Campus maps are included on Bradley's iPads.

When a group of prospective students arrived at Bradley University’s recreation center at 10:30 a.m. one recent morning, the basketball court was empty, the rock climbing wall was unused and the track had just one runner. One of the campus’ top selling points looked pretty unimpressive.

“I do want to show you a lot of things that go on here that aren’t going on now,” tour guide and Bradley sophomore Nathan Russell said to the three students and their parents.

And with that, he held up an iPad to show a 52-second video of the Markin Family Student Recreation Center bustling with activity, with students lined up on cardio machines and filing onto the court for “Late Night BU” activities such as concerts and ice cream socials.

The Peoria university has added iPads to its campus tours, allowing students to see videos of science labs in action and the campus quad filled with Frisbee-flinging students.

About half of the university’s more than 500 tours a year occur during the summer or on weekends when classes aren’t in session, the swimming pool may be closed and the quad is serene.

It is believed to be the first school to use the tablet technology in this way, though students are using iPads in class and some campuses are providing them free to freshmen. Bradley’s admissions office is piloting their use, and has tested them on about 20 of 160 tours during the past two months.

A Bradley interactive media professor proposed the idea, and one of his students developed the application over the summer.

The technology works like this: The Bradley tour guide has 10 videos on his iPad, and when he loads one during a tour, it triggers the video to play on the iPads carried by the prospective students. When videos aren’t playing, a campus map is displayed on the screen.

There was a connection problem when a Tribune reporter tagged along on a tour, so students could only watch videos on the guide’s iPad.

Still, the students seemed intrigued when they were handed the devices before the tour began. Russell, the guide, told them: “Don’t worry, you can’t screw anything up.”

“The tour I am going to give you is a walk around campus. You can see the map on your iPad,” Russell said. Future plans include incorporating GPS tracking so students can see where they are while on the tour.

Outside Olin Hall, the science building, Russell showed a video of students looking into microscopes and working with test tubes. The female narrator told them: “Here, undergraduate students are advancing cancer and Parkinson’s disease research. Their efforts are drawing international attention.”

And while standing in the middle of an unoccupied dorm room, Russell pulled up a video promoting dorm life. “Some rooms even feature walk-in closets,” the video pronounced.

The iPads won’t replace the student guides, who are constantly peppered with questions from students and their parents during the hourlong walk: “Are there community showers” in the dorms? “What’s the meal plan?” “What size TV do you recommend bringing?” “Are there any large lecture halls?”

Jim Ferolo, chairman of Bradley’s interactive media program, said watching a video while on campus is different from watching it on a computer screen or television at home. It also provides a different experience than watching a campus’ virtual tour on YouTube, he argued.

“By having the videos play within the place, it is a time slip. You are physically there … and showing the space as it is intended to be used,” Ferolo said. “These tours become more relevant than a DVD that admissions sends out because they are juxtaposed against the space.”

Ferolo’s academic research looks into how people use mobile devices in their everyday lives and how the technology affects their experiences.

“If people are physically here, the video content becomes more relevant to them. I believe there is a higher engagement in that tour,” he said.

Stacy Bernstein, 17, a high school senior who was visiting Bradley from St. Louis, said the videos provided insight that she didn’t get by staring at limestone buildings.

“There is stuff you don’t really see walking around,” she said.

Ryan Osmolski, a 17-year-old from Peotone, Ill., also thought the iPads were a nice touch, as did his mom, Karen.

“Once they fine-tune it, it will be even more beneficial,” she said. “They could add more videos.”

The university does plan to produce more videos, and students will be able to pick which to watch based on their academic and extracurricular interests.

There’s discussion about adding a post-tour survey and an “early estimator” so students can learn what a Bradley education will cost.

Current Bradley students looked curiously at the iPad-toting tour participants.

“I wish we used iPads on my tour,” sophomore Jackie Kraynak commented to a friend as they worked on a class presentation in the library. “Our tour wasn’t like that.”

(c)2011 the Chicago Tribune. Visit the Chicago Tribune at Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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