Eduvation Blog

2008 Maclean’s On-Campus Virtual Fair

On October 22, 2008, Maclean’s magazine hosted Canada’s first-ever virtual college and university recruitment fair. Academica Group’s Ken Steele spent most of the day visiting virtual booths, attending virtual presentations, and watching virtual videos — all so he could describe what you missed on his blog…

The two largest post-secondary consumer shows in North America, the Ontario Universities Fair and theOntario College Information Fair, bring together some two dozen provincial institutions to exhibit their wares for prospective students in the Greater Toronto Area, for a few days each fall. Some high schools send busloads of thousands of grade 11 and 12 students downtown for the fairs, which quickly become crowded, noisy, and exhausting for students and their parents. And for students outside the reach of the TTC and Go Transit — well, they’re fresh outta luck.

Canada’s major media players in the PSE sector, Maclean’s magazine and the Globe & Mail, both publish annual rankings or reports, host information, blogs and analysis on their websites, and now are bringing the Fair experience to the rest of the country and the world by creating online equivalents. Maclean’s rushed their virtual fair to market first, but the Globe‘s will follow in just a few days, on November 6th. (See my blogfor more information.)

Maclean’s Virtual Fair (MVF) promises “direct, instant access to faculty experts and representatives from Canadian colleges and universities — all from the convenience of your desktop.” After the user provides a good deal of contact information to Maclean’s, they are allowed to enter the fairgrounds, which start out auspiciously enough with a beautiful, bright campus filled with moving people, trains, and even birds:


So far, cool. Doubtless my expectations have been raised by playing around on a number of virtual campuses in Second Life, in which my avatar interacts in three dimensions with other avatars, and “chat” actually uses a microphone and headset for a natural, conversational interaction. MVF is not nearly so fancy — but then, users don’t have to upgrade their video accelerators and memory in order to access the fair. My avatar never really appears at all, and movement between exhibits is a matter of selecting from a menu. The booths are rather flat, with just logos and video customized, and the avatars for the representatives at the booths all look pretty much identical, and never seem to move or change expression. In the MVF, all “chat” is text IM.

The 2008 MVF announced proudly the “participating institutions” AUCC and ACCC, and the former in fact had a virtually-staffed exhibit throughout the day, and video of president Claire Morris welcoming visitors:


Aside from a handful of commercial exhibitors (Rogers Wireless, Student Price Card, and Cisco) and recruiters for the RCMP, the MVF included exhibits for 14 Canadian universities and 10 colleges. The participating universities included powerhouses McGill and uToronto, Ontario schools Laurier, Algoma, Redeemer and Brescia, eastern schools Mount Allison, UPEI and St. Francis Xavier, and western schools uSaskatchewan, uVictoria, UNBC, Trinity Western and Emily Carr. While the universities were weighted toward Western Canada, the colleges participating were largely based in the GTA or southern Ontario: George Brown, Seneca, Sheridan, Georgian, and Fanshawe. 3 Alberta colleges also participated (MacEwan, Lethbridge College, and Mount Royal), as did Camosun College and Yukon College.


I enjoyed the opportunity to pop around between exhibits, check out who the reps were at each, saying “hi” to those I knew, and discussing the fair. Most felt that traffic at the MVF was good — whenever I logged in, I could see about 340 other users, and those who cited a number certainly indicated that they had obtained hundreds of leads — even visitors who silently passed by these virtual booths had their contact information captured and passed on to the institutions. Several mentioned “speaking” with prospective students from around the globe.

The MVF offered 2 or 3 tracks of speakers on the hour — these presentations, unlike the exhibits, included streaming audio and moving Powerpoint slides. They were brief, and perhaps the best known speaker was David Chilton (The Wealthy Barber), but I enjoyed the often deeply personal presentations by Jeff Rybak (What’s Wrong with University) and Joey Coleman.

The exhibits themselves were pretty static — information links that were basically text pages, usually linked to the institutional website, motionless representatives with an option to text message them, and most excitingly, a 60 to 180 second video clip to welcome us to each exhibit. I made a point of checking out the video at each booth, with ranged from non-existent, to audio over a single still photo, to fairly impressive video like those below, from Fanshawe College, Sheridan College, St. Francis Xavier and Education New Zealand.

Fanshawe CollegeVideo

Sheridan College Recruitment Video

St. Francis Xavier University Recruitment Video

New Zealand Education Recruitment Video

Very different flavours of video — from the urban upbeat pace of Fanshawe to the almost pastoral, soothing music from New Zealand.  McGill, uToronto and Mount Allison used video of a student or recruiter standing on campus, while UPEI had a clever video that helped visitors understand the functions at the booth.

The interface of MVF, provided by virtual trade show and employment fair developer UNISFair, was at times a bit sluggish and unresponsive, perhaps due to heavy traffic. Some vestiges of a career fair had not been swept away, like the option to upload my resume in order to apply for jobs (which did not appear to be available anywhere). The “backpack” metaphor was a propos, in which messages, contacts, and event reminders were kept.

The folks at Maclean’s and the Globe are offering us an early glimpse at the recruitment fair of the future. Judging from the technology of the MVF, we’re not quite there yet, but eventually virtual university fairs could start to replace the real (expensive) thing. From my perspective as an attendee, what’s still missing is:

– Streaming audio and video of institutional liaison presentations
– Streaming audio and video of keynotes
– Easy viewbook requests or PDF downloads
– First names of institutional representatives, instead of their initials
– Photographs, personalized avatars, or video of booth reps
– Audio chat instead of text IM
– Ways to interact with your friends at booths, presentations, or in-between

Compared to the OUF, at a virtual fair we’ll also miss the congested parking lot, the free giveaways and book bags, security searches and of course those horrible hot dogs!

If you attended the MVF, or worked a booth, please add your thoughts and observations below as comments. Thanks for reading!

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