Open days in lockdown – virtual campus tours just got real

We know how a traditional open day should work, but what are we learning about the virtual open day. Paul Greatrix logs on.

Campus visits have traditionally been a strong sign of student commitment, and the numbers visiting on an open day a helpful lead indicator for the forthcoming recruitment cycle.

In the current circumstances – with lockdown continuing and university campuses closed – the traditional university open day, a critical student recruitment tool, is simply not possible. The only option to enable prospective students to visit campus is now the virtual tour or online open day.

Given the recruitment challenges ahead universities are trying to make the most of online visiting opportunities but will they have the same impact as feet on the ground?

More real than reality

The US has been leading the way but in the current circumstances it seems likely that many UK universities are now catching up and really raising their virtual campus tour game.

As this recent report in Inside Higher Ed notes many universities are now expanding their online events offer:

At Fordham University, students have a choice between virtual events and live events in which they receive — via streaming video — personal tours of one of Fordham’s campuses.
Patricia Peek, dean of undergraduate admission at Fordham, said that “conservatively,” Fordham has seen 2,200 visitors take a virtual tour versus 730 for March and April of last year. (Others, of course, took a regular campus tour.) And that doesn’t count more than 3,000 attendees at virtual events.

For its online events Fordham University uses YouVisit, a company recently acquired by EAB, and one of several such organisations offering this kind of service. As the report notes:

According to EAB, the increase that Fordham is seeing is hardly unique.
Between March 13 and April 13, nearly 1.4 million people viewed a virtual campus tour produced by YouVisit. High school seniors are taking these tours at a rate 228 percent higher than they were at this time last year.
EAB currently partners with 539 colleges on virtual tours and has 748 active virtual tours online.
The tours attract applicants in addition to enrolled students. According to an EAB analysis of more than 650,000 students, individuals who share their contact information while on a virtual tour are twice as likely to apply to that college as students who call or email an institution directly or fill out a form on the college’s website.

So online tours might not always be the poor relation of the real thing. The piece quotes Emily Bauer, EAB’s vice president for agency services, who said

“done well,” virtual tours “help build affinity with those students and give them direct and indirect information they might not be able to get any other way. These tours help schools tell their unique stories in a virtual environment, but they also signify to a student that this school is going that extra mile to help them make a difficult decision during a really difficult time.”

Bauer said that “virtual tours can be done well, or they can be done poorly.” She recommended “layering interactive multimedia elements and embedding effective calls to action within the tours.”

Snapshot of Columbia University’s virtual tour

And according to the EAB website “meaningful engagement delivers results”:

Integrating immersive virtual tours into enrollment marketing programs drives meaningful engagement. Interactive digital exploration convert a visitor’s interest into intent and consideration through experiential learning.
Email programs that leverage virtual tours see, on average, a 7.5% increase in respondents. Mailers that contain URLs to tours can see up to a 14% increase in respondents. Respondents who engage with tours, vs those who did not, apply at 73% higher rate.

These numbers may make a real difference to institutions struggling to recruit and you can see why this kind of service would prove attractive if not absolutely essential.

Live is Life

Another company offering similar services referred to in the piece is PlatformQ whose executive vice president, Gil Rogers, commented:

“We are also seeing a move to leveraging on-demand content and simulated live presentations with chat to transition what was traditionally a daily information session on campus to an online environment,” he said. “The feedback I’m getting is that virtual tours and viewbooks are not dynamic enough given they are a piece of a strategy but not comprehensive without a live engagement element.”

Ucas lists lots of UK universities and colleges offering virtual tours of one kind and another such as this virtual open day at the University of Lincoln which allows applicants to explore the campus, discover the city of Lincoln, view student accommodation, and find out more about the experiences of students.

University of Lincoln’s virtual open day

There are also companies looking to help out and the New York Times lists a range of organisations looking to support students together with some tips on how to make the most of your online visit. There are lots of universities supported by each of the companies all offering variations on a virtual theme. Meanwhile Berkeley recently advertised ‘Cal Week’ which was providing:

online live and pre-recorded video streams to give the more than 15,000 newly admitted first-year and transfer students a virtual space to learn about the richness of Berkeley’s academic and student life from current students, faculty and staff.
The festivities will kick-off at 9 a.m. this Saturday with a virtual welcome from Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, along with a panel including Dean of the College of Engineering Tsu-Jae Liu, Cal Parent Board Member Deidre Thorpe and ASUC President Amma Sarkodee-Adoo.
A “Virtual Visit” will follow at 10 a.m. led by Berkeley’s student campus ambassadors, who will take questions and provide a “walk” through Berkeley’s more than 1,200-acre campus, giving prospective students, wherever in the world they currently live, a lay of the land.
Cal Week attendees can also tune in to interactive online student panels and video webinars featuring Berkeley student leaders and academic groups.

Whilst many universities have been testing out virtual tours in recent years most are now developing more comprehensive online campus tour offerings at speed out of necessity in the current environment. Whilst they may not be perfect and cannot replace the reality of a campus experience they will undoubtedly come to be a core part of the student recruitment programme for the foreseeable future.

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