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Penn State University

Penn State University

Online research and insight project finds emotional moments that bind students

Penn State University provides an unrivaled experience for its students. Great teaching. Classical buildings. Leafy campus. Lifelong friendships.

Look on social media and you’ll find Penn State alumni praising time spent reading, chatting, and relaxing on the lawn. Legions of young people post pictures of themselves cheering for the Nittany Lions. Groups celebrate their lifelong friendships. Penn State couples tie the knot on the historic college grounds and families come back on pilgrimages to see where their parents first met.

Penn State’s challenge was to extend the strong bonds created through a physical experience on campus, to an increasingly large number of students whose experience is almost entirely online.

As a forward-looking institution, Penn State came early to online learning. Today it has over 18,000 students studying yearly on Penn State’s World Campus with over 60,000 alumni. Translating the essence of its famous campus experience to online students is an ongoing challenge, and one of the core responsibilities of Rose Cameron, the university’s innovation director. 

Understanding the online learning experience among students

To inform the university’s strategy, the Metia Insight team was tasked with understanding the differences in mindset and emotional drivers between online students and their campus-based counterparts.

The university regularly conducts traditional surveys among students and alumni. While they have a loyal campus-based alumni, a deeper understanding of online students was needed to achieve the same lifelong advocacy. Their existing research could only take them so far.

The university team saw the need for innovation in their research methods, concluding that to create and design an effective online experience, the core research needed to be conducted in the same online world.

The Metia Insight team set out to deliver deep, ethnographic insight created, interpreted, and analyzed within the anatomy of the experience execution—the diverse, digital world of the online student.

Using personas to design emotional connections in the student experience

The result was a hybrid methodology involving a carefully selected suite of innovative software tools, social media data collection methods, and cutting-edge analytics to create, visualize, and quantitatively validate the emotional learning journey of online students. Metia both partners with leading data analytics vendors and also develops its own techniques and tools to support client projects.

This combination of rich data sources and ethnographic understanding resulted in the development of colorful, clearly defined and meaningful student personas.

The Penn State personas are now used to create and communicate highly differentiated and resonant messages that lead students along personalized alumni nurture paths, and ensure that content and interaction experiences are rooted in what matters most to online students.

Emotional connections are translated into online environments

The research and subsequent experience design initiatives are intended to connect Penn State and its online students through a series of emotionally connected experiences that transcend tactical study goals, and are explicitly designed to drive a life-long learning passion and pathways to ongoing institutional support among online alumni.

Rose Cameron, Director of Innovation adds: “The journey mapping undertaken by Metia connected me deeply with the priorities of online students. The personas we built have become a key decision-making tool, and I now have a clear pathway to evolving our online learning experience. We have created a vision and mission to secure lifelong commitment from students who may never walk through our quad but most definitely will continue to pass through our digital doors.”