Future of Higher Education: Adoption of Virtual Reality

The future of education involves instruction for the digital age. Trends in Education 4.0 are accelerating the adoption of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) in higher education institutions. Although still in the early stages, the technology is being adopted by universities as a teaching platform with reported positive results. 

The combined Virtual and Augmented Reality (VAR) technology facilitates immersive learning through the use of virtual environments that replicate those environments not physically accessible to higher education students via 3D models or interactive 360º videos. From laboratories to human chemistry to field trips to Mars, Virtual Reality technology helps students absorb concepts more effectively enhancing the ability to retain information; as a result, students become more engaged and involved in the active learning experience. 

According to a study published by the journal Education and Information Technologies, an evaluation of five full teaching semesters (or 2.5 years) in a purpose-designed laboratory for adoption of Virtual Reality technology in higher education showed that “the laboratory saw a 250 percent increase in student numbers over the period of evaluation and 71.5 percent of students surveyed reported enhanced learning outcomes.” The researchers noted that these findings give confidence to higher education institutions that the right VAR technology infrastructure is a sound educational investment for the future. 

Competencies generated for students from VAR in education include spatial visualization, innovative thinking, problem-solving, critical-thinking, empathy. From 25 virtual lab studies in engineering and science, 13 studies concluded that there were no negative effects on students' learning outcomes. However, poor quality teaching content is a particular problem due to inadequate realistic dynamic interactions and limited multi-sensory experiences.

For this, it is paramount that educators develop appropriate teaching content by learning from hands-on experience and the positive examples of VAR education in their discipline. The study finds that the adoption rates of VAR technology is directly linked to an educator’s ability to experiment with VAR teaching content. 

During the five teaching semesters of the study, Engineering units of study used the VR laboratory more than other faculties, followed by Arts and Social Sciences, and Science. 

Important considerations in VAR infrastructure include: 

  • Selection of the right technology for the learning cases: Bad quality headsets can cause discomfort in the form of motion sickness and headaches. The study identify both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive as industry leaders among the VR technology platform available
  • Avoid limiting the number headsets per class to reduce cost: This can result in poor educational experiences 
  • Network infrastructure and high-speed Internet connectivity should support the VR technology: Poor Internet connectivity will result in visual lag 

The study shows results that include the Virtual Reality laboratory design, implementation, operation, and maintenance as well as the initial investment at the time the VR lab was conceived. This may serve as an initial guide for institutions looking for setting-up or upgrading their own VR lab.

Top 5 U.S. universities using VR/AR:  

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Offers programs for individuals interested in establishing a career in Augmented and Virtual Reality. The MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality pioneers innovation with technologies of virtuality including XR (VR, AR, MR)
  • Stanford University: Offers a variety of specializations and heavy AR/VR coursework in various disciplines. Pronounced ‘karma’, the CCRMA Virtual + Augmented Reality Design Lab conducts research on the artful design of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (VR, AR, XR) for music. The VHIL studies the psychological and behavioral effects of AR/VR. The Medical Neurosurgical Simulation and Virtual Reality Center opened in 2016 uses 3D VR technology across the neurosurgery clinics, operating room, and classroom. To date, over 1,100 Stanford neurosurgery patients have had Surgical Theater 360 VR at some point during their care
  • University of Southern California: Heavy in VR labs to enhance coursework. The USC Institute for Creative Technologies houses the Medical Virtual Reality Lab (MedVRLab), Mixed Reality Lab (MxR), and the ICT Virtual Humans Group. Areas of specialization for MedVR Lab include Game Based Rehabilitation, Virtual Humans, Neurocognitive Assessment and Training, and Mental Behavioral Health
  • New York University: All programs can participate in the NYC Media Lab and Future Reality Lab, which explores how people will use future Mixed Reality technologies to better communicate and interact with each other when they are in the same physical space. Projects include reimagining the theatrical performance to develop novel uses of VAR technology for health and wellness
  • Rochester Institute of Technology: All programs have access to RIT’s Frameless Labs located at the RIT MAGIC Center. Frameless Labs provides a space for the Extended Reality (XR) community to collaborate with a goal to bring attention to research, innovation, and artistic creation in the fields of VAR technology 

Indeed, Virtual Reality has the potential to change the way future generations will learn and prepare for the future. VR technology perfectly serves personalized learning and can potentially breach the divide between face-to-face teaching and the current distance learning deficiencies. In addition, a VAR center on campus increases student value.  

In the next few years, VR will become more advanced and will make the learning experience more accessible to everyone. It now depends on higher education leadership how to adapt and adopt VAR technology to make the transition possible.