Can Campus Tours in Virtual Reality Improve College Access?


Can Campus Tours in Virtual Reality Improve College Access?


By Betsy Mann     Apr 1, 2019

Can Campus Tours in Virtual Reality Improve College Access?

What if high school students could tour college campuses across their state without ever leaving home? What if questions about the college application process or funding concerns could be addressed in real time at any hour of the day?

These are just some of the goals of a current project at the University of North Carolina's Emerging Technologies Lab, under the direction of Steven King. GEAR UP NC VR App is a partnership between the UNC System, GEAR UP NC, AdmitHub and SeeBoundless production company.

Photo: This is GEAR UP VR
A college tour plus information from campus life to applications (Image credit: Courtney Staton)

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a national initiative to provide resources to students in disadvantaged communities and propel them into postsecondary education. GEAR UP schools are given resources to help their students succeed in classes, ensure that their students graduate and, of course, provide their students access to college information.

GEAR UP NC VR is a mobile app that places the college tour experience in the palm of a student's hand. This is made possible by the Emerging Technologies Lab and, in particular, its Innovation Project Manager, Alexis Barnes. Her undergraduate path in UNC’s School of Media and Journalism led her to working full time in the Lab—and beyond.

Barnes spent the majority of September 2018 traveling across the state, from the orchestra practice rooms at UNC’s School of the Arts to a research lab in North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s Webb Hall for Animal Science majors. Clocking untold hours of late-night driving and often toting heavy video equipment across campuses in the pouring rain, she was attempting to capture on film what it’s like to be a college student in these different environments. Her mission: to fundamentally change a high school student’s journey to finding the perfect college.

“What I think is very powerful about the app is that it streamlines a lot of the process of searching colleges in the state,” says Barnes.

Steve Johnson, founder of SeeBoundless, had a hand in producing the 360-degree video experiences for the app. “Our goal with building virtual experiences was to get the students inside the buildings. We want to enhance the college tour experience and allow thousands of prospective students to virtually meet advisors, practice with the marching bands and feel what it’s like to be in college, not just on a college campus,” says Johnson.

See students experience GEAR UP NC VR for the first time. (Video credit: SeeBoundless)

The technological capabilities of the app, combined with the mission of GEAR UP NC, are turning a statewide goal into a reality. Through 360-degree videos of the UNC System colleges, students can imagine themselves in an environment after high school. They can also learn about what majors to pursue, how to apply for financial aid and chat with an AdmitHub chatbot to instantly uncover answers to their college-related questions.

AdmitHub is an artificial intelligence-based communication platform that several UNC schools have incorporated into their prospective student resources, such as Winston-Salem State University’s bot Winston. This tailors the unlimited amount of college information to the student’s need at that moment in time.

“I think the AdmitHub portion is very interesting; students are able to chat with a bot that can give them an instant response to their questions. Sending emails could be intimidating, especially for high school students. This informal way of communicating is really going to be more effective than giving them an email address,” says Barnes.

Download the GEAR UP VR app for free to learn more. A college tour awaits you, on your time.

Building a mobile app takes time. Building a mobile app that involves 16 universities and dozens of videos takes immense planning and dedication. The process includes writing scripts with these universities, coordinating schedules, traveling, filming, editing, stitching videos and then publishing to the app.

“There were a lot of challenges. It's hard trying to create something you think is going to be beneficial, but you don't really know if it is or not,” Barnes reflected, thinking about the project in its early stage.

Steve Johnson echoed that sentiment. “Planning this sort of production across one campus is a challenge, let alone 16. We wanted to make sure all campuses were well represented to reflect their diverse student bodies and unique experiences that students have on each campus.”

Yet, the long hours of hard work and dedication convey how impactful the mobile app is. Besides being an avenue to access information, the GEAR UP VR app is dedicated to connecting students to schools that align with their needs and interests. They can learn about a university’s campus life or explore the various academic opportunities each school provides.

GEAR UP NC’s mission is to help disadvantaged students clearly see the path to postsecondary education. GEAR UP VR offers a unique starting point for students embarking on this important journey. With the right resources and information available, all high school upperclassmen can begin to imagine themselves as college students.

“Seeing all of the high school students put on the GEARUP VR headsets and react to our work is encouraging. To know that the next generation of great thinkers, educators and leaders are excited about higher education and will be from more inclusive backgrounds—this is a real win for the state of North Carolina,” says Johnson.

“I hope more people are able to see themselves in college and find a school that actually fits them,” adds Barnes.

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