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UBC creates its own focus group of 5,000 students and alumni

New online forum will give the university valuable feedback and help it identify issues as they emerge.

BY KAREN BIRCHARD | OCT 16 2013

At a time when universities are keenly interested in boosting recruitment and improving the student experience, the University of British Columbia has borrowed an idea from companies that depend on consumer panels or focus groups to give them valuable feedback on their products and service.

The university announced in September that nearly 5,000 students and alumni had volunteered to be members of its new online Open Minds Forum that will let them voice their opinions and make suggestions through interactive surveys, providing the university with almost real-time research data.

“It’s not going to replace surveys like [the National Survey of Student Engagement] or town hall meetings,” said Kari Grist, managing director, communications and marketing, for UBC. “But it will help us understand what students and alumni are thinking right now. It gives us a finger on the pulse.”

Not only will the university be able to react quickly, said Ms. Grist, but the results of the surveys will help UBC design new programs, make changes in courses, update communications and improve service to students and alumni. The results of the surveys will be shared anonymously with the participants so they can also see how others feel about an issue or topic.

The university is using proprietary software developed by Vision Critical, a Vancouver-based research and public opinion company. The company will help UBC officials formulate the ongoing surveys. It also helped select a balanced group of participants that included students from all academic levels at both the university’s Vancouver and Okanagan campuses.

Ms. Grist said it was relatively easy to sign up thousands of students and alumni willing to give their opinions. About 60 percent are students, the rest alumni. To recruit from the student body, the university included information in its back-to-school mailings. The alumni association reached out to its members for volunteers. “We offered incentives like draws for mini iPads and gift cards for the university bookstore,” she said. “Within three weeks we had enough people.”

The university plans to do at least two surveys a month, with each of the interactive questionnaires taking about five minutes to complete. Sampling the opinions of students and alumni has traditionally meant a major, time-consuming – and expensive – effort. “But this is cost-effective and should give us timely, robust information on a series of topics that will allow better understanding of issues in addition to identifying or spotting issues as they percolate,” said Ms. Grist, who added that she sees the group as “special advisers.”

UBC has wasted no time in asking the group for opinions. The group completed two surveys by the end of September, including one on proposed changes in the look of the university’s website.

When asked why they decided to be part of this online community, the answers were varied but about a third said they wanted a chance to express their views, while others said they wanted to hear new ideas. But many also said they just wanted a say in building a better university.

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