When I first envisioned a phone app to replace the physical college campus tour, it was a way to enable rural students and those who aren’t wealthy to visit campuses without having to travel to get there. As state director of a federally funded initiative that helps young people prepare for college, I realized virtual reality was a way to transport students to colleges throughout the state even if they didn’t have the time or money to do a regular in-person tour.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced colleges and universities to shut down, virtual visits such as those accomplished through the app – known as GEAR UP VR for North Carolina and Get2CollegeMS – have taken on a more important role, and not just for students who lack the means to visit a college in person.
While many individual colleges may have virtual tours, the GEAR UP VR for North Carolina app is – to the best of my knowledge – the first and only app that provides tours of colleges on a system-wide and statewide basis. That is to say, through this app, students can take a virtual reality tour of any of the 16 schools within the University of North Carolina system. Community colleges are also being added.
The app was developed in 2017 as a GEAR UP NC project in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Emerging Technologies Lab with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. I’m expanding a similar app called Get2CollegeMS to include all public universities and community colleges in Mississippi. I’m doing this with federal GEAR UP funds meant to increase college access for low-income students and those who are the first in their family to attend college. There are plans to soon add tours for all public universities and community colleges in a similar app – called Get2CollegeMS - in Mississippi.
An app may never replace a friendly face, but it can be an alternative for a campus visit and help students and families choose a college that they believe is best for them, especially at a time like this when there really is no alternative.
I’m expanding the app in Mississippi with federal GEAR UP funds to increase college access for low-income students and those who are the first in their family to attend college.
Thus far, students have indicated that the virtual reality visits are helpful and effective, according to research that I plan to publish in the future. This suggests that these virtual tours could play a bigger role in the future, especially if the COVID-19 pandemic lingers and causes schools to remain closed in the 2020-2021 school year.
There are many advantages of an app that enables virtual tours. Students and families who take virtual reality campus tours do not have to spend time and money or leave home. Rather, they can tour the campus from the kitchen table or sofa whenever they choose. They can get all of the information presented on a campus tour from the app in the palm of their hand. The app enables the experience of “being there.”
Prospective students on campus tours can become familiar with various aspects of campus life. They can visit dorms, gyms and cafeterias. They can also learn about a major they may wish to study, where to apply for financial aid and the like. Not everyone may wish to experience a college tour this way, but this may prove to be a good option when there are restrictions and not much of a choice.
I tested the GEAR UP VR app well before the coronavirus pandemic.
During fall 2018 and spring 2019, I teamed up with education researcher Judith Meece to test the usability of the app and its potential to motivate students in schools in rural North Carolina to enroll in college.
Most of these students had never visited a college campus. Their parents had not attended college, or if they had attended, they did not finish. For these students, a college decision is especially difficult because of complicated financial aid forms and lack of a social network of people who know the ins and outs of getting into college.
I showed the students how the app works. I showed students the app’s 360 virtual reality tours, majors and degrees and student life information, links to campus enrollment, financial aid and social media connections. I also introduced them to the app’s chatbots, which are basically robot icons that “chat” or respond from a predetermined bank of questions.
A research study of the impact of the chatbot at one university indicated that it was effective for those who are first in their family to attend college. When compared to a control group, 92.5% of students enrolled in college after chatting with the chatbot, versus just 89.1% for those who did not interact with the chatbot. That’s a statistically significant difference.
The app gave prospective freshmen a way to explore and compare campuses to ensure the college was a good academic “match” and a good “fit” in terms of environment and location.
While students indicated that they liked all features of the app, they considered the virtual reality campus tours as the high points.
“I would say being able to see the students up close made me feel like I was there,” one student said.
“We were able to see action on campus without going there,” said another student. “The app is better than online pictures.”
During a test of the virtual reality tours in North Carolina, students first selected a campus in the app based on how close to home the college is or how popular the college is among their peer group. Beyond this first look, students could tour any of the other 16 University of North Carolina campuses.
Students said they found it exciting to virtually tour different colleges throughout the state. Future versions of the North Carolina and Mississippi apps will include community colleges.
When it came to the chatbots, students said they were most interested in asking the chatbot about financial aid, a large concern for many of them. The students indicated the chatbot could answer most of their questions and that they appreciated the instant response.
Beyond high school
The app isn’t just for high school students. Many working-age adults find themselves in need of going to or returning to college, but may not have the time or money for campus tours. Adult students may also prefer to tour colleges on their own or with other people who are over 18.
To fully realize the power of technology and reducing the barriers of time, distance and money to travel, colleges and universities might consider creating their own app.
This technology could benefit both students and the college, particularly at a time when students can’t tour campuses because of COVID-19.
Making virtual tours more prevalent
I believe that the app and similar innovations are promising. However, challenges remain. School counselors and college advisers need to be shown how to use the app. And Wi-Fi can be spotty in rural homes and schools, which could make it difficult for groups to download the app. If those challenges can be overcome, I would expect to see virtual reality tours become more common in the not-too-distant future.