Student Dens: A Remote Student Support System at UC Merced

Student/Den graphics: Gustavo Torres, UC Merced Student Affairs.

By Jessica Duffy and Christy Snyder. As the full impact of COVID-19 unfolded over the summer, UC Merced’s academic leadership made the decision to build out capacity to support remote instruction. Of particular concern was the student experience in this changing environment.

A review of student feedback on the spring experience revealed four core needs:

  • To maintain the tight community and strong personal relationships that characterize the UC Merced on-campus experience
  • To reinforce the values of lifelong learning by encouraging intellectual curiosity and inquiry
  • To ensure consistent support and easy access to campus resources for all students
  • To create connections across our virtual spaces for social interaction, engagement, accountability, and leadership

In response, a team of faculty and staff designed the Student Dens program. Affectionately named to reference our campus mascot, the bobcat, Student Dens offers UC Merced undergraduate students a way to develop friendships with fellow students and to deepen connections to faculty and staff.

Microsoft Teams was selected as the platform for the Dens because it was already a supported enterprise application, with single sign-on and FERPA protections available. It also offered the key desired functions:

  • channel posts for community participation,
  • chat for direct communication between students,
  • embedded websites for quick access to resources, and
  • embedded forms for direct feedback and requests.

Technical Considerations on a Tight Timeline
When the Office of Information Technology (OIT) was approached to assist with a rapid implementation — over a three-week period prior to the first week of classes on August 26 — we put together a “tiger team” to tackle the technical design and ensure the appropriate user support services and training needed to deliver a seamless technology experience.

Given the short timeframe, the desired integration with our Ellucian Banner Student Information Systems proved elusive, so we did what all IT professionals do best – we went to plan B. UC Merced OIT Operations Manager Chuck Aby wrote a PowerShell script that would automate the creation of nearly 800 MS Team sites, each with three communication channels: general, announcements, and campus resources.

When it became apparent that running this script would actually take longer than creating the teams manually, Aby reached out to Microsoft. Emphasizing UC Merced’s intention to use Teams to support student success, he convinced them to optimize the process. The result was a reduction of process time from 15 minutes to only a few minutes per team.

Campuswide Collaboration
Each Den was populated with between 12 to 30 students—depending on if they were new or continuing students— as well as a Den guide (a staff member) and a Den assistant (a student). Although each Den was given a unique name, the Den members could rename it to reflect the team’s identity.

Dens were organized by field of study or membership in one of UC Merced’s Living Learning Communities. In past years, these Living Learning Communities created small student cohorts based on similar interests or majors where students live together on campus, enroll in similar courses, and participate in shared out-of-classroom experiences. Given the high impact of these communities on student success, it was natural to continue to offer the program virtually through Dens.

Creating the Student Dens was truly a campuswide partnership. It drew on expertise from the Center of Institutional Effectiveness, the Office of the Registrar, the Dean of Undergraduate Education, and Student Affairs. OIT had just rolled out MS Teams as a supported toolset in March during the start of remote work. By April, OIT Service Desk Manager Alex Hernandez-Perez recognized he would need to accelerate support capability for the increasingly popular tool. Because of his foresight, the OIT support team was ready by August when Student Dens went live.

Around the start of the Fall semester, OIT collaborated with Microsoft to offer 9 days of training open to all students, faculty, and staff. And the Center of Institutional Effectiveness developed several videos for students on how to access and navigate the Teams interface.

Assessing Adoption & Engagement

There were tons of great ideas for this program, but we knew we needed to start simple, and that we could enhance the program as we learn what works from students, staff, and faculty. This was—and continues to be—an exercise in taking an off-the-shelf tool and leveraging every bit of functionality, without stretching it too far.

Regular evaluations of the Dens program’s success indicators, which includes measuring student engagement in the Teams platform, have been integral to this approach. Currently, Teams has limited out-of-the-box descriptive statistics. OIT and the Center of Institutional Effectiveness worked together to stand up “the next best thing,” where activity data is pulled every 7 days and then visualized using Tableau.

We’ve learned that strong awareness of the program doesn’t mean fast adoption. We had good open rates on communication emails that provided Student Dens information to students in July. Within the first weeks of the program launch, 50% of new students and 16% of continuing students had logged into Teams. Now, more than seven weeks into the semester, the team is watching the data and learning more about which students are most likely to need and embrace the Dens program. New student participation ranges between 35%-45%, while continuing student participation is consistently hovering around 15%.

Dens participation is encouraged but optional, and some continuing students have turned to Discord or other existing social media platforms to solve the same problem of virtual community that the Dens program seeks to address. This highlights how necessary it is for new students to have a starting place like the Dens to create, nurture, and leverage connections with their fellow students.

Our understanding of student needs in this unprecedented semester will continue to mature, but we know that students will likely require ongoing nudges regarding the Dens program. To that end, Student Affairs is supporting a student-led social media campaign encouraging students to learn more about “what Dens will do for you.”

OIT is now working to integrate MS Teams with our Student Information System. This will be critical to enabling the student analytics that will inform how we use MS Teams going forward, and what conditions activate and enable engagement and academic success.

Tl;dr – Too Long; Didn’t Read!

The Student Dens program leveraged already licensed technology assets and in-house staff to “try something” to make the remote experience better for students during challenging times. Our continued determination to experiment, learn, and iterate highlight UC Merced’s can-do attitude and strength in community. You can learn more in the UC Merced News article about the Student Dens program.

Jessica Duffy, business architect, Center of Institutional Effectiveness, UC Merced. Jessica Duffy is business architect, Center of Institutional Effectiveness, UC Merced.



Christy Snyder, communications officer, Office of Information Technology, UC Merced.Christy Snyder is communications officer, Office of Information Technology, UC Merced.




Student/Den graphics: Gustavo Torres, UC Merced Student Affairs.

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