The Reality of Virtual Reality in Higher Education


In a previous post, we discussed how technology-driven collaboration was named one of the top tech trends in higher education in the latest Horizon Report from New Media Consortium. Telepresence and video conferencing enable meaningful engagement that was previously lacking from distance learning and online classes. Technology also creates a more collaborative environment by allowing schools to expand the reach of their educators and programs and bring outside expertise to their own classrooms.

Another hot tech trend for higher education cited in the New Media Consortium report is virtual reality. Virtual reality uses software-generated, 3-D images or modeling to create a realistic, 360-degree simulation, which is typically displayed to the user on a headset. This enables the user to feel physically present and interact with an artificial world.

Long associated with video gaming and entertainment, virtual reality is being closely evaluated by colleges and universities for a number of use cases. Virtual reality can provide students with out-of-classroom experiences that enhance learning, encourage curiosity and improve retention. For example, architecture students can “walk through” the buildings they design, medical students can experience realistic training in virtual operating rooms, and students can visit other countries or even planets without leaving the library.

Virtual reality can also be used for marketing and admissions programs. Enhanced, 360-degree panoramic images, or photospheres, can be created with virtual reality tools to show students campus environments such as dorm rooms, historic buildings, learning facilities, sports arenas, the student center, cafeteria and library. Virtual guided campus tours can help schools reach students in an interactive, engaging way without requiring a physical campus visit. Immersive, 3-D models of campus grounds and the interior and exterior of buildings can be created with virtual reality software.

At this point, most conversations involving virtual reality in higher education are focused on potential. Virtual reality technology just isn’t quite there yet. Most headsets are still clunky and connected by wire, and reports of eye strain and a virtual form of motion sickness are not uncommon. While students can engage with classmates in real time from remote locations, a true virtual classroom is still very much an aspiration.

Interestingly, virtual reality doesn’t go far enough for many students. As advanced as virtual reality may seem, younger generations tend to be more interested in actively creating and manipulating virtual content and environments, rather than being passive consumers. Again, the technology still has a long way to go.

Another drawback for virtual reality in higher education is cost. Virtual reality headsets are expensive, as are the computers required to support them. As the technology advances and software becomes easier to develop, costs are expected to drop, but that could take several years.

When this does happen, look for wireless, battery-powered smart glasses with plenty of internal processing power to replace bulky, wired headsets. In fact, some experts believe virtual reality glasses will eventually replace smartphones and laptops. That may seem farfetched, but virtual reality certainly has the potential to change or create new educational and admissions experiences. Schools and universities should closely monitor virtual reality development and get a seat at the table to ensure the technology meets the needs of students.