There’s no denying the impact technology has had on the world of higher education. A mere twenty years ago, the idea of earning a degree online was farfetched. Fast-forward to modern day and more than 30 percent of college students in public institutions participate in some level of distance education.

Technical advancements have lifted the boundaries of the traditional classroom and taken college curriculum to a whole new level. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are perfect examples of this type of innovation.

You may be aware of these reality technologies being used in video games or social media filters, but the adoption of such innovation in higher education has the potential to be a game-changer. We enlisted Jonathan Kinsey, instructional designer at Collegis Education, to learn more about the present and future of augmented reality and virtual reality in higher ed.

Virtual reality vs. augmented reality

Before we dive into the specifics of higher ed, let’s start by breaking down the difference between VR and AR. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but there is distinct difference.

What is virtual reality?

You may be familiar with the concept of virtual reality. VR utilizes technology to create a completely simulated environment, often utilizing a head-mounted display. The user becomes immersed in a computer-generated world when wearing this device.

“In a VR environment, the user steps into an entirely virtual environment. Environments are of the creator’s design and experiences are tied to the rules that govern the virtual space,” Kinsey explains. “VR has the capability to take the user out of their world and into a totally different one.”

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality utilizes technology to layer superimposed elements (i.e., images, sounds or text) on the existing world around you. Unlike virtual reality, AR builds upon your actual surroundings

“Augmented reality can manipulate the space in cool and fun ways but you don’t take the user out of the environment they’re inhabiting,” Kinsey explains. Some AR examples utilize headsets, but smartphones and other mobile devices are commonly used also.

How is VR/AR altering higher education?

From healthcare and military to aviation and space, there are many diverse applications of VR/AR in various industries. Some colleges and universities have begun to adopt this immersive learning technology to offer innovative training and simulation opportunities for students in different fields.

Virtual reality in higher ed

Virtual reality has the ability to sever the learning experience from the students’ physical environment, allowing for the kind of real-world learning that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. This could include virtual field trips, allowing anthropology students to explore and examine ancient Egyptian ruins without travelling internationally.

“VR can really bring the entire human experience into one room,” Kinsey says. “You can replicate the past, envision a future, or experience the present without doing more than donning a headset.”

Kinsey offers another exciting example of virtual reality in higher ed: medical education. Traditionally, medical students learn and practice surgical procedures using simulated patient dummies or cadavers, which can only prepare them so much. VR-based systems level up this process by providing hands-on training in an immersive, simulated operating room environment.

“When you start thinking about everything that would go into such a complicated real-life experience – even down to simple things like gloves, masks, utensils, clean work environments, sterilization – the benefit of VR is unmistakable,” Kinsey states.

VR also gives students the ability to complete their training experiences several times. Educational features can also be built in for additional learning, like labeling the different layers of human tissue. Students can tag different parts, undo mistake and take notes all inside the virtual learning experience.

These are just a few of the many simulated learning experiences that can come to life with virtual reality in higher ed. When you can enter into a completely different environment, the opportunities for learning are virtually endless.

Augmented reality in higher ed

Similar to VR, augmented reality holds rewarding possibilities for higher education. Often by means of a computer or mobile device screen, AR can enhance a student’s environment, allowing them to visualize and interact with a concept that is otherwise inaccessible or difficult to comprehend. Students are able to build and retain knowledge by applying additional sensory skills.

One particularly valuable benefit of AR in higher ed is its ability to foster collaboration, according to Kinsey. For example, architecture students can work together to build a house and model weather conditions to see how it withstands wind or hail.

Another innovative example of students teaming up with the help of AR is with theatre production students. Rather than using sketches and models to help design the set for a theatrical production, they’re utilizing a custom-design augmented reality app to design their full-scale scenery, providing students with an immersive AR experience on an empty stage.

As you can see, augmented reality offers its own unique advantages for virtual learning in higher education.

The future of VR/AR in higher ed

Generally speaking, VR/AR is still in its infancy in higher education, but the potential of these immersive learning technologies has not gone unrecognized.

One 2018 study found that 28 percent of higher education institutions have engaged in some level of VR deployment, with only 18 percent having it fully deployed. It’s estimated that around 60 percent of all schools will adopt VR to create virtual learning experiences by 2021.

Looking forward, it is difficult to imagine a higher education landscape that does not include virtual reality and augmented reality.

Jonathan Kinsey

“Already, using the technology has reduced recidivism, increased learner achievement, stimulated engagement, and even boosted enrollments,” he adds.

It’s difficult to deny the benefits of implementing these technologies, but it’s not likely that they’ll become widely adopted overnight, according to Kinsey. The price tag alone of these expensive programs is enough to keep many institutions from fully embracing them, but there are other hurdles in place too.

“One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of familiarity among instructors,” Kinsey believes. “Vetting instruction techniques is something most collegiate faculty have deep experience, but it is understandable if working on the cutting edge of technology pulls many of them out of their comfort zone.”

He goes on to explain that until there is a large enough population to support an entire VR and AR ecosystem built with education in mind, the learning experiences will likely suffer.

“Implementing VR and AR is very difficult because there are no best practices, and no pedagogical guide has been established,” Kinsey adds. Even so, the fact that some institutions are pioneering these tactics and seeing impressive outcomes provides hope for future growth in these areas.

Embracing the immersive classroom

Education is constantly evolving, and technology has often been the driving force behind these improvements. When it comes to augmented and virtual reality in higher ed, we’re only scratching the surface of the exciting opportunities that are bound to come.

It is an exciting time for institutions and individuals willing to sharpen the cutting edge of what might eventually become a very powerful disruptor in higher education.

Jonathan Kinsey

Whether it’s adopting new immersive learning technologies or upgrading your campus IT security, it’s more important than ever for institutions to invest in their technology. Check out our blog for more of the hottest topics in higher education technology.

Let our experts help you embrace the power of technology on your campus.

Author: Kristina Ericksen

Kristina Ericksen is a content writer with four years of experience writing for higher education. She holds an English degree from Gustavus Adolphus College.