Have you ever wanted to take your students on a trip around the world? What about a journey into the human body to observe its functions? Or maybe even a birdwatching excursion, where you all get to see the elegant feathers and hear the exotic songs of the rarest birds in the world, even when they aren’t really there? This all might sound like an episode of The Magic School Bus, but with the emerging potential of XR – or extended reality – all of these possibilities could be a reality sooner than you’d think.
What is XR?
XR is an umbrella term for three different kinds of technology: augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR).
AR is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view. AR is the foundation for games like Pokémon Go, where 3D images of Pokémon are rendered on top of the real world. AR also transforms our facial features when we use filters on Snapchat or Instagram.
VR is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that people can interact with in a seemingly real or physical way by using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.
MR brings together the real world and digital elements. In mixed reality, you interact with and manipulate both physical and virtual items and environments. Mixed reality allows you to see and immerse yourself in the world around you even as you interact with a virtual environment using your own hands – all without ever removing your headset.
Benefits of XR in Higher Education
Researchers with EDUCAUSE have discovered that XR leads to effective learning outcomes when used for experiential learning approaches that augment real-world examples, or active learning approaches that invite students to interact with their subject. In addition, they found it highly effective for skills- and competency-based teaching and learning, activities that involve hands-on experience, and experimentation based on new forms of interaction.
These findings suggest exciting new possibilities for higher education; primarily, the chance to invite students to an immersive learning environment. By making the subject of the class real using technology, we can enhance student engagement and truly prepare them for real-world applications of the ideas they are studying in the classroom. And with companies like Meta and Microsoft investing heavily in immersive technology, careers in this industry will soon be in high demand.
One of the main concerns with using XR technology in the classroom is its affordability, not just for the student but for the institution. VR headsets such as the Oculus come with a hefty price tag, and creating spaces like an XR room on campus can be even more expensive. In addition, VR simulators require high-end computers with enough computing power to handle large amounts of data at a rapid rate. This would require a sophisticated network of high-speed connections.
A high-speed network is critical when students engage with virtual reality, because it’s one thing for a website to buffer and another thing for your headset to buffer. It breaks immersion.Maya Georgiva, director of education futures at the XReality Center at The New School
Additionally, there are ethical considerations to make. XR technology collects a rapid amount of data in order to function properly, which might raise some concerns about privacy, data security, and even technology bias. A study conducted by Stanford University in 2020 found that just a few minutes of data collected while using a virtual reality tool can identify an otherwise anonymous user with a 95% success rate. Organizations like XR Initiative, XR Access, and the XR Association provide guidance on how to navigate those conversations and facilitate policies to foster a safe environment for XR users.
Though there are still many conversations to be had, XR technology possesses a tremendous level of potential to transform the higher ed classroom as we know it. If implemented properly with the high-speed networks and robust privacy policies, students and teachers will be able to leverage this technology to create immersive learning experiences while feeling safe that their data is not being improperly collected. Companies like Meta and Microsoft, who both have a strong relationship with higher education, are heavy investors in the XR industry, so it might be reasonable to assume that we can expect some XR technology built with educators in mind on the horizon.
Higher education is typically slow to adopt new technologies, but there are already some schools that are ahead of the curve. The New School has an XR hub named the XReality Center, Penn State has created a locomotive simulator using XR, and UCF uses TeachLive to train the next generation of teachers. If we can apply the same kind of creativity and forward thinking that we see in our peers, we will find ways to transform the student experience as we know it.