Universities Journey to a Virtual Reality

While virtual reality and other immersive technologies have long been popular in entertainment, their use in higher education has been limited. Most students continue to learn in person, studying in lecture halls and training in laboratories. When they do make use of digital technologies, it is to attend classes online through videoconferencing platforms or to submit an assignment through their institution’s learning management system.

Only recently have educators started to use immersive technologies to enrich the learning process. At a handful of colleges and universities, educators are now having students explore historical events, conduct virtual science experiments, or even visit distant locations, all without leaving the classroom.

While widespread adoption is likely years away, interest in the educational uses of these new technologies is rising. Some estimates suggest that virtual reality and related innovations could reach 15 million learners globally by 2025. Still, numerous barriers remain.

Virtual Higher Education

A variety of immersive technologies currently exist. Virtual reality (VR) refers to simulated experiences in which users are fully immersed, often through the use of headsets or goggles. Through VR, users experience a completely synthetic, computer-generated world, disconnecting them from physical reality.

On the other hand, augmented reality (AR) involves overlaying digital simulations onto the user’s physical world. AR enhances the real-world environment by adding virtual elements, which users can interact with through various devices, such as smartphones or smart glasses. This technology blends the digital and physical realms, allowing users to see and manipulate virtual objects in their real surroundings.

Together, VR, AR, and other similar technologies are collectively known as extended reality (XR). XR encompasses a spectrum of immersive experiences that range from fully virtual environments to augmenting the real world with virtual elements. It provides a broad framework for understanding and categorizing technologies that alter our perception of reality, enabling new forms of interaction and engagement.

The evolution of XR technologies has opened up exciting possibilities in the realm of higher education. From medical simulations that allow aspiring doctors to perform intricate surgeries to architectural designs brought to life in virtual spaces, XR offers novel learning experiences by creating immersive simulations, interactive visualizations, and virtual laboratories. By merging virtual and physical elements, XR enriches the educational process, making it more engaging, interactive, and impactful.

Universities have recently begun to see the potential of these technologies and are starting to experiment with them in various ways. For example, the University of Maryland is using AR to help students learn anatomy. The University of Southern California is using VR to immerse students in historical moments. In Canada, McMaster University is using VR to help students learn engineering.

Immersive technologies have also found a special place in online education. Last year, the University of Maryland Global Campus, an online university that offers a wide range of academic programs and courses primarily designed for adult learners and military personnel, embarked on a two-year experimental initiative in collaboration with VictoryXR to establish a digital campus, known as a “digital twin campus.” On this digital campus, students from all over the world can don VR headsets to attend courses on speech, human resources, education, biology, journalism, astronomy, criminal justice, and more.

“For UMGC, which does not have a traditional campus, using immersive technologies was a very natural step,” said Daniel Mintz, department chair of information technology at the university. “Through the power of virtual reality and augmented reality, students can now explore complex concepts, engage in realistic simulations, and collaborate with peers and instructors in ways never before possible.”

Unlocking Students’ Hidden Potential

Anastassiya Yudintseva, now an instructional designer and digital learner at McMaster University, struggled as a youngster to learn English. She could not understand the abstract grammatical concepts in textbooks or the purpose of drill-and-practice exercises. But that all changed when her parents bought her a video game in English. Playing the game improved her academics and helped to form her ideas about teaching and learning.

“I realized that learning might be both meaningful and engaging. Since that time, I have been passionate about technology,” she wrote in an email. “As an educator, I always tried to create authentic learning experiences for my students and experimented with various technologies. Eventually, I was introduced to the concept of VR and immediately fascinated by the potential for immersive learning experiences.”

There are many benefits to using VR, such as students’ decreased learning anxiety, increased motivation, enthusiasm, confidence, and creativity, Yudintseva believes. She also pointed out this technology’s role in creating a safe environment for adult learners, especially those who are easily embarrassed by their mistakes. “Since the Avatars represent everyone, no one can see our real faces, which puts less pressure on making mistakes—it is not I who made a mistake, but a hedgehog, for example. Embracing errors is a big part of learning!” she said.

Craig Frehlich, who has been working in education for over 25 years and has a master’s degree in education with a focus on curriculum design, agrees with Yudintseva on how these technologies support learning without embarrassment and develop students’ skills.

“There are endless chances of practicing by using these technologies as they have unlimited resources, safe environment, and the possibility to keep trying is easily available, which should make employers later more confident about graduates’ skills,” he said.

A growing body of research provides empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of VR in a wide range of academic subjects and disciplines, such as English, medicine, science, computer science, engineering, and mathematics. For example, students at Grinnell College in Iowa work on a wide range of VR development projects, including immersive visualizations of mathematical concepts such as special curvature properties of quadric surfaces, ruled surfaces, graph coloring, and graph isomorphisms, said David Neville, a digital liberal arts specialist in the Grinnell College Digital Liberal Arts Collaborative.

Neville, author of over 50 articles, posters, and presentations on topics related to the digital humanities, immersive computing, digital game-based learning, and blended learning, believes in the possibility of using immersive technologies in all subjects, including the liberal arts.

“Recently, our students worked on a recreation of a Viking longship to create an immersive VR experience that visualizes the social and cultural aspects of a Viking Age longship, which should help in developing expertise in spatial computing within a liberal arts education,” he said.

Creating these virtual spaces would provide a better understanding of various topics, Neville suggested. “It allows students to learn from situations that may be dangerous or difficult to experience in reality, for example, fire evacuation, construction safety, accident reconstruction, lab experiments, surgery practice,” and so on.

Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a research brief, Immersive Technologies: Moving Past the Hype, which examines the impact of using immersive technologies and their potential inside and outside the classroom. In a survey of 285 college administrators, 89 percent cited allowing students to test real-world lessons in low-risk situations as one of the benefits of immersive learning.

“Participation in such simulations positively affects learning outcomes and creates an awareness of the harmful decision consequences in a safe learning environment,” said Yudintseva.

A Long Journey into the Future

Students seem excited about learning with these immersive technologies. Around two-thirds of college administrators surveyed for the Chronicle’s report described their students as very interested (27 percent) or somewhat interested (40 percent) in immersive technologies.

At the same time, educators seem to be the real leaders in developing uses for immersive technologies in the classroom. Nearly half (48 percent) of survey respondents described faculty members as the primary drivers of immersive technology use on their campus. An almost identical share (47 percent) identified pedagogical innovation as the primary motivation for adopting these technologies.

“For any educator who is concerned about the quality of teaching and learning, one of the first things that they always worry about is the notion of , but more importantly, how do we make learning memorable?” said Frehlich.

For him, designing courses based on these technologies is a foundation stone for making the learning experience truly a unique one.

“The most important thing to consider is the learning objectives and how immersive technologies can effectively support and enhance those objectives,” he said.

Still, Yudintseva believes in the importance of being realistic in dealing with technologies like VR. “It’s important to remember that technology is just a tool, and our instructional strategies, passion, and experience drive learning, not the other way around,” she said.

While there is growing enthusiasm for integrating these technologies into education, there are also numerous barriers to its widespread adoption.

A principal challenge relates to cost. Although these technologies offer cost-saving benefits by eliminating the need for expensive experiments or field visits, VR headsets are still costly. Also, most of these technologies are very dependent on having reliable internet connectivity and at least some computing capability. Frehlich agrees that the cost is high, especially for younger students. But for those in university, he says it’s a worthy opportunity. “The cost of headsets, no matter how much, will be less than the cost of traveling to study abroad.”

Another challenge is content development. Immersive technology requires high-quality digital content, such as 3D models, simulations, and interactive environments. Creating and curating educational content that aligns with the curriculum can be time-consuming and requires expertise, which adds to the cost.

“Creating an immersive environment requires a lot of programming skills and computer science capabilities which not all professors have,” said Neville, “and not all universities can offer sufficient financial and technical support to faculty members.”

Mintz, in turn, points to the role of big technology companies in assisting universities. “They have a crucial role to play in supporting educational institutions. By collaborating with universities, these companies can develop more affordable and accessible VR solutions tailored for educational purposes,” he said.

The skills and attitudes of teaching staff could also hinder widespread use. The Chronicle report points to the need for faculty training in the use of these technologies (80 percent) and the lack of faculty interest (50 percent) as main barriers to their adoption in the classroom. But Neville prefers to describe faculty attitudes differently. “It’s more a kind of hesitation, they don’t know what it looks like, and don’t understand how it could be used in the classroom. While students are more familiar with this technology, as it’s part of their everyday life,” he said.

Here the importance of training and preparing professors emerges, Frehlich suggests. “Professional development programs, workshops, and ongoing technical support are required to ensure educators can maximize the benefits of the technology,” he said.

Additionally, not every student will have equal representation in this collective space due to various barriers, since real communication occurs in a virtual world controlled by VR features and the administrator, Yudintseva believes.

“Students may not be willing to participate in classroom activities due to various motivational, affective-cognitive, socio-cultural, and individual factors that limit their willingness or ability to engage in discourse. Therefore, many students may “lose” their voice in the plurilingual/pluricultural classroom,” she said.

Still, Yudintseva seems optimistic about the future of VR in education, as technology offers a unique learning experience.

“I am particularly excited about the emerging trend of using VR to simulate real-life scenarios to provide students with a safe environment to practice and develop their skills. At the same time, I hope, in the near future, VR will offer more flexibility in content creation to tailor to each student’s needs,” she said.

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