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Sparticipation goes virtual: Organizations face technical difficulties, low turnout

September 3, 2020
<p>A screenshot of the virtual site used for events like Sparticipation and Greek Fall Welcome. </p>

A screenshot of the virtual site used for events like Sparticipation and Greek Fall Welcome.

This year’s Sparticipation will go down in the history books as one of the most unique ever conducted.

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Sparticipation 2020 was held virtually. This year, the annual kickoff event of welcome week that hosts clubs, organizations, businesses and more was held over the course of three days — Monday to Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. 

In the online format, participants entered in the “virtual fair” and were allowed to visit any “desk” and message any club of their choosing. From there, participants could ask questions via a chat room.

Despite the lack of a real human connection, Chief Executive Officer of the Hospitality Association Brendan Connolly was happy the university found a way to proceed with the event.

“This is certainly a new and unusual set-up for Sparticipation, but I am happy to see the event take place in a safe way,” Connolly said. “I have to hand it to the group that puts together Sparticipation each year, they were very dynamic and pivoted to a platform that was appropriate for the current climate.”

Impressed by the transition to an online platform, Connolly was happy to see the event go on, even if it wasn't the same as previous years.

"It would have been all too easy for them to cancel the event this year," he said. "Instead, they actively prioritized the student experience and created an opportunity for students to engage in extra-curricular (activities) that prioritizes everyone’s safety."

The Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, typically draws foot traffic during a normal Sparticipation. While the online system can make for awkward situations, ASMSU Vice President for Internal Administration Nora Teagan said the virtual event may allow them to reach more students than ever before.

“So far it is pretty interesting,” Teagan said. “As someone 'running' a booth we had training sessions to understand how to run this online system. It is kinda difficult to connect with students on this platform but the chat function makes it better! I think with having this over three days will allow students to connect with more clubs than before.”

The MSU neuroscience club had success with this new program but also utilized Zoom for a more personalized experience.

"The conversations I have had have been great," MSU Neuroscience Outreach Chair Hailey Bond said. "I have been able to set up communication with many people at once and effectively answer questions in ways that they are comfortable. I spent about five minutes connecting with an incoming freshman via zoom. I could tell our conversation made her more at ease and cleared up some confusion."

However, many clubs saw a drop in visits by students in the new platform on Day One, including Arc, a club that connects LGBTQIA+ students to others on MSU’s campus.

“Digital and social are not really friends for such a large event like this,” a member of Arc that asked to remain anonymous said. “Sparticipation is usually where clubs receive their largest influx of members, and I just haven’t connected with anyone online here. Only maybe 3 people! That’s a really awful stat considering we usually get interest around 100+!”

They also said that the lack of advertising could be a factor in the smaller amount of participants. In a typical year, MSU would close dining halls to encourage attendance. This year, students did not even receive an email from the university about the event.

“Most kids I’ve talked with have never heard of the event when I told them it was coming,” the member said.

The turnout for the ASMSU “desk” was steady according to Teagan, but certainly not as much as a normal year.

“Turnout so far has been steady,” Teagan said. “We have had a lot of students visiting our page and a few on there engaging in the chat feature. Definitely not as many as we would have at an in person Sparticipation, but it is just the beginning of this event.”

The chat feature could be utilized in a private or public setting. Participants could directly message hosts of the desk from the homepage, or the hosts could directly message while participants were in their booth area or while on the homepage. Some had trouble working the chat feature despite being able to receive some of the same questions they would normally get at the event.

“Usual questions we’d get at a regular Sparticipation, though there seems to be a lot of confusion with the chat function,” the Arc member said. “Some people didn’t know they were talking to me, they thought I was from another club or they didn’t understand the messaging system — or it disappeared all together!”

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Some of the issues found by participants were disappointing, especially as students try to find the connections they desire while at home.

“I’m not sure if it’s the site being glitchy, the fact it wasn’t advertised, that people find it hard to join digital events, or if people just aren’t visiting booths they normally would, but it’s difficult to navigate and clubs are more important than ever when kids are stuck at home and need to feel engaged,” the Arc member said.

Arc was not the only club who had setbacks with the website either as Spartans Involved in Community Service thought the program was clunky at times.

"The site seems a little clunky," Vice President of Spartans Involved in Community Service Duncan Begley said. "Especially the chat system. You have to close the chat to do anything else and when you're talking to multiple people it can get pretty slow navigating the tiny menu."

Despite the setbacks with the site, clubs are looking to try and make the experience as enjoyable as possible.

“We want to help them find the right group for them,” Connolly said. “Maybe a friend of mine is in a club that aligns with this particular student's passions or I saw another booth that might interest them. At the end of the day, we are all just Spartans trying to help Spartans out.”

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