Colleges have embraced mobile location-based applications to get current and prospective students engaged with their surroundings—and each other.
Previously just for broadcasting user locations, popular GPS-driven applications like Foursquare, SCVNGR, and Facebook Places are being adapted to add a virtual dimension to everyday student life and campus events like freshman orientations and alumni weekends. Rather than simply viewing static maps on their smartphone screens, students can now join virtual scavenger hunts, access location-specific pictures and video, and win prizes for checking in at campus hotspots.
“Universities in general are more into social media than businesses because social media is such a great community builder,” said Christina Dorobek, university specialist at application developer SCVNGR. “It was a market that we thought was really important to reach out to.”
SCVNGR was founded by a Princeton University student who wanted to add a “game layer” to everyday life. Much like its namesake, the scavenger hunt, the SCVNGR application lays out a series of tasks—or “treks”—that players must complete out in the real world to earn points for prizes. Colleges have begun working with SCVNGR to tailor treks to individual campuses in order to get prospective and current students acquainted with areas on campus they otherwise might never visit.
Boston University’s Dean of Students Office designed a trek around a freshman-orientation fair in August that sent students to campus hangouts, libraries, and various academic-department booths. Students earned points by sending along pictures of themselves taking a dip in a college fountain, talking with counselors at the Career Development Office booth, and making tie-dyed T-shirts out on BU Beach, among other things. All pictures and completed tasks were posted on the event Web site, and the student with the highest number of points took home an iPad.
The SCVNGR trek “really creates an interactive and collaborative environment rather than just doing it online by yourself,” said Alex Shuck, senior program assistant and a BU senior. “It bridges the gap between the digital and physical.”
Daniel P. Solworth, assistant to the dean of students, said the university is hoping to integrate SCVNGR into campus life throughout the year. Although the orientation fair is over, the SCVNGR locations have remained live, and students are still being encouraged to take part in the activities. The college also plans to use the application to increase attendance at campus events. “It’s not just about putting a poster on the wall anymore,” Mr. Solworth said. “You have to bring the information to them.”
Other colleges have turned to Foursquare, another popular location-based app, to increase foot traffic at campus events. Unlike SCVNGR, which focuses more heavily on gaming, Foursquare is based around users checking in at different locations around campus. Every time a student goes to the library or dining commons, for example, he notes his arrival with the Foursquare app on the iPhone or Android. If the student checks in at a certain location more frequently than anyone on campus, he’s crowned “mayor.” In addition to a virtual badge of honor for their Foursquare profiles, student “mayors” are also starting to receive prizes from their colleges.
At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, for instance, a promotional Foursquare program in place since last spring gives students discounts around campus for checking in at dining locations. It also offers special bonuses to campus “mayors.” The mayor of the bookstore coffee shop, for instance, gets a free muffin every time he or she makes a purchase. Mayors of campus restaurants might get a free fountain drink for themselves and the people behind them in line. “We had an ongoing effort to reach out to students at places where they are,” said Brian Baute, the university’s IT director for business services, “and being able to do it in a fun way that engages them.”
Though the small number of students with smartphones has made it difficult to get the Foursquare program off the ground, Mr. Baute said the project has been a great learning experience for the university as it looks for ways to use location-based apps on campus. “The biggest thing is recognizing that we’re all really early to the game,” he said. “What it looks like now isn’t what it’s going to look like a year from now or two years from now.”