Virtual Reality for Higher Education: Three Steps to Start Now

Natasha McNulty Senior Content Strategist Published 22 Dec 2022

With enrolments down and the value of higher education being questioned, it’s no wonder investments in virtual reality (VR) are growing. Facebook owner, Meta, is pouring millions into a virtual reality “metaversity” initiative including 10 US universities. At the same time, the health sciences are taking the lead within universities by implementing life-changing VR elements to their programs.

The reason for the interest is clear: VR promises to eradicate longstanding HED issues like enrolment declines and growing doubt about educational value . But there are some obstacles that threaten VR’s momentum. One of them points to the campus network.

We have some tips on how to overcome the challenges and start implementing VR in your class. But first let’s start with an understanding of VR and why you need it.

What’s happening in higher education now?

After the usual fits and starts of all technology trends, virtual reality (VR) is finally seeing some traction in universities. Several early adopters are offering immersive learning experiences as part of their programs. Outfitted with a VR headset, students can explore space, the human body, the pyramids of Egypt, and even new molecular compounds.

Meta sees VR shifting the current hybrid model (in class and online) to “tri-brid”, “one that moves seamlessly between online, in-person and simulated, without the limits of time, travel and scale.” For these reasons, more institutions will be adopting VR or at least some form of it.

A 2020 Ipsos Survey for the World Economic Forum had 72% of respondents expecting that hybrid learning models will be the norm by 2025. A year later, a 2021 QuickPoll by EDUCAUSE found that 50% of respondents believe that online, remote, hyflex learning will be the focus in the coming years. With 90% of those same respondents indicating they believe extended reality adoption will increase over the next five years.

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Enrol-ready virtual reality experiences 

Medical sciences are the early adopters

The biggest surge in VR is happening in medical sciences. Pre-med students are now viewing the inside of the human body, conducting dissection simulations, doing trial runs of difficult surgeries, and practicing empathy-based approaches by experiencing the world through the perspective of the blind or hearing impaired. Some are even turning to “holopatients” (true-to-life holographic simulations of patient scenarios) to practice handling trauma-driven conversations or end-of-life discussions with virtual family members.

“The amalgamation of medicine and VR has been revolutionary,” writes IXR Labs, a leading educational VR company based in India. “Numerous lengthy and invasive surgical procedures have been permanently transformed into short non-invasive and safer surgical procedures with the help of VR in surgical training.”

While the medical sciences have been the trendsetters and early adopters, it will be interesting to see how VR plays out in use cases beyond those fields.

“We’re really going to see a profound impact when we start to integrate it into the humanities and social sciences,” says Emory Craig, educator and VR consultant. “There will be new ways to bring experience into the learning environment, and that’s a significant shift in the paradigm.”

Virtual reality: a higher education solution

VR brings students into a fully immersive learning experience, offering tremendous value for the cost of tuition. It naturally enhances retention, comprehension and engagement and reinforced learning at every level (audibly, visually, tactically). The biggest reasons to incorporate VR in higher education include:

1. Brand Value and Differentiation

Universities that offer VR have an edge over the competition and promise to give that same differentiation to their graduates. This is something above and beyond the average student experience today and naturally establishes brand value and market differentiation.

“There is this notion in our university and companies that hire our graduates that true electronics and communications engineers touch hardware,” says Sean Hum, engineering professor at the University of Toronto. “Those same companies are expecting our graduates to have hands-on experience in hardware and testing.”

With increasing competition from lower-cost, fast-track alternatives like workshops and corporate certifications, higher education is already in the limelight. This is the time to incorporate learning tools and an education experience that demonstrate unique value and is worth the increasing cost of a college or university education.

2. Student Engagement

By nature, VR immerses the user in an all-encompassing simulation that activates multiple senses at once. Hands-on, supremely visual, and supercharged with augmented reality details, students can both experience and manipulate items within the simulation. This enables them to practice and absorb the lessons in unprecedented ways.

“We all have a broad range of students with different learning modalities, from auditory or visual to tactical. To truly enrich these students, we need to present the information in one way or another and cater to each student’s needs,” explains Paige Harvey, lab manager at Morgan State University.

There is increasing need for graduates to emerge with the hands-on skills needed to thrive in today’s choice of careers. VR enables them to access elements that are not usually available to students due to expense, danger, or availability.

“Students can gain knowledge about experiments that are often too complex to be allowed in a regular lab, expensive, or dangerous for the classroom,” states the IXR Labs website.

Challenges to implementing virtual reality

It’s only fair that there will be a learning curve and obstacles to implementing a new technology. For colleges and universities adopting VR brings the biggest challenges in cost and network connection.

1. Cost

Added costs are something most higher education institutions cannot afford. In the case of VR, the requirements are simple: students will need only a VR headset, but these don’t come cheap.

To support students, the institution will need to have a dedicated room for VR use. On-site VR requires a special space to store equipment for rental and create a safe environment for active headset-wearing students. Ideally a modern sound system in a comfortable, spacious room works best. (Most of us who have played Wii Sports know the very real possibility of knocking over a computer monitor or whacking a person by accident.) Creating the right environment within the VR lab may require renovations to keep things safe and optimal for 3D learning.

VR programs would also likely require a subscription fee from VR education companies. But these cannot be rolled into tuition fees if the goal is to demonstrate value and attract students who are already disgruntled about tuition costs.

2. Network Connection

Most institutions are already in need of a network upgrade. This presents a cost and transition that can be difficult to justify when the reason is for a few VR-enabled courses.

The 360-degree immersive video streaming for VR will require a great deal more bandwidth than the usual demand on a university network. Traffic will also increase, putting additional strain. Cloud storage is also necessary for the larger VR files, although these could be housed by a VR vendor and offered by subscription instead. Given these requirements, a 5G network may be able to meet the demands, yet there may still be some latency. All these come with additional cost.

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3 Steps to Starting a VR-Friendly Network

It can take time to adopt a whole new technology to an already-complex course, let alone a university or college. But some simple steps will open possibilities and start the journey forward in your school:

  1. Take inventory of what you already have. Count the positives and work with them. No formal VR solutions yet? Quick VR experiences can be downloaded or streamed to mobile devices. No money for headsets? A simple cardboard viewer can do the trick as a temporary solution.
  2. Consider a Wi-Fi 6 solution that provides more value than just bandwidth. Solutions that enable your institution to improve legacy performance, provide better IoT security and enhance reliability for critical applications bring more ROI. They also make a more wholesome case for a Wi-Fi upgrade.
  3. Plan to include VR elements in your course curriculum. Adding VR as supplements to the program provide virtual hooks throughout the class and help build on lessons with 3D application. Virtual field trips, VR videos or even smartphone-based VR treasure hunts set a precedent for the network and drive demand for bandwidth support campus-wide.

It is possible to get virtual reality for your program

Although there are many considerations before implementing VR in higher education, the benefits are clear: virtual is a tangible way to incorporate next-generation learning and provide differentiation. It makes sense to start thinking about it now. Do some advanced planning. Give it some constructive thought. Pretty soon you can start to develop a VR-friendly network and transform learning for the next generation of graduates.

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