Visiting American University’s lecture halls, dorm rooms, and sports facilities with a few mouse clicks swayed David Shapiro to enroll at the Washington, D.C., campus.
Colleges and universities are turning to the interactivity of web 2.0 technology in the annual bid to lure new students by showing the best of campus services and facilities. American University and Penn State University are two schools heading the trend toward virtual campus tours, and higher education officials expect more schools to follow.
"Most colleges, when you’re applying, you don’t have an up-close look at the [campuses]," said Shapiro, 18, a senior at Newton South High School in Newton Centre, Mass., who visited American University this week.
The virtual tour includes dozens of online videos in which faculty, staff, and students trumpet American’s educational and recreational highlights. These personal testimonies, Shapiro said, helped him choose American over the other 10 schools he applied to.
"The virtual tour…was a big thing for me," he said. "The videos were pretty much what made the tour, because you got all the different viewpoints."
Higher education officials insist that virtual tours will not supplant the traditional, walk-and-talk campus tours, but the chance to see lecture halls and dorms, read descriptions of the buildings, and watch in-depth interviews with students and alumni are designed to help perspective students decide which colleges to visit.
"I think it has an important role in influencing students’ decision to enroll," said Terry Flannery, executive director for university communications at American. "When resources are limited and you’re coming from a farther distance away, seeing the campus virtually becomes another option….I think [virtual tours] complement [traditional] tours, but it will never replace the physical visit to the campus."
The university’s virtual tour–a $90,000 undertaking–is the centerpiece of a web site redesign that was launched March 30 after two years of development by more than 100 IT experts, including David Swartz, American’s chief information officer.
"Your web presence allows [students] to narrow their options," Swartz said. "If they can get a sense of your people, your courses, your environment, it’s a very compelling way to narrow your choices."
Realview TV, an Atlanta-based company that produces custom web video for colleges and universities, worked with IT officials to create American University’s state-of-the-art virtual tour.
Penn State will launch its supplemental campus tour this June, which will allow students to use their cell phones to hear descriptions of campus landmarks such as Beaver Stadium or the Nittany Lion Shrine. Visitors touring the Penn State campus can dial a posted phone number and hear a brief audio description of each campus site.
"iHear Penn State is for an individual to proceed at their own pace," said Michael Bezilla, a university spokesman. "You can just dial up the places you’re interested in and see as many or as few sites as you want."
Bezilla said campus officials expect the iHear Penn State to expand in coming years after the creation of audio clips for the athletics and arts departments, for example.
"There are a number of ways this can branch from the main stem," he said.
Michael Giniger, chief technology officer at Spatial Adventures–the Virginia-based company that creates audio tours for schools, zoos, and museums–said the audio clips could be a boost for admissions officials looking for an advantage over competing universities, especially in the spring, when most college students decide which school they’ll attend in the fall.
"There’s a sense where you want to walk the campus yourself and get a feel of it on your own…and this is something that can really augment on the admissions side," said Giniger, adding that Spatial Adventures charges $50-$150 monthly for its service, depending on the size of the institution.
Flannery said American University consulted student groups during the development of the school’s revamped web site, which had not been redesigned for 10 years before the incorporation of web 2.0 features. University student leaders said the school’s antiquated web site didn’t offer perspective students a feel for life on campus.
"I think students are craving a web site that broadcasts what AU is to the world," said Seth Cutter, American’s student government president and whose insight was included in the redesign. "We are on campus day in and day out, experiencing classes, athletics, clubs, arts–everything that defines AU. Our old web site didn’t reflect our values and our reputation."
The virtual tour is the main piece of a web 2.0 experience on American’s web site. The master online calendar lets schools and departments insert upcoming events and displays them prominently. The university–which hired New York-based web designer HUGE for the project–also created its own wiki system, called AUPedia, where students and faculty go to post links, valuable academic resources, and general advice for students.
Designers of the new site ensured the web 2.0 features would not bog down visitors and deter potential students. Three servers and 24 processors help the virtual tour run without glitches, and Swartz said persistent testing of how many visitors the site could handle made for a reliable redesign.
"It could be the most beautiful sit in the world, but if it doesn’t load on time, people won’t spend any time on it," he said. "Nothing’s more frustrating than going to dynamic content and waiting a long time while it loads."
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