GEAR UP NC launches second stage of ambitious VR Initiative

Carlito Torres is a junior at Graham High School with his sights set on studying criminology. He knows he is interested in North Carolina State University, and he also realizes he should have at least one backup plan. Luckily, 11 other universities in the UNC System offer programs in criminology or criminal justice.

There’s just one hitch: visiting college campuses requires adult support, money, and time away from school. Raleigh is 54 miles from Graham. Visiting his top choice alone would eat up most of a day, once Carlito tallies up the time spent on campus, consulting with admissions representatives, and travelling. Should Carlito automatically rule out options that are further afield, or should he just blindly guess which other schools he might like to attend?

Sensitive to Carlito’s predicament, the UNC System devised a plan to give him a free campus tour. He won’t visit just one institution … he will get to see all 16 universities in the System. And Carlito is not the only one who gets to go. On October 26, the UNC System took 300 students along for the ride. Virtually.

“…the UNC System took 300 students along for the ride. Virtually.”

On a rainy Friday morning, UNC System Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly van Noort and admissions representatives from constituent institutions converged on Graham High School, in Graham, North Carolina. Their mission: to support the team from Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) NC as it distributed free virtual reality headsets to every student in the school. The event marked the second stage of an ambitious initiative to give more students motivation and incentive to go to college and more information about what choices are available to them.

Earlier this year, GEAR UP NC unveiled a free app that allows users to take immersive virtual reality tours of all 16 universities in the UNC System.  While these tours are viewable as 360-degree video on the app and on the UNC System website, the virtual reality headsets will provide GHS’s juniors and seniors with an opportunity to take full advantage of the immersive technology.

Throughout the month of October, in conjunction with North Carolina’s Countdown to College initiative, GEAR UP NC has distributed the cardboard headsets to every sophomore, junior, and senior in 20 other high schools. This initiative, funded through a U.S. Department of Education grant to the UNC System, will give 16,500 students in 11 of North Carolina’s most economically disadvantaged counties an opportunity to survey the campus grounds, get inside classrooms, connect with admissions and financial aid representatives, and learn about signature programs at universities across the state.  

Inspiring and Informing: Headset Distribution Allows 16,500 More North Carolinians to Explore College Options 

GEAR UP NC’s headset-distribution plan unfolds while North Carolinians are in the thick of filling out college applications and financial aid forms. It also coincides with the UNC System’s statewide affordability campaign to promote two innovative, state-funded college affordability options: the Fixed Tuition Program and NC Promise. The timing of the VR headset distribution is thus perfectly synced to incentivize students in all 100 counties to get excited by the prospect of going to college.

The videos are designed to spark the imagination. The app’s architecture is designed to spur productive action.

“This initiative … will give 16,500 students in 11 of North Carolina’s most economically disadvantaged counties an opportunity to … learn about signature programs at universities across the state.”

Alongside each video, users will find institution-specific links to websites, admissions pages, financial aid information, and social media. These portals make it easy for students to find out more information about the universities that capture their interest.

In addition, the app’s landing page features tiles and short videos aimed at getting students enthused—rather than intimidated—by the prospect of university life. One tile is a primer on the resources, available online and in high school guidance offices, that can help students prepare for and apply to college. A separate video portrays the excitement of “student life” and highlights how the extracurricular activities and social opportunities awaiting incoming freshman are catalysts for personal growth.

“The UNC System is leading the nation with VR for college access,” said Carol Cutler White, former principal investigator for GEAR UP NC and current VR project manager.  “For three years we’ve worked to develop and test the VR app, and we believe this is a game changer for how students make college decisions. We know that students are curious, and the vast majority have college aspirations. But their experience with college may be limited, depending on their family background and geography. They may also be shy about asking questions because they think they are the only ones who don’t know about college.  We’re addressing that challenge with artificial intelligence built into the app so students can carry on a conversation with the institution of their choice via text messaging 24/7.”

Sparking the Imagination, Spurring Action

The throngs of GHS Devils were clearly fascinated by the technology. Many were anxious to delve into their first VR experience and excitedly ripped the cellophane wrappers off the GEAR UP NC headsets and bundled high-quality earbuds.

But the proceedings were designed to promote the VR headset as something much more significant than just a novelty gadget. Organizers wanted students to embrace the headsets as windows looking toward the future, where higher education leads to economic mobility and more fulfilling lives.

When Dr. van Noort took the stage, her remarks focused on the importance of weighing the college options available across the state. She stressed the value of shopping around for the right college fit and explained that every institution in the UNC System offers unique learning opportunities. As students learn more about the wide variety of programs throughout the UNC System, she explained, they might just be inspired to rethink their career aspirations.

“Maybe you don’t yet know exactly what your calling is, but you know you’re not attracted to nursing, or accounting, or computer programming,” she said. “You might be surprised to learn that we offer programs in motorsports management. Forensic science. Aviation. Costume design for stage and screen. The possibilities are endless.”

Later, as students folded the headsets into shape, UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus Daniel Dinkins—an expert in innovative teaching technology—demonstrated the app and helped the users navigate its various features. Students peered into the headsets, mouths agape. Their bodies swayed unsteadily as they twisted back and forth to take in all there was to see.

Following the program, admissions officers from across the UNC System institutions participated in a college fair. Thus, after students took their initial forays into virtual campuses, they could seek out knowledgeable representatives for more information and one-on-one counseling.

System Office staff were also on hand to discuss We Promise, explaining to students how the state’s two cost-saving initiatives are making college education even more affordable. After hearing about We Promise and discussing financial aid options with the admissions representatives, many students realized that the price of an education from one of North Carolina’s public universities is within reach.

The event started at 9:00 a.m. By 11:00 it had concluded. The students filed their way down the cinderblock hallways to resume regular classes. All told, over the course of a mere two hours, 300 students were given an opportunity to explore every public option for four-year higher education in North Carolina. This exposure was especially remarkable given that many who participated might not have otherwise had the chance to explore even one campus, much less 16.

The app’s influence will extend well beyond the GHS auditorium as well. The students who attended took the VR headsets and earbuds home to share the experience with their families.

No Need for 229 Busses: VR Enables the Social Aspects of the Campus Tour

One of the less heralded advantages of GEAR UP NC’s VR app is its social component. By making the campus tour virtual, the app allows students to share their excitement with family and friends. It allows friends and contacts to compare notes and plot the course of their higher education together. Friday’s event certainly cultivated a fevered, group excitement about North Carolina’s many college options.

That energy suggests the initiative’s broader potential to help the UNC System grow North Carolina’s college-going culture.

“Organizers wanted students to embrace the headsets as windows looking toward the future…”

The VR initiative is on track to have a massive, statewide impact. Not even five years ago, taking students from just a single high school to visit multiple campuses would have required rigorous coordination of vehicular transport. An accomplishment on the scale of the GEAR UP NC VR app—leading 16,500 GEAR UP students on a zigzag tour across the state—would have required a convoy of no less than 229 school busses, covering roughly 845 miles in 17 hours.

Carlito and all of his peers left the GHS event carrying all that touring capacity in their book bags. The compact, lightweight headsets will transport them from Western Carolina University to Elizabeth City State University in a matter of minutes.

More importantly, the cardboard devices will lead many of these students toward a brighter, more prosperous future they might not have otherwise been able to envision.