Do you know where your students are? SCVNGR brings location-based games to college campuses

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Smartphones are proliferating on campus like coneys, and students are increasingly broadcasting personal information from them. Among the sensitive tidbits that are beginning to be shared widely is location, thanks to Global Positioning System technology (GPS) now common in smartphones. While the technology raises concerns over student safety and privacy, it has also enabled a new class of location-based services that can enhance student life. Services such as Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places use GPS technology to allow a smartphone users to “check in”, or reveal their location to a limited set of people, and proceed to interact with friends, stores or restaurants in the surrounding area.

One of the more popular location-based services, SCVNGR, designs location-based games specifically for use on college campuses.

Jeffrey Kirchick, the University Representative of SCVNGR recently spoke with Higher Ed Live about the product and the future of geosocial technologies in higher education.

Unlike the popular “check-in” services like Foursquare and Facebook Places that do little more than broadcast a user’s current location to friends, Kirchick says SCVNGR guides users to specific locations as part of a gaming experience, perfect for team-building and ice-breaking experiences of the sort popular at university orientation weekends.

“We’re all about games and engagement,” Kirchick says. Players win points by stopping at different locations, such as commercial establishments, and working out specific challenges; guidance is given via text messages or SCVNGR’s free smartphone app to complete the challenge and move on to another location. “Our core unit is the challenge, not the check-in.”

A game can be played according to a theme—called a “trek”—such as a college campus orientation, a tour of museums, or a guide for getting to know your school library. Nearly 400 schools, from small independent high schools to major universities, are using SCVNGR as an admissions and orientation tool to boost the fun factor of campus orientation tours.

Kirchick thinks the gaming aspect of SCVNGR also has a bright future because getting users to join in various activities gives them a sense of active participation and teamwork. “It’s about taking those social interactions and leveraging … people’s decision-making behaviors using game dynamics.”

For example, hundreds of new students at Boston University recently gathered to compete for hockey tickets or an iPad in a trek around campus; along the way, local businesses offered student discounts for participating in challenges at their locations. BU also developed a trek aimed more at student retention which guided students on a tour informing them of famous alumni.

Granted, not every new student comes to campus with a smartphone or with an adequate text-messaging plan. Not a problem, Kirchick states. Since getting students to interact with one another is a school’s main goal for such activities, students are usually grouped to play in teams, wherein only a single mobile phone user needs access to SCVNGR.

How time-consuming would it be to create a trek for students on your campus? Building the content for a trek is easy, Kirchick maintains, but it will take time and planning to promote and instruct students about it.

SCVNGR certainly isn’t the only location-based tool being used on campus. Dave Olsen, who runs the Mobile in Higher Ed blog, told us recently that the most promising mobile application for colleges is the campus map, which is naturally enhanced by location-aware devices. “This is the decade of mobile, I think, and a lot of ideas just haven’t been conceived yet,” Kirchick says. We agree. Not all location-based services as they currently exist will necessarily enhance student life or achieve admissions-office objectives, but the possibilities for doing so are huge.

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