The field of XR (extended reality) technology has become one of the fastest-growing industries in the world with countless use cases to benefit many fields of work. XR tech has been around for decades, with prominent companies like Sony, Microsoft, Apple, and Google making major headway in virtual reality development. Even areas like education had software developed to help bridge the gap between teacher and student, but it took a global pandemic for extended reality to really make its way into education as a standard tool. Now developers and schools alike are realizing the truth- that XR technology is transforming higher education.
What is XR Technology
Extended reality is an umbrella term for technology that uses digital products to enhance our physical world. XR encompasses both augmented realty (AR) and virtual reality (VR), as well as a combination of the two called mixed reality (MR). Augmented and virtual reality differ by one very simple little fact- augmented reality projects digital content onto a physical space, supplementing it with text, image, audio, and visual information, and virtual reality takes a person and instead of supplementing the physical world, it completely immerses the user in a digital environment. Both use sensory technology and a display device, but augmented reality uses things like a smart phone for its display features, and virtual reality is dependent upon a headset of some sort to work. Augmented reality is also far more mobile and virtual reality more stationary.
How XR Technology has Transformed Education
With that simple description, it's easy to see how XR technology is transforming higher education. With the massively immersive qualities of virtual and augmented reality, students have the opportunity to learn faster, retain more information, and take hold of their educational pathway in ways like never before.
Here are a few areas that have already shown improvements in how students interact with their own learning journey.
- Standard education practices working with memorization of information, rather than the method of teaching how to learn. For instance, in kindergarten students are given their ABCs and expected to memorize the character, its sound, and specific words that begin with that letter. As they move on, the practice of spelling and sounding out words becomes more intuitive, but it starts out with memorization. The same holds true for mathematics and science, as well as history. For a long time, education has been about the memorization of facts. Those who truly succeed in their field don't simply memorize, they internalize. They take the information and apply it actively in order to achieve true understanding of a subject. Virtual and augmented reality supply this type of internalization by creating a more immersive learning environment, giving the students interactive material to better understand the supplied information.
- Fields like welding, construction, and electrical work depend on practical application from the get-go. While there can be book work, apprentices earn their education through on-the-job training. Hazardous work environments, however, are made even riskier via students who don't know how to properly work dangerous machinery. While there are already systems in place to mitigate these issues, adding virtual and augmented reality to these systems would improve performance and lessen risk potential. Virtual and augmented reality allow students to have practical experience before using the tools of their trade.
- Undergraduate and graduate students have limited time to learn, even though that is the sole purpose of receiving a higher education. Between time spent in class, studying outside of class, and jobs simply to sustain their way of life, there is very little time with which to actually understand their field of study in a healthy way. Virtual reality not only helps students learn faster, it helps them retain information and, like previously stated, helps them internalize and understand the things they're learning. While the education aspect is very important, so is the health of the student. Enabling the use of virtual reality in the education system gives them the opportunity to learn better and eliminate a large amount of stress from a sever lack of time, which in turn equals a better education.
How Virtual Reality Affects Different Fields of Study
Extended reality isn't just about technology. For those who work in the field, it may be, but for those who use it for study it can be so much more.
There are so many applications for virtual reality in medical school. Students can view 3D models of the human anatomy, practice standard medical procedures in simulations, and study textbook materials with more interaction, allowing them to retain more information and learn with greater intention.
Technology and fine arts don't seem like they would go together, but virtual and augmented reality would allow more immersion in art schools. It would enable students to study major historical pieces without extensive fieldtrips for one thing. Art takes time and planning, something that most people don't realize. Oftentimes, artists will plan out a piece on less expensive materials before moving on to the final construction. Using virtual reality would allow them to design a piece without wasting costly materials.
There are many benefits to virtual reality in fields such as anthropology. Anthropology is the study of the development of human societies and culture. Virtual reality would grant students access to dig sites that hold a vast wealth of information regarding what humans were like hundreds, thousands, and millions of years ago. Those who discover new sites can create VR experiences showing what it was like to live so many years ago.
How Can We Make AR and VR in Higher Education a Reality?
There are certain barriers that prevent XR from fully being implemented into the educational sphere. The initial expense of VR is steep. AR not so much because most students already have a device equipped for augmented reality. Virtual reality, however, requires expensive headsets and processors capable of managing a VR experience. There is a cost to it, so expecting every individual to supply their own headsets is tricky. Funding from private doners and public accounts are slim. Part of this is because the benefits of virtual reality in education are not widely known.
Even though XR is not a new technology, its notoriety in gaming and entertainment has created a specific image of what it should be used for, but studies are regularly being conducted on the benefits of XR for education and changing the image we've been given.
Ultimately, it comes down to time. XR will take time in a similar way that supplying computers for schools took time. Computers began as a large industrial tool, and eventually ended up as a small device we put in our backpacks. They started in computer labs, where the entire student body used a small number of computers with which to work. Now public schools have PCs for every student to use. The cost of laptops went down, and so instead of a set of computers for the whole school, each student got one of their own. Virtual and augmented reality will follow a similar pattern.
It seems like a very passive thing, waiting for time to do the work. Make no mistake. Every day, virtual reality developers are working tirelessly to create the best software to create more immersive educational experiences that will allow students a deeper understanding of their subject matter. Every day, knowledgeable teachers advocate for the use of virtual reality technology in schools. Every day, administrators hear the desire for more immersive experiences, and understand its benefits. Time is a small measure of the battle it will take to get VR into mainstream education. The rest is up to us.