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Bradley U. Finds Another Novel Use for iPads: Campus Tours

You’re a student whose latest stop on the campus-visit circuit is at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill. Your tour guide brings you to “the Markin,” the institution’s newly renovated Markin Family Student Recreation Center.

But it’s summer break, so the Markin is almost empty. A couple of people are lifting weights, and both the pool and the climbing wall are closed.

Your tour guide asks you to turn to the iPad, which you were given when you arrived. A video pops up, showing the Markin at its buzzing best: an active weight room, a dance class in session, the intramural sports season in full competitive bloom.

Welcome to the tablet-integrated tour, which Bradley has pilot-tested and plans to use much more of in the coming months, though the logistics aren’t settled yet, university officials say. An iPad application designed by the university lets prospective students and parents look at supplementary videos as they walk and listen to their guide.

The idea is to give students a fuller sense of what campus life is like, especially if they’re there on a Saturday or between semesters, says Jim Ferolo, an associate professor who is chair of the school’s interactive-media department and who helped come up with the idea.

Universities all over the country have been making mobile applications for a while now, but Trent Gilbert, chief experience officer for the campus-tour consulting group TargetX, says this is the first he’s heard of an institution using an iPad app for an in-person tour.

Mr. Ferolo and the university’s marketing administrators started talking about the idea more than a year ago, but the project really got going when they enlisted Eric Johnsen, a senior majoring in interactive media.

Mr. Johnsen built the application in five weeks this past summer, despite not initially knowing the coding language required to make an iPad program. He set it up so that tour guides get a specialized application that helps them figure out what spots to hit on the tour.

Visitors tap in their names and hometowns on their institution-provided iPads, and check off which of Bradley’s 93 majors they might consider. The tour guide’s iPad then tells him which of the university’s five colleges people are most interested in.

The guide still gets to make the usual spiel, and students and parents can use the iPad videos as much or as little as they please, says Susan Andrews, Bradley’s associate vice president for marketing.

Mr. Gilbert says the idea sounds promising, but he cautions that universities shouldn’t see this as something that could be anything more than a companion to face-to-face interaction between prospective and current students. “There still needs to be a level of humanity,” Mr. Gilbert says.

Students often pick colleges based on really random reasons, Mr. Gilbert says. Mr. Gilbert’s fiancee went to Gettysburg College because she visited in January and the students were in flip-flops, which made her think that she would fit right in. “Technology doesn’t really replace that,” he says.

Mr. Ferolo also views the iPad application as a complement, not a replacement. In fact, he bases a lot of his research on when people do and do not use their mobile devices.

What a student sees on a university visit does depend, after all, on when the visit happens, Mr. Ferolo says. Of the 585 campus tours that Bradley students gave last year, 130 were on Saturdays during the school year, and 123 were during summer break, according to Ms. Andrews.

Mr. Ferolo says his department plans to track how prospective students use the application, so it can be improved down the line.

Future iPad applications might give students the chance to rate what they like and don’t like on the fly, Mr. Ferolo says. Of course, there would be an “I don’t care” or “I choose not to rate this” option, too.

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