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How Virtual Reality could transform Higher Education

In Education, Technology by Tom Cannon

Once strictly in the realms of science fiction, virtual reality (VR) is teetering on the edge of becoming mainstream. While it’s often associated with more pleasure-seeking pursuits, such as gaming, it is starting to make a scene in the education landscape.

Technology in Higher Education

The upsurge of technology is constantly changing and affecting the way we operate in the world and higher education is no exception. In recent years, online learning has revolutionised the very core of education by providing more access to more people. For example, The Open University allows those with time and travel constraints to undertake degrees and more broadly speaking MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offer up free or affordable online courses to help users learn new skills. Technology has allowed educators to reach more people while helping students’ upskill with just an internet connection and a laptop.

A case for virtual reality

The next big transformative tech surge may well come in the form of virtual reality. But what exactly is virtual reality? Simply put, it’s immersive first person software that transports the user to a whole other space. They can operate within that space as if in reality, but the difference is that space is actually digital. It is different from Augmented Reality (AR), which layers data over our reality to produce a new experience of our actual world. The popular game Pokemon Go is a great example of AR in action.

13944710577_a127b108ba_bUsed right, virtual reality could combine the best aspects of real-life learning with online learning into one integrated platform. It seems like things are certainly heading that way already; a Goldman Sachs report published last January stated there could be a: a $700 million (£550 million), 15 million-user market in schools and universities by 2025. This is no doubt helped by the likes of Facebook (who purchased headset maker Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014) promising $10 million to focus on educational VR experiences. And it seems the public support is there too: almost 7 in 10 adults polled in a recent survey said they were excited to experience VR.

With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at just three of the ways VR could change, improve and perhaps even transform higher education.

1. Immersive Lectures

One of the most obvious benefits of VR is transforming lectures into immersive learning experiences, enabling lecturers to truly bring their subject to life. Engineering or architecture students could use VR to design and build digital structures; history students could explore ancient ruins; marine biology students could study on the ocean floor. You get the idea – the possibilities for immersive education are near endless.

The University of Westminster has already implemented a virtual space for criminal law students. By using VR, students search for clues to create and build a solid murder case. Instead of simply reading through witness statements they can walk around the crime scene and ascertain, for example, whether a witness would have actually been able to see the crime.

Westminster VR LearningOne of the potential issues is whether students learn as well in VR as they do in classrooms. Considering the implementation of VR headsets into education is only just starting to happen, it is hard to make an accurate assessment. However there has been a meta-analysis (published in 2014) that found students at university do in fact learn better when immersed in a virtual world. Still, it is an issue that would need further exploration.

Another issue is that students report difficulty taking notes while wearing a VR headset, for obvious reasons. This could be mitigated by complementary lesson handouts, but still poses a very real problem that would need to be addressed before the technology is embraced.

2.‘Try before you buy’ marketing

According to a new study, this year’s students are the most career-focused in over a decade. With an increase in tuition fees, it makes sense that today’s students are focused on getting value for money when it comes to their higher education. Open days and tours allow students a better insight into the university and relevant courses, but of course not all students can afford the time and expense involved in visiting multiple institutions. This is particularly true for international students who are often early adopters of technology.

Virtual tours open this access to far more prospective students. The best will allow each individual student to control the experience, rather than being told a stock standard story. So for example, the student could visit accommodation they are interested in and try out a sample lecture in their chosen course. By doing this, students will be able to interactively get relevant information and answers to their questions, without having to pick up a phone or wait for an email response. It’s also worth noting that by going into such detail, courses may have the added benefit of screening students and only attracting applications from those that are truly interested. Dropout rates could potentially decrease if this were the case.

3. Distance Learning

We discussed above how online learning has disrupted the education landscape, but what if VR could improve current offerings? MOOCs are a fantastic invention and have given many people access to quality education that would otherwise be without. That said, they are not without their issues. Completion rates are often low, particularly among those who are not already well educated.

One of the problems is feeling a lack of presence; students on MOOCs miss out on interacting with fellow students and their teachers. As such, it is easy to see how a student could become despondent and quickly lose interest if they struggle to understand a concept and there is nobody available to help them. However, VR could change all of that. Instead of sitting alone in front of a screen, they could pop a headset on and be in a virtual classroom with students and a teacher. Distance learning would suddenly have a sense of presence and students would perhaps feel more like they are ‘taking part’.

The current cost of headsets rule this out at present. However, like most new technology, eventually such headsets will become affordable and then VR courses could be much more likely. As it stands, there is probably still currently a market for this – consider international students for whom a headset is much cheaper than moving to and living overseas.

In conclusion

As demonstrated above, there is plenty of scope for VR to integrate into higher education. But the technology is not without its limitations, from making note taking difficult to the huge investment required in obtaining the necessary technology. Like with all new technology, we would do well to consider both the positives and negatives before launching into it without consideration. However, with many of the world’s largest tech giants investing billions into it, it looks like VR will soon become part of our reality.