As prospective students narrow their college lists, campus visits can be effective in determining whether a school is a good fit. While in-person visits may be the most beneficial way to experience college life, there are new technology options that can give students a deeper look at colleges—whether they're on campus or not.
"Technology can enhance the college search process and a visit, but it isn't a replacement for being personal and getting to know the students," Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, vice president for enrollment management at Otterbein University, said via E-mail.
Some schools are integrating technology by providing mobile apps to "either create self-guided campus tours or to enhance the existing tour by making additional information available," Blackburn-Smith added. While Otterbein has not incorporated mobile apps within tours, he noted that the university currently uses social media to connect with students during visits. "We'll always try to balance high tech with high touch."
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Here are three ways students can use technology during their next in-person or virtual college tour.
1. Use mobile devices to rate an experience: It can be difficult for students visiting multiple schools to differentiate thoughts about one school from the next without taking notes.
"A lot of these things can flush together in terms of what students are experiencing on campus," says Justin Bayer, founder and CEO of Welcome to College, a mobile- and Web-based company focused on organizing the college visit process. "By being able to keep track of thoughts and feelings, you're able to tune into not only what you're learning about, but the things you're really passionate about."
Welcome to College, which provides an Android and Apple app called College Visits, offers students a way to note and organize their impressions using an 11-question tracker during a campus visit. The comments can be kept private for personal use or shared publicly for other students to view on the app's custom-made school profile pages.
Elizabeth Rainwater, director of marketing and communication at Texas Christian University, says students should be vocal about their impressions of campus visits. "We want people to talk about [their visits]," she notes. "We encourage students to check out other schools and find their best match."
2. Add augmented reality to a college tour: Smartphone or tablet users may have some experience with augmented reality apps, which use the mobile device's camera to overlay information or images on the device's screen. These apps have been used in games as well as in conjunction with GPS data to find restaurants and shops in a certain location.
One company, Realview TV, is building an augmented reality app that will allow students to access information during a campus tour or while roaming campus alone, says George Valentine, the company's president.
"Someone might be looking at a residence hall, but may not be able to get in to see what life is like in [there]," he adds. "So maybe if they click a video that's overlaid on top of that building, they can then see some content that's produced by the university that gives a good sense of what happens in that building."
The app is being beta tested at an Atlanta university, but Valentine says that the mobile technology will give students the chance to learn more about a campus and see more of the university than may have been possible even on a regular campus visit.
"The problem some schools face are the [prospective students] who show up to campus unannounced, and they're just walking around campus trying to figure it out," he notes. "From the school's perspective, they don't know the students are there, and from the student's perspective … wouldn't it be great to have someone there to answer questions? A happy medium is augmented reality."
Valentine says that the company will launch its augmented reality app for schools in early 2013. For students who want to try out augmented reality apps now, options include Localscope and acrossair Augmented Reality Browser, which use the GPS functions of a device to discover new locations.
[See how to get a head start on college visits.]
3. Explore 3-D virtual tours: Schools have long provided virtual tours to reach students unable to make an initial trip to campus.
"Current students have told us that our website and virtual tour were their first points of connection with TCU," acknowledges Rainwater. "If a student doesn't have the capability of visiting campuses that are beyond driving, the virtual tour maybe tips the scale in deciding that [the university] is a place they are interested in."
While prospective students have options for visiting college campuses from home, one company is providing students with a virtual tour that allows them to explore custom built, true-to-scale versions of campuses.
Designing Digitally has partnered with eight schools thus far, including the United States Air Force Academy, notes Andrew Hughes, the company's president, to build tours that allow students to create their own digital avatars and engage with other students. "Kids like to interact and play games," he adds. "They don't just like to look at pictures."
Much like a real video game, students can join a tour led by an actual college admissions professional, and they can even ask questions like they would in a physical tour, Hughes says.
"One of the things that has set us apart is that our virtual campus tour allows students and admissions reps to communicate in real time," he notes. "And that's what students and families want—instant feedback."
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