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Can Virtual Campus Tours Replace the Real Thing?

university web search boxSince I’ve mentioned several times that it’s not necessary to do campus visits, I thought I should discuss some of the alternatives. The obvious one is a virtual campus tour. Most college websites offer some form of online tour through either video, 360 photos, or a map-based walking tour of the campus.

There are a growing number of independent companies offering campus tours. Some are just links to existing information on the college website while others are independently created virtual tours.

Unfortunately, after taking several of these virtual tours, you realize that they have some significant limitations. Too often, the views are completely student free, you get to look at the building or the fountain and that’s it. At least if you were there in person you could start counting the number of benches or emergency phones available.

I suppose the upside is that parents don’t have to deal with teens refusing to get out of the car because there are too many goths, preps, Birkenstocks, or whatever in view. Really, check out the college confidential thread on why students wouldn’t go to a school.

Another problem with virtual tours is that too many don’t take you inside to see something as basic as a dorm room or cafeteria. In fact, taking a virtual tour will make you realize how valuable even a student led tour can be. If nothing else, you can ask the tour guides questions and see how difficult it is for them to address some of the more negative aspects of the campus. Then there are always bulletin boards to read, bus stops to check out, and librarians to observe.

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None of these are showing up on the virtual tours. It’s all the upside from the university with no chance to pose questions important to you.

So how useful are virtual tours? I tried some using colleges that I have actually visited and knew something about.

For the most part, the tours are presenting information already easily available on the website. If the tour is highlighting something from the science building, you’re pretty likely to find it on the About page on the college’s website. So if you like your information delivered in a sort of stilted, graphical manner, these may be the way to go.

The YOUniversityTV videos are well done but provide limited information and are not available for all colleges. Plus, there are the ads. The videos on CollegeClickTV seem to be reinforcing the positive conventional wisdom of the university although the careful viewer might glean a nugget or two of information that goes beyond what’s available in the viewbooks.

So does this mean that there aren’t any good alternatives to campus tours and you should start packing your bags? No, it just means that virtual campus tours aren’t the best alternative available. Next week, I’ll go over some alternatives to the obvious alternative.

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The following websites provide some version of campus tours but none include all colleges.

eCampusTours­čśĽ┬á This is just basically a collection of 360 photos from the campus. There may or may not be a brief description of the location above the picture. Although the “tours,” that is pictures, are numbered, there doesn’t seem to be any significance to the order as in a following some sort of?┬á physical tour of the campus. They generally don’t have any identifiable people in the pictures, if any. So it’s like visiting in the summer when classes aren’t in session. You aren’t going to get a visual feel for the students.

I didn’t find these tours very useful. If there is a particular campus feature that is critical to your requirements such as basketball facilities or a certain type of architecture, you may be able to find it in these pictures.

YouVisit: The full-tours options provide a tour closer to what you might have in real life. You follow a guided path of photographs with a map in the corner to show you where you’re at on campus. A tour guide appears at the various “stops” and gives the information talk like they would on campus.

The usefulness of the tours varies from school to school. Those with the full tours may include stops inside buildings along with 306 views and videos. Others, as in real life, may just tour the outside of the building.

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Many colleges have only a preview tour available which is basically the same thing as the eCampusTours but with descriptions. Just as many don’t have any tours available.

CampusTours: This website pulls together whatever information is available and organizes it for each school. The tour information is actually loaded from the school’s website into a new window. Don’t expect any sort of continuity in format to use as a basis for comparing one school to another. In fact, schools will show up without any tour available. It includes links to the school’s website, maps, videos, pictures and online application if available. This site is a useful place to visit before you start doing general web searches for a specific college’s tour.

YOUniversityTV: Requires registration to see more than one video and be prepared for ads before each video. These videos are produced by YOUniversityTV and follow a set format. About half the video will be campus shots with students and the guide doing a voice over on commonly available statistics such as majors, size, test scores, and available sports and clubs–information that could just as easily be listed on the page below the video. The rest of the video will be interviews with some students, admission staff, and faculty.

Basically, these videos attempt to provide a flavor of the school although the A&M video did manage not to mention the Corp. I was surprised at the number of videos available but there are plenty of missing. While Texas A&M was included, UT Austin wasn’t.

CollegeClickTV: The website is a collection of short, one to two-minute videos of students on campus. The students basically tell you why they like the school with some prompting from an off camera interviewer. There’s a very limited number of colleges, only four from Texas. It’s the type of information you expect from a panel of students during an information session without any negative comments.

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