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Virtual college campuses get new tools from St. Petersburg’s Presence

Margie Manning

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Reuben Pressman is founder and CEO of Presence. (Photo courtesy of City of St. Pete Flickr)

Although colleges and universities have a public perception of being slow to change, the Covid-19 crisis has forced schools to adapt quickly to distance learning.

Presence, a St. Petersburg company with software and data collection tools for student engagement, is helping power those virtual campus communities with new products and features.

Over the past few weeks, the company has developed software to help institutions deliver millions of dollars of CARES Act funding to students in need, created virtual on-demand content catalogs, powered online student orientations and created or fine-tuned other features, said Reuben Pressman, founder and CEO.

“We support community. Ideally that’s not technology-driven. It’s real community built physically, but the reality is we don’t have that now. So the next best thing is the virtual,” Pressman said. “The same principals apply. You still want students engaged. You still want them connecting. You still want them to have meaningful relationships and experiences. Whether that’s happening physically or virtually, we’re still able to provide the same service — if not a more powerful service —now that it’s fully digital.”

Presence, established in 2014 and originally named Check I’m Here, was founded on the idea that students who are engaged in school activities outside the classroom are more likely to stay in school, perform better and be more successful after graduation. It’s more difficult for student affairs professionals to reach students who are taking classes from home, but Presence has come up with new offerings that help.

On-demand catalog. “A lot of institutions are producing  a lot more virtual content now, video primarily. They’re doing a lot live, and then recording and saving it for students to watch whenever they want, and they’re finding that’s key for student engagement. Our system allows them to create an entire catalog of virtual content and categorize it and track as students go through and learn that,” Pressman said.

Orientation. Schools typically run multiple orientation tracks on campus throughout the summer for incoming students, using a system from Presence to track participation. “Now that it’s virtual, they need a place to host that content, a place to track as students go through it, and even a way for students to know what they have to do because they’re not being corralled by an orientation leader the couple of days they are on campus,” Pressman said.

Forms and processes. Pressman said Presence has become the go-too tool to collect information across an institution. “There are schools that still don’t use a tool like us, and they are rushing to replace what used to be paper forms that won’t work from a virtual perspective. That’s a key feature we’ve always had that’s more important than ever,” he said.

CARES Act funding. Institutions nationwide received billions of dollars to distribute to students in need, but few had processes to handle that. “Our system can easily facilitate that. We’ve already helped build out tons of relief fund forms that allow them to collect the needed information, and allow the approval workflows across all the different staff and get that funding quickly. I believe we’re already funding millions of dollars of that through our platform,” Pressman said.

The Presence platform also is being used for elections for student governments and club leadership, as well as running virtual trainings. About 200 universities and colleges nationwide are currently using the platform, and the products are in higher demand now than ever, Pressman said.

“A majority of our partners are using our digital tools more than before, not that they were under-utilizing it before. I think there are just more applications for it now that everything is purely virtual,” Pressman said.

Eventually, campuses will reopen, but Pressman believes higher education will shift to a hybrid model, with many virtual components remaining. So while there’s been a pivot at Presence to put a laser focus on the current issues, it’s not a total shift for the company.

“We’re not short-sighted in that we’re not going to knee-jerk react to the current situation and completely throw everything else out the window. We’re still making sure that what we’re building does not solely apply to virtual, since the demographic and audience we work with is not a virtual audience. Colleges and universities won’t go full virtual. We’re still looking at a long-term approach,” he said.

There are lessons for other technology startups in how Presence has handled the crisis, said Pressman, who also is Entrepreneur-In-Residence for the city of St. Petersburg.

“We always go to the ‘why’ for anything we do. The tools and features, that stuff is easy. It’s how and why you build certain things. When you get to that deep value level, it helps across every component of the company,” he said.

“In a situation like this, when you go back to the basics and the whys, and stick to your ideology and philosophy of why you did this in the first place, it’s really easy to reset and think about how that why applies now. That’s what allows you to make quick movements and pivots and realign and get buy-in.

“So my advice for other founders is, go back to the basics. Why did you start this in the first place? How does it apply now? And then build up again from there. “

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