Finding our way: HE orientation in a post-pandemic world

A person wearing white trainers is standing on a road with a yellow line.

This blog post is the third in a series exploring BE Ready (Built Environment Ready), UCEM’s new orientation area which launched in Autumn 2023.

The previous posts by Sharvari and Elisaveta describe the development of the BE Ready orientation area, the technical decisions for building content and ensuring a good user experience. This post focuses on the educational research and theory that helped to shape our design.

Changing times

Positive student outcomes is a key performance indicator for HEIs (OfS 2023). The pandemic magnified the issue that online students struggle with transitioning and progressing through higher education but also understanding the academic expectations associated with this (McMurtrie 2022).

Until recently, student orientation and attrition research focused predominantly on face-to-face HEIs and constructed around the perceived ‘typical’ or ‘authentic’ student: young, full-time, and residential (Thomas 2015; cited in Gravett and Aijawi 2021). In comparison, UCEM students are remote learners with an average age of 30.5 (UCEM 2019) and studying part-time with additional commitments for example, a full/part-time career, caring or family responsibilities.

The Student Futures Commission (SFC) 2022 manifesto was a call to action for HEIs to set out concrete actions to improve students’ experience of university. Beyond the differing personal characteristics of students, we know that providing robust orientation, induction and transitional support are significant factors in ensuring positive student outcomes (Glazier 2021). The research and observations that emerged from the manifesto are of significant interest to us as we know first-hand that remote learners can experience higher levels of disconnection and attrition compared to those who study face-to-face.

Induction versus orientation – what’s the difference?

The Covid19 pandemic which reached the UK in 2020 caused a huge shift in how HEIs use digital technology for teaching and learning, but it also provoked a reassessment of the ‘traditional’ way that students are inducted. Online induction and orientation delivery poses its own set of challenges (UPP Foundation 2022).

Often, the terms ‘orientation’ and ‘induction’ are used interchangeably, but there are nuanced differences. Typical face-to-face induction involves welcome week activities, lectures, and social events with opportunities to interact with fellow students and teaching staff. Orientation gives students the opportunity to learn and embrace the university culture and values, and understand the expectations of learning at tertiary level. The question we posed ourselves was, how can we recreate or simulate this in an online setting?

A sunset sky with a signpost- there are two signs pointing left and three signs pointing right.

Brown and Parkin (2020: 5) summarise that ‘[inductions and transitions are] … a key juncture in the student lifecycle, bridging the transition from school/further education to HE, or from undergraduate to postgraduate study, and provides students with the knowledge to navigate the academic landscape and journey from arrival to graduation at their institution of choice’.

Before we could start our consultation and design processes, we needed to define what we meant by these terms:

  • Orientation: our umbrella term for all stages of induction and transition. The process of familiarising new and returning students with university culture, values, and expectations. An ongoing process which typically happens over the course of weeks or even months.
  • Induction: the process of imparting of essential, basic information typically delivered in a short period of time. Introducing new and returning students to staff and peers.
  • Transition: the change or passage from one stage to another e.g.: from secondary level education to undergraduate study. The time can vary from student to student.

As an online institution, UCEM already had induction provision but we wanted something that would be able support students transitioning throughout their lifecycle with us. We needed to consult our students to find out their needs and thoughts on a new orientation area.

Students as stakeholders

We wanted to offer an orientation experience that encapsulated induction and transition as a ‘process’ that would last longer than a week and something that students could come back to at different points during a semester. Our research indicated it was vital to get student feedback and engage students as stakeholders during the design process (Woods and Homer 2021). We worked with a panel of students during the consultation and design stages with the intention to empower our students, helping students to feel that they matter, and that they have a voice to shape their entire learning journey.

Our student panel agreed that induction and orientation should set and manage student expectations of workload and academic rigour as well as ensuring awareness of the normal study pressure points and where to seek help or advice. And so, the first iteration of BE Ready was born.

The ‘long and skinny’ design

Our new orientation area BE Ready is a shift from the widely accepted ‘front-loaded’ induction approach – a shift which took careful consideration and planning.

We found inspiration from the SFC manifesto (2022: 43) which recommended that successful inductions, orientations, and transitional points should be designed as ‘long and skinny’. As such, we wanted BE Ready to act as a ‘base camp for students – a constant reference source which actively engages students rather than a passive information exchange (Thomas 2012).

We developed the ‘long and skinny’ concept further by looking at it as cyclical process (Morgan 2020); following a student through one academic cycle, e.g. starting module, preparing assignment, submitting assignment, and receiving feedback (see Jarvis 2024). A student will move through this cycle multiple times until they complete their programme of study.

A diagrammatic representation of a student lifecycle, in the middle is BE Ready with an inner ring denoting orientation, induction, transition. The outer ring denotes start/discover, prepare and begin module alongside Induction. Alongside Orientation is Learning, study module and assessment then Review/reflect, feedback and progress. Then Transition, Options and moving forward.
Figure 1: A student lifecycle illustrating the interconnected nature of induction, orientation, and transition. BE Ready orientation helps to stitch these three cycle phases together. (Jarvis 2024)

Glazier (2021: 51) aptly summarises that successful induction ‘is about more than learning how to log into a Learning Management System’. We wanted to try and break down the perceived social barriers in online learning to enable students to ‘meet’ the people on the other side of the screen, to connect with peers and feel confident to reach out to the support services available. Glazier (2021) suggests that this ‘human’ element – the individual, personal contact with students is what will produce successful retention rates.

We believe we are well on the way to achieving this with BE Ready.

We worked across teams in UCEM to put our research and ideas into reality; ensuring that orientation covered all aspects of the student lifecycle – from navigating the first module, meeting staff and peers, to future career planning. We used BE Ready to unite initiatives that were already taking place at UCEM. The ‘New student orientation’ and ‘Welcome back’ (a series of interactive webinars organised by the Student Community team) were moved into BE Ready – bringing the ‘human’ element back into online learning.

As our student needs change, we will need to ‘BE Ready’ (pun intended) to accommodate this. The feedback we collect each semester is very positive and constructive and it is helping us to make further enhancements for the future.

What will BE Ready look like in 2025? Perhaps we should write a blog post on that…


Cover photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Signpost photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

Figure 1: A student lifecycle is inspired by The Student Journey infographic produced by Tim Coughlan and Kate Lister 


Brown G and Parkin D (2020) ‘Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project (SDCE)’, Induction: Leadership Intelligence Report [online], London: Advance HE. Available at: [accessed 3 April 2024].

Glazier R A (2021) Connecting in the Online Classroom: Building Rapport between Teachers and Students [online], Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Available at: [accessed 3 April 2024].

Gravett K and Ajjawi R (2021) ‘Belonging as situated practice’, Studies in Higher Education, 1(11), 1386–1396 [online]. Available at: . [accessed 3 April 2024]. (access via Taylor and Francis Online.)

McMurtrie B (2022) ‘A stunning level of student disconnection’ Afternoon Update The Chronicle of Higher Education [online] 5 April. Available at: [accessed 3 April 2024].   

Morgan M (2020) ‘An exceptional transition to higher education: induction of new and returning students during the ‘new normal’, Advance HE Reports [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 April 2024].

Office for Students (2023) How we regulate student outcomes [online]. Available at : [accessed 27 March 2024].

Thomas L (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: Final report from the What Works? Student retention and success programme [online], London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Available at: [accessed 4 April 2024].

UCEM (2019) ‘The Augar review: UCEM response’, UCEM News [online], 30 May. Available at: [accessed 3 May 2022].

UPP Foundation (2022) ‘A student futures manifesto’ [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 April 2024].

Woods K and Homer D (2021) ‘The staff–student co-design of an online resource for pre-arrival arts and humanities students’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 21(2), 176–197 [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 April 2024].