An oceanography professor takes her students on a field trip to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean without leaving the classroom. A law lecturer creates a simulated courtroom, complete with judge, jury and evidence on display. Wearing smartglassses, a surgeon sends real-time video and commentary from the operating room to his students’ mobile devices. And a music professor uses 360-video to give students the experience of sitting in the audience at an Italian opera performance.
By engaging students with augmented and virtual reality, higher education institutions can provide in-depth learning experiences not possible in the past. These technologies are set to explode over the next several years. A 2017 report by Digi-Capital predicts that mobile AR could become the primary driver of a $108 billion AR/VR market by 2021. While the video game industry continues to spur development, AR/VR is also making inroads into classrooms around the world.
Using headsets, VR systems provide an immersive, three-dimensional experience of another space. In contrast, AR smart glasses have the ability to layer data and images over views of actual spaces. Both have the potential to enhance learning for students, particularly in such fields as healthcare, engineering and architecture, where hands-on experience is crucial. AR and VR can also powerfully engage students in humanities courses with close-up experiences of historical events, famous landmarks or great works of art.
Many institutions are watching the AR/VR revolution with interest, but they’re uncertain about when — and how — to get involved. Where are the most effective areas for colleges and universities to utilize this technology?
- In the classroom. Incorporating AR/VR technology into the classroom learning environment may seem like the stuff of futuristic dreams, but it’s already becoming a reality on some campuses. At Georgia State University in Atlanta, art instructor Glenn Gunhouse uses VR headsets to give students a 3-D view of art history landmarks. “What VR offers to my students is an increasingly true-to-life way of visiting places that we otherwise could not visit, either because they are very far away, or because they no longer exist,” Gunhouse said in a 2016 EDUCAUSE interview. He’s created virtual “spaces” of an ancient Egyptian tomb, a Roman temple and a medieval Italian church, among others.
- Online courses. Interactions between students and professors in online courses are typically limited to text-based discussion boards, emails and perhaps a live webinar with voice chat. Using VR/AR can enable more complex interactions, allowing professors to give deliver lectures and interact with students within a VR environment, as lecturer Jon Festinger has done at the University of British Columbia, Canada. VR can also allow distance students to participate in tasks “together” without actually being in the same room. Conrad Tucker, assistant professor of design and industrial engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, is working with his students to create immersive VR programs to enhance online courses in engineering. Equipped with a haptic glove and a VR headset, a student in an online course could work on building projects with classmates across the world.
- Institutional Marketing. Some companies are developing AR/VR technology to help universities market their programs and campus facilities to prospective students. CampusBird uses 3-D modeling to create campus maps that are also virtual tours. Institutions can use VR to present immersive campus experiences to potential students, giving them a glimpse of what it would be like to explore the research library, attend a large event, or stroll the campus greenways. And AR can provide a great way to “annotate” a real-life campus tour, directing visitors to points of interest or guiding them through the registration process.
- Collaborative Learning. AR/VR has a great deal of potential for use in disciplines, such as engineering, where collaborative learning is key. Textbook publishing giant Pearson anticipates an increasing market for the technology, especially in physics, chemistry and other STEM areas. Groups of students can interact with each other and build things within a VR world, creating a new way to simulate and practice tasks that might otherwise be microscopic (like exploring a DNA strand) or dangerous (such as performing open-heart surgery). AR has tremendous potential in healthcare, where it’s being used to train surgeons, teach anatomy, and more. Using smartglasses equipped with a video camera, a surgeon can utilize AR to demonstrate procedures for students in the next room — or on another continent.
While AR/VR headsets and smartglasses require an initial investment, they can provide considerable cost savings over time, especially when they replace single-use learning materials in a chemistry or anatomy lab class, for instance. And many AR/VR apps run on mobile devices such as smartphones, which most incoming students already own.
These technologies are already taking off in other sectors, and it’s only a matter of time before AR/VR becomes an expectation in higher education. With so many possible uses, institutions will want to start brainstorming how to implement them sooner rather than later.
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