The Kickstarter Model: Undergraduate Research and Alumni Engagement @ William & Mary

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What do “social” web technologies look like in practice within higher education?  This is a question that I often see posed within both online conversations and at conference educational sessions, but rare is the tangible answer that follows.

Earlier this month, I was down at my alma mater, William & Mary, for the annual Charter Day Weekend festivities.  Each year, the College brings alums and current students together to celebrate the institution’s founding and honor distinguished alumni, and I was lucky enough to be down there representing the W&M Boston Alumni Chapter at the annual meetings.  It was at these meetings that I was introduced to an innovative practice currently being used that combines several elements of the college experience in a unique way.  Professor Joel Schwartz, Director of the Charles Center on campus, spoke about the Center’s Honors Fellows, students that apply for and receive special grants for research projects in their respective areas of interest.  This is a program that I was familiar with from my time at W&M, but the process by which students can now receive funding was markedly different.

Sample Fellowship funding pages
Sample Fellowship funding pages

The projects out of the Charles Center, as I remembered them, were fairly contained in a way – if you were interested in the projects being done, you could always find information after a bit of searching.  However, for a student that was not personally involved in a project, this research work seemed a bit abstract and distant, in a sense.  Unless you went through the application and funding process, it could be unclear exactly what work was being done and how it came about.  Recently, however, the Charles Center has shifted this process and made it much more engaging for those not personally connected with the Fellowship program through a revamped and social web presence.

As pictured above, Honors Fellows are now featured online with an abstract of the proposed study, academic department information, and hometown, along with a tracker of funding progress.  These straight-forward features allow for engagement within the campus community (and beyond) in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

As anyone that has ever received a college alumni email knows, university projects often rely on alumni donations, so engagement with graduates (who might be able to fund the research) is key to the maintenance of a program such as the Honors Fellowships.  In that regard, this website is a great resource.

First, the Honors Fellow website allow for the research proposal to be the primary focus, as it should be.  Students condense their project ideas into a short summary that still remains effective enough to help the reader understand the purpose, feasibility, and importance of the study.

Second, the information about department, advisor, and hometown allows for alumni to sort through projects based on groupings that might encourage more financial support.  Alumni within the biology department, for example, might decide to donate to a student working within their field.  Similarly, a regional alumni association can easily sort projects based on hometown and put together a fundraiser for a student from their state or region.

Third, having a funding status bar within the features (ala Kiva, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or many others) allows visitors to the site to a) see support needed, b) visualize the impact of a donation towards reaching an end goal, and c) become invested (financially, but also emotionally) in a way that can connect someone to the College.  Rather than pleading with potential donors to give to a general cause that they might not understand, this online strategy allows people the opportunity to understand, choose, and buy into a cause, person, department, or project that they believe in.  This is the sort of engagement that social media strategists speak of – this age of media is not just for broadcast; social media facilitates dialogue. *

Sample blog post
Sample blog post

The process of sharing and connecting with each year’s Honors Fellows continues beyond the initial donation process, as the site also features student blogs that document research progress.  A quick read through some of the entries illustrates how the follow-up writing allows for the work to really come alive in a way that might otherwise never be seen.

Often, those of us in higher education theorize ways in which we can integrate our latest tech tools into practice but struggle to bring these methods to fruition.  The work being done with the Honors Fellowship program at William & Mary is a program worth recognizing, because it accomplishes this difficult task and serves as a model for future work on other campuses.

*Note: One area that I was curious about when learning about the Fellowships was the idea of quality control – isn’t it possible that potentially excellent research proposals can be overlooked in favor of those from students who simply gain popular support?  The Charles Center accounts for this possibility by also having a committee of faculty reviewers that recognize and fund the top projects that do not make it to their fundraising goal online.

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