the one-day event wasn’t going to happen this year. So a team headed by Elena Johnson, director of the Washington Scholars Program and Partnerships in Admissions, got to work. The team got immediate buy-in from the academic units, departments and 42 student organizations, and worked with Mason’s Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) to set up the logistics.

In turn, ITS worked with its Webex partners to help ensure a smooth user experience. Nine tech experts were on call during the three-hour event, in case of trouble. Only four calls came in, said Susan Kehoe, ITS’s director of academic strategies.

“The coolest part of this pandemic reality is that we get to try these new and exciting technology experiences,” Kehoe said. “And when they work, it’s phenomenal.”

Attendees—the numbers were comparable to previous spring previews on campus—were broken up into three groups and rotated through portals for academics, financial aid/career services and University Life.

“They asked questions all through my chat,” said Takayama-Perez, who hosted a “drop-in” room that attendees could access at any time in their rotation. “At all times, I probably had 90 people in there.”

Interestingly, Johnson said, most questions from attendees were “just the normal questions you’d get from a college student” and not related to the pandemic.

The post-event feedback has also been positive, she said.

“They enjoyed meeting with the units, everyone was so informative, everyone was so engaged,” Johnson said of the comments.

But best of all, she said, “Seventy-four percent of the respondents said Mason was their top choice in schools, which is huge.”

There are plans for a similar event before Mason’s June 1 deposit deadline for freshmen.

“The good part,” Johnson said, “is we have a very committed staff that’s willing to jump in and do this again.”