When recreation facilities were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, campus rec teams were forced to quickly design and implement virtual programming strategies for their campus community. While these programs are still ongoing, many people are wondering, is virtual programming here to stay, and should it?
According to Jenny Strickland, the assistant director of integrated communications and group fitness at Purdue University, virtual programming is definitely here to stay. In fact, she said it’s long overdue. In the book her team read called, iGen by Jean Twenge, Strickland learned how Generation Z, the group of students born roughly between 1995-2015, are digital natives who grew up in a world with technology at their fingertips.
“A prominent message we’ve both heard and experienced this year at Purdue RecWell is students want to be met where they are at,” said Strickland. “If it takes more than a few seconds to find information, they’re ready to move on to the next thing.”
Under the leadership of director Mike Warren, Strickland’s team has been encouraged to move forward with technology in their spaces such as offering a mobile app for members to find quick information, and a concentration on the use of social media for engagement.
“We will continue to provide virtual experiences and will use this time to collect data, hear from our members, and refine and explore all of the endless possibilities in this avenue,” said Strickland. “We had a full-time, online student from the Pacific Northwest reach out and say, ‘I hope you continue to provide virtual programs permanently. As a remote student, this makes me feel a stronger connection to the campus community.’ These are the experiences we want to keep facilitating.”
Chris Nasti, the assistant director of fitness and wellness at American University, also believes virtual programs are, and should be, here to stay. “Virtual programs have the potential to serve as a bridge for students to begin to engage with our programming when they might not have the comfort level to come into the facility and participate in in-person programs,” said Nasti. “We hope to use our summer virtual programming to connect with our incoming students, and long term I think virtual programming can be a tool to help reach more underserved populations.”
At American University, live Group X classes and IM esports have been the most popular and will continue to be offered into the early summer. Nasti and his team plan to reevaluate these programs, along with other virtual offerings on a monthly basis. “Our long-term plans will potentially be impacted by the university’s anticipated revenue,” he said. “I expect to continue offering some virtual programs even once we are fully operational.”
Moving forward, traditional fitness programming may face many challenges, the main challenge being safety. For Nasti, in addition to implementing safety measures for employees and participants, his team wants to make sure they are able to clearly communicate what those enhanced protections will be. This ensures students know what steps are being taken and what new expectations staff may have of them when using the recreation centers.
Along with communication, Strickland elaborated her team is focusing on gauging social connection and keeping momentum. “While people can easily get online and click to join, there’s something special about being in the same room with other humans for all programming, not just fitness,” she said. “Our challenge will be to create online spaces and environments where this social connection grows and emulates the feelings of being in the same physical space.”
One avenue Purdue is using to explore social connectedness is virtual team building, led by the assistant director of challenge course programming. “With so much being virtual, companies have to know their audience if they want to retain them,” said Strickland. “Most important, virtual programs should be sustainable and should be able to complement your in-person programming in the future.”