Founded in 1890, Penn Foster is the nation’s leader in distance education, offering more than 105 accredited and career-focused degree, diploma and certificate programs. Offering affordable online access to higher education programs, the school prides itself on creating a positive, empowering experience that fits into the busy lives of its students.
Penn Foster built a student forum using a legacy platform that was hosted internally, but they wanted to enhance the social collaboration features of their site. The Penn Foster team analyzed their existing platform’s infrastructure and realized that its basic features would not allow for the enhancements they desired. The team also wanted to transition hosting and maintenance to an external provider, to free up internal resources for other project work.
Penn Foster also faced challenges that come from the lack of a physical campus. Their existing web site’s configuration made it challenging for users to find content and connect with other users, and did not align with the school’s branding. “As an online school, people can’t visit our campus to touch and feel it. Our Community is completely open by design, so that prospective students see the different groups and understand how learning happens,” said Dara Warn, Chief Marketing Officer for Penn Foster. “This helps them realize that there are real people behind Penn Foster – and that we are just like them.”
Penn Foster defined their requirements for the new community according to the features that were missing from their current application. They still wanted to be able to perform basic updates and revisions themselves through a simple administrative interface even after hosting was moved off-site. They also needed to comply with specific privacy requirements, and sought security features to protect students’ personal data. The ability to assign specific permissions to different employee groups was important, along with the ability to link spaces and groups and transfer content between different areas ofthe community.
Armed with this list of must-haves, 7Summits recommended Jive as the ideal platform for Penn Foster’s community hosting, and the team began to collaborate to define acomprehensive strategy and bring their vision to life. “We went forward with this project with the goal of helping our students stay longer, be more successful and get more of the support they need to stay connected,” said Warn.
The 7Summits team facilitated an on-site strategic workshop at Penn Foster to analyze the organization’s key business drivers and specific use cases for the community. Through this process, the team mapped these objectives to specific features in the community and developed a comprehensive information architecture and user experience design that would address the school’s needs, align with branding guidelines and provide easy access to content and resources. The home page is customized for users based on their user type and academic program, and offers a sophisticated and sleek design that has helped drive engagement.
One of the key features of the Penn Foster community is a Student Map, which places markers across the globe to represent student locations. The map can be filtered by academic group to help narrow the results. This feature enables Penn Foster students to locate others in their geographic region, for meet-ups and study groups. This helps support in-person networking and interactions,which has proven beneficial for many students of online schools.
The community also includes a Blog Network, which allows members to create individual blogs to share their Penn Foster experience. These blogs allow students, instructors and administrators to share their perspectives while encouraging additional dialogue on relevant topics for the Penn Foster community. Community Managers can promote Penn Foster and student blogs on the customized home pages to drive users to relevant content. The Academic Help area hosts answers tocommonly-asked questions, which are easily searchable. Penn Foster’s support staff has now shifted their workflows to focus on answering thousands of queries online, and the answers are visible to other students who have the same questions. This has significantly reduced the amount of time they spend answering questions overall, allowing them to focus on other important tasks.
Penn Foster’s Community also features an advanced gamification module, powered by Bunchball, which motivates students and employees to actively contribute in meaningful ways. Students can earn points and badges for answering fellow students’ questions, posting a status or writing a blog post. Each activity has a different point level assigned to it, and these accumulated points can be redeemed for bookstore prizes. As on other social networks, users can interact with each other and discuss their outside interests, which helps build bonds that extend beyond the virtual classroom.
The implementation process involved mapping existing web content to the new information architecture and user experience. The data from the legacy platform was scrubbed and transferred to the appropriate areas of the new community. Naming and tagging conventions were defined to optimize the user experience. This also helped improve search effectiveness and overall usability of the community. Different terminology between the two platforms led to some additional complexity, but theoverall implementation process was smooth and the teams wereable to efficiently complete the migration.
User accounts were also migrated to the Jive platform, allowing students and faculty to immediately access the new community. Because the new accounts required additional user account information, users were prompted to reset their passwords and complete their profiles upon first login, which enhanced the amount of data that was gathered for each community member. These profiles were set up to align with specific privacy requirements, and each user was given access rights based ontheir role within the school. Single sign-on functionality allowsusers to access the community and the student portal with oneset of credentials, and their account is automatically linked to relevant groups based on their academic information.
The Penn Foster Community has become an integral part of the school’s culture, helping students and faculty create deeper bonds. Because the school is entirely online and there is no physical space to visit, the community has become a “campus tour,” and open access to the online forums allows prospective students to get a glimpse into the school’s culture and collaborative features.
The administrative team developed an initial set of groups to encourage participation, but users have begun to form their own groups based on shared interests. This has helped create a true virtual campus for the school. Over 800 blogs have been created and nearly 1,800 posts have been generated – surpassing Penn Foster’s initial engagement goals. Since the community’s launch in July 2012, Penn Foster has continually added licenses to keep up with the influx of users who want to join the discussion – adoption has risen over 200%, with nearly 11,000 active members in September 2013. The community averages over 30,000 daily page views and has strong user participation, with high numbers of responses and likes per post. With close to 75,000 pieces of content available in the community, users are able to access the information that applies to them and interact with others who share the same interests.
Instructors provide course content within the community, and, by reviewing user activity, Penn Foster’s staff has discovered that students who are active in the community are more engaged overall. They take more tests, complete more courses and participate in more student groups than those who have little presence in the Community.
Through a monthly Community Manager report, the Penn Foster team can review new post counts, student participation statistics and new registrations, which helps measure the performance of each space. This helps the team develop ongoing strategies for improvement. The community has helped the administrative staff address areas of inefficiency and has alleviated some of the strain on internal resources as students increasingly use it to help eachother with academic and personal issues. The customer service team anticipates a 30% reduction in email interactions for 2013, and the cost per interaction has decreased by 45%. The school has been able to operate at a lower employee-to-student ratio while maintaining high quality service levels. Individuals are now able to locate the appropriate resources online and help each other navigate the common concerns that all students face. “Because our course structure doesn’t have a set start date like traditional semester-oriented colleges, new students are joining Penn Foster every day. This made it difficult for students to connect with each other, get help and work on projects together,” said Warn. “The Community has created a way for our program students to follow a consistent path, even when they are on different timelines.”
The community also helped Penn Foster’s marketing team develop deeper insights into the demographics of their student body. The school’s previous platform collected only basic information about each user and engagement levels were low, making it difficult to fully understand the audience. The new community profiles collect more detailed information, which makes segmentation easy. Engagement levels are also much higher, and as administrative staff interacts with the students more regularly through the forum, they are able to truly understand the student perspective and develop personal relationships. Greater visibility has enabled the marketing team to tailor their messaging to the student body, allowing for more effective communications regarding student programs and educational opportunities. “Often, a school is just guessing at what they think students like – what their interests are and who they’re friends with. That data is hard to come by – and you often have to pay for it,” said Warn. “Our Community provides full visibility into things that we ordinarily wouldn’t see on the marketing side, and we can see issues that need to be addressed. It’s a great source of student data that helps us with everything we do – particularly developing creative pieces.” The ongoing addition of content and increased traffic to the community has also helped improve Penn Foster’s search engine rankings. Organic traffic from online search has nearly doubled since launch, and social media referrals are up 92%. The next phase of the project will integrate single sign-on functionality with the school’s course management application to allow faculty to monitor community engagement for grading purposes.
As a result of its work with 7Summits to rebuild the Community, Penn Foster has been honored as a finalist for two Social Media Leadership Awards – Customer Service, which focuses on customer care for social users, and Voice of the Future, which honors communications and marketing departments that have leveraged social media to achieve key business strategies. “With focused effort from our team, we’ve been able to encourage the development of an actual community of students that used to be completely separate,” said Warn. “It’s really important for our students to have a place to connect and feel a sense of belonging– that they are part of something bigger. Tools like Jive and the work that 7Summits did to build our community allowed us to create a true online campus.”