Virtual Reality ‘Visits’ to U.S. Schools, Colleges to be Part of Recruiting Foreign Students

Associate Editor

Schools that want to attract tuition-paying foreign students have a new tool at their disposal: creating a virtual reality tour.

Colleges, universities, and schools that sign up with the U.S. Commercial Service for so-called “virtual education fairs” abroad can now add a VR experience about their educational institution and/or community to their appeal.

While public schools have yet to register for this opportunity, a few districts have recently approached the U.S. Commercial Service for their help in recruiting students from abroad, according to Gabriela Zelaya, the global education team leader for the U.S. Commercial Service based in San Jose/Silicon Valley.

The commercial service, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, acquired VR headsets to give international recruiting agents access to VR content, she said.

That way, when the agents gather in a hotel in another country to learn about opportunities for international students in the U.S., these recruiters can also get a 360-degree view of a campus or a community.

“The idea of a virtual tour is right up our alley,” said Thomas Joseph, the program director of the Baker International Exchange, which is part of the Baker School District 5J in eastern Oregon. “With virtual experiences, you can get a more accurate and authentic depiction of your school.”

Although the district hasn’t created a VR tour yet, Joseph said it will be looking into it as Baker’s international program grows. Baker has also applied to launch an international charter school within its jurisdiction, hoping to open it in 2020 and eventually enroll up to 40 students from other countries.

The Baker district’s high school, which once had 820 students, was decimated after the recession when families moved out of the area. It now has about 400 students, and expanding its reach beyond the U.S. is seen as a way to bring experiences from around the world to the rural part of Oregon.

Joseph approached the U.S. Commercial Service’s Portland office to find out what services are available to school districts. By aligning with the government agency, Joseph said he is hoping to convey that his district’s international programs are vetted. “It’s almost like a calling card in Asia,” he said. Joseph is looking for similar government confirmations of viable partners abroad.

Zelaya said the VR tours as part of virtual education fairs are an opportunity to introduce schools to a group of interested parties. The fee associated with these fairs is designed to recoup the costs of hosting them, she said.

A pilot program with the VR headsets was tried in Mexico, where typically there is less interest in attending commercial service recruiting fairs because the agents are already aware of opportunities in the U.S. But the VR opportunity proved to be appealing.

“With this technology, they’re attracted in the room and want to have that experience,” she said.

VR adds an interactive element to the experience of visiting a college or high school campus, says Kevin Merges, the executive director of Global Education Programs at Rutgers Preparatory School in Somerset, N.J.

“The impact of virtual reality is a 40 to 70 percent increase in a person’s connection to the content” over the same material shown as a typical video, said Merges, who speaks around the country about the use of VR in schools.

Rutgers Prep is waiting for trees to be in full bloom before it produces a 360-degree video of its campus for recruitment purposes, said Merges.

Producing a VR tour doesn’t have to be a high-cost experience, said Merges, adding that students could be asked to produce one with a $200 360-degree camera.

“We have the best schools in the world, and we just need to use something like VR to help public schools attract international students,” said Merges.

Even without VR, schools are finding that they can diversify their student body—and funding streams—by bringing in foreign students. The following video shows how one superintendent and principal, Clark “Skip” Hults, made that move more than a decade ago and revived his rural district in upstate New York. It’s one of the reasons he was named an Education Week Leader to Learn From.

Asked whether VR could be another way to introduce students to his remote area in the Adirondack Mountains, Hults said it would be “a great idea.” With his 87-student district attracting high school students from Russia, Spain, Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, Kazakhstan, Hungary, and Japan, he said VR would be a welcome way for prospective students to envision what it would be like to move to and study in the quiet area.

With a set of VR viewers on order for the high school’s STEM program this fall, Hults thinks creating a VR tour would make a great video project for the students.

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