Frisbee in the quad. Sunny days in the grass, textbooks spread across laps. Clusters of young minds eagerly gathered around professors. These are the images of the college experience ingrained in our collective memory. These are the gilded snapshots Hollywood paints of collegiate life.

But what they don’t show are the adult students putting their babies to bed and staying up late studying at the kitchen table. They don’t show the frustrated thirty-something whose career has plateaued. They don’t show the empty-nester, ready to start fresh in a new career.

These are the new faces of the college experience. This is the horizon of the higher education landscape. Gone is our understanding of the “traditional” student — this is the new normal.

To revive the human element, it’s time for colleges to embrace the next generation of digital learning.

By 2021 students aged 25 and older are projected to comprise43 percent of the college population — and these students will need increasingly flexible options to fit their busy lives. But the current technology just isn’t cutting it for distance and adult learners. Looking ahead, two emerging technologies in education — virtual reality and affective computing — will entirely transform the higher ed landscape as we know it. And whether or not we realize, its evolution is accelerating.

The problem: Adult learners have too many barriers

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns in the world of digital learning. While distance learning, competency-based education (CBE) and other customizable options have opened the doors to higher education for many nontraditional students, the humanistic elements of the student experience have flatlined. The soul of online education is gone. To revive the human element, it’s time for colleges to embrace the next generation of digital learning.

Alienation has always been an issue for adult students in higher education. Students have a hard time engaging. Forum chats aren’t effective. Technology in our online classrooms simply isn’t cutting it — screens serve as yet another barrier in their student experience. How many more students can colleges afford to lose due to disconnection and lack of engagement? These issues aren’t new — we’ve been facing them for years.

But we’re now in an age where technology is catching up to the problem. Distance learning needs not be so distant and disconnected. After all, every student deserves a personalized, campus-like experience — even if they’re sitting at their kitchen table.

But we’re now in an age where technology is catching up to the problem.

Lucky for us, two technologies in education are on the cusp of transforming the student experience as we know it. And we’re only a few short years from this technological evolution having drastic impacts on academic delivery.

Dismantling barriers for adult learners

First there were online classes. Then there were MOOCs. Then came competency-based education, and with it a plethora of learn-at-your-own-pace options that cascaded through higher ed. But advancements on the horizon show promising potential to transform the higher ed landscape forever.

Two technologies — affective computing and virtual reality — are at the heart of this evolution. Together, these powerhouses can break the barriers so often encountered by adult learners and take the portfolio of education options to the next level.

But first — what is affective computing?

Affective computing is computing that relates to, arises from, or deliberately influences emotion or other affective phenomena. Put simply, it’s the ability for computers to recognize a range of human emotions based on facial expressions and other body indicators.

Many companies are already investing billions into leveraging this technology. Affectiva is the leading company in facial-expression analysis—and has customers ranging from BBC to Disney. Toyota is investing in in-car emotion sensors to better understand and assist drivers. Advertisers use affective computing to test commercials with live audiences. Intel is already leaning on such methods to help personalize the learning experience.

In the world of higher ed, we already track the search behaviors and purchasing habits of prospects and students. But imagine the potential of having access to data derived from reading 45 facial muscles, vocal inflection and other bodily indicators for each individual. Using passive sensors, computer webcams, microphones and algorithms, this technology isn’t just possible — it’s already happening. And when paired with virtual reality, the possibilities for higher ed application are simply endless.

What is virtual reality?

You may be familiar with virtual reality (VR) from the movies — after all, it’s almost like something out of a sci-fi movie. VR is a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment that viewers can interact with in a lifelike way via electronic equipment, like headsets or special gloves. Its potential for application is limitless.

VR has been implemented in therapy sessions for patients that prefer the flexibility and accessibility it offers. Firefighters use VR to see individuals trapped in fires. And VR is already being utilized for a few lucky medical students. The intricacies of the human body come to life when displayed in a 3D manner, allowing students to envision the body’s layers in a life-size and realistic simulation.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of VR is that, unlike so many other technologies in education, it breaks barriers rather than build them. With VR, screens no longer divide students from their online classrooms, professors and fellow students. VR allows students to immerse themselves in a rich learning environment — one that nurtures authentic interactions, academic engagement and, above all, better learning.

How affective computing and virtual reality will transform the student experience

The untapped potential of emotional data opens worlds of possibilities. Colleges can scan facial indicators of website visitors to observe the effectiveness of user experience. They can use insights from emotional search data to better assess a searcher’s intent, and thus better meet the searcher’s needs. They can track emotions as students go through the application process — seeing where frustration and confusion arise along the way.

Professors teaching online courses can receive real-time feedback on whether their lectures are keeping students engaged or are boring the class. Affective computing can help advisors recognize stressed or overwhelmed students at risk of dropping out.

Virtual reality can elevate higher education

Virtual reality, too, will transform the landscape far beyond just an immersive VR college campus tour. VR fosters more authentic, engaging interactions between students and their course work. Most importantly, VR breaks the barriers so often encountered by distance learners, who represent the new face of the collegiate student body.

Imagine participating in virtual field trips or simulated labs — but from your couch at home. Learning no longer needs to be lecture-based; instead, VR can create virtual, hands-on experiences that repackage traditional learning methods into lifelike simulations.

VR breaks the barriers so often encountered by distance learners, who represent the new face of the collegiate student body.

Tutoring services infused with affective computing and artificial intelligence then brought to life with VR can meet the growing needs of an evolving student body that demands a real-time, convenient and personalized academic experience. Implementing these technologies can help make education more accessible, and potentially even more affordable.

Serve your future students

We’re only scratching the surface of how affective computing and virtual reality can transform the student experience for adult learners. But the sheer breadth of potential for these emerging technologies can no longer be ignored.

If you’re taking away one truth, let it be this: The future of higher ed is adult learners — and this new student body needs accommodating, convenient and engaging options to ensure their success. The current technology in education isn’t cutting it — and colleges that ignore this chasm are letting their students’ best interests fall to the wayside.

Ask yourself  — can your college afford that?