Virtual World: Academy uses latest technology to attract prospective students

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
High school students interested in the Air Force Academy can walk around the Academy's campus, buy items from the cadet store and even fly a plane--all without leaving their bedrooms.

The Academy's admissions office is taking advantage of social media tools like Facebook and mobile phone applications to reach out to students interested in the Academy, and they've also developed a virtual world where potential applicants can view the Academy's facilities and learn important Air Force facts without stepping foot on campus.

"A company called Designing Digitally created the virtual world," said Leann Nelson, chief of marketing and media from the Academy's Admissions Office. "It was a year-long project. Their team had to come up with a plan and take detailed pictures so that it would look exactly like the Academy and it really does."

In the virtual world, students can browse buildings such as the dorms, the gym and astro lab, play games and trivia as well as take an interactive tour that answers their questions about the Academy.

"It gives applicants motivation to keep going in the application process," Nelson said. "They create an avatar and can visit four different dorm rooms, freshman through senior, to see that each year students earn the right to have more things."

Nelson said the tool was created to recruit students from all 50 states. The Academy got the idea from University of Michigan's virtual world.

"We're the only two schools that do it for recruitment purposes," Nelson said. "It's becoming more popular and I expect to see more of it in the future. I see other schools doing this kind of virtual tour instead of panning cameras around the campus and using still photos."

Nelson said the Academy's number one priority is to keep students safe.

"You have to be invited to view the virtual world," Nelson said. "Applicants receive an automatic email as an invite. From there, they can create a login and basic profile only related to their interests, no personal information."

Admissions also uses social media such as Facebook and YouTube to reach prospective students.

Second Lt. Christopher Batson, an admissions advisor here, said it's a way to keep up with the trends and provide information in an efficient way.

"We're trying to stay hip, cool and fresh on the recruiting side of things," Batson said. "It's very interactive and important for us to get the information back to kids fast. If you go on our Facebook page and ask a question, you'll usually get an answer within 24 hours."
Admissions has two websites as well as 14 vignettes on YouTube to promote the Academy.

"They're videos on the Wings of Blue, spirit videos and testimonials from cadets," Batson said. "It's a way kids can see what's going on here rather than get a pre-ordained verbatim answer."

Admissions' newest tool is a text-a-key feature that will allow students at college fairs to text a keyword to the Academy that will generate a response and put students in the Academy's information system.

"We'll send them information about the Academy, tell them what they need to be doing to qualify here and they will end up in our database," Nelson said.

Admissions also has apps for mobile phones to keep students informed.

"We launched it about a year ago and have had more than 20,000 downloads," Nelson said. "It's become very popular and has a lot of (Real Simple Syndication) feeds so users can receive information on things like athletics. It also has an events module so that anytime we're going to be somewhere we can let students know."

Nelson said kids listen more when you're in their element.

"We have so many venues where we can touch base with them through the Internet so that we can get their questions answered," Nelson said. "I think it has helped us in the ability to reach the kids and they'll have a better picture of what the Academy is going to be about."

Nelson said it's important for the Academy to keep up with technology yet also respect students' privacy.

"This generation has never not had a computer," Nelson said. "We have to be where they're at, and it's a struggle to also make sure we're not invading their area. That's why we don't have a text conversation with the kids."

Nelson said Admissions still sends brochures through the mail, but most of their process is online.

"We've gone to online acceptances this year," Nelson said. "We still send some snail mail but we're getting more into email campaigning and plan to create a Web-based catalog."

Batson said kids will be impressed with whoever has the most modern and popular resources.

"We are the Air Force Academy, and we like to think of ourselves as the innovators," Batson said. "I think we'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we weren't at the forefront of that."