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Learning in 3D: How virtual reality is changing higher education

Virtual reality is taking off in higher education institutions around the world, and that comes as no surprise to anyone who knows how it impacts learning.

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In 1989 film Back to the Future II, set in an imagined California of 2015, virtual reality (VR) headsets are as common as our smartphones. Protagonist Marty McFly, seen in the first Back to the Future traveling to the 1950s and nearly erasing his existence, in the future finds his teenage offspring glued to their VR headsets.

Beyond the real year 2015, VR is yet to become a fixture in our lives. But it’s fast-growing – a study by Artillery Intelligence predicted VR will reach 25 percent of US internet users by 2023. Global shipments of VR and augmented reality (AR) headsets are set to reach 43.5 million by 2025 – a 690 percent growth on 2020 numbers.

Part of this growth may be in VR’s potential to change how future generations study, with immersive experiences giving learners a deeper understanding of their topic. “The limits are near endless. History teachers take students to the battleground and recreate battles. Instructors give virtual tours of museums, and students create 3D models of bridges and buildings, then stress-test them with weather effects,” says Jonathan Kinsey, Senior Instructional Designer at Collegis Education, a higher education technology services provider. “It’s an excellent tool for applying knowledge,” he adds.

Gur Windmiller, Astronomy instructor at the San Diego University, says, “I think VR can be used wherever content lends itself to the combination of immersion, interactivity and 3D spatial geometry. With enough funding, I can see many subjects benefitting from VR.”

Steven King, professor at University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, built a 3D virtual version of his classroom, letting students walk about, talk to each other and form groups.

“I feel like I’m engaging in class — a community aspect I would not have gotten from Zoom,” said one of King’s students in university news, The Daily Tar Heel.

3D visualizing in medical sciences

Teaching anatomy and neurology involves translating a mass of complex, three-dimensional data into two-dimensional images for learning. Tod Clapp, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, says, “We got into VR because we wanted to find something that could solve the problem of students trying to translate two-dimensional images into three dimensions.”

Colorado State University built the world’s first large-scale VR lab – 2,500 square feet equipped with 100 computers and VR headsets. Anatomy students can work in ‘pods’ of four, interacting with each other in the VR environment.

“Students reported the course to be as engaging, or more engaging, than a face-to-face course,” continues Clapp.

Students reported feeling like they were getting a one-on-one lesson. VR classes let instructors ‘hide’ and ‘unhide’ students, so when students ask a question, they see just themselves and the instructor, which feels more direct and personal.

Since Colorado State University was pioneering the use of VR on this scale in education, most course content had to be developed in-house – a huge undertaking, but one Clapp considers worth the effort. “In materials science data, we’ve had some collaborators looking at the way atoms align in metals. That’s been exciting because when I look at it in three dimensions and collaborate with colleagues in three dimensions, it’s intuitive.”

It’s how the data exists in natural form. Even if it’s our phone, a coffee cup or whatever, we interact with data in three dimensions. In VR, it’s more intuitive for a learner.

Tod Clapp, Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University

Traveling back in time with VR

History buffs may have wondered what it was like to be a gladiator in Rome’s Colosseum in 80 AD. Or to have roamed Pompeii’s streets in 79 AD, seeing monuments, frescoes and public baths. Or when the Great Pyramid at Giza was built during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu in 2500 BC. With VR, history students can explore ancient civilizations almost as if they were there.

In 2018, for the first time, anthropology students from Harvard University in the US and Zhejiang University, China “traveled” to the Giza Plateau and studied the tombs and Sphinx from their respective VR-equipped classrooms. About 7,000 miles away from each other, the two student groups worked together as avatars examining tombs and studying Egyptian hieroglyphs.

More recently, apps like KingTut VR, Timelooper, and Trench Experience VR let students visit King Tutankhamun’s tomb, experience World War II and virtually time travel around the world, all from a VR headset. Meanwhile, portals like ClassVR bring VR history curriculums to the classroom, letting students visit Stonehenge, the tomb of Ramesses VI or the Acropolis of Athens. News publishers like The New York Times and BBC have also released impressive VR learning experiences.

Medical emergency practice without risk

Nurses need to make fast decisions about patient care in high-stakes, stressful situations. Trainers have previously relied on ‘manikins’ – life-sized models – to demonstrate and let students practice. There’s no scope for controlled crisis scenarios where student nurses can practice thinking on their feet. VR can bridge this gap.

In 2019, West Carolina University’s School of Nursing conducted a trial VR simulation. Participants were introduced to a virtual environment where a patient had experienced a severe allergic reaction. The virtual patient, whom a cat had bitten, was given an antibiotic which led to the patient going into anaphylactic shock. The participants had to deal with the emergency while the patient’s condition worsened rapidly.

Patricia Rade, a senior nursing major, told the university news, “It felt like I was at the scene and dealing with an actual emergency. It was a great experience. I had to use my knowledge and critical thinking skills to prioritize the best action.”

As well as simulating scenarios that would be hard to replicate, VR can reduce training costs that in some countries fall on students. Jonathan Kinsey of Collegis Education says, “Nurses probably need more tools than anyone – tools that need to be bought every time. VR gives us the chance to say, “Wait, let’s replace this recurring expense with an up-front cost and never worry about it again.””

More engaging, hands-on learning

Students must often grapple with a flat and uninspired form of learning with online learning: Staring at a screen. But virtual classrooms can be more engaging, allowing better retention than even face-to-face classrooms. Students can interact with each other using avatars, look closer at what they’re learning about and be physically involved in the subject.

Windmiller says, “There is no question in my mind that VR is extremely engaging, especially being novel and different from anything else the students are doing.”

Clapp agrees, saying, “We see each other’s avatars, and you reflexively turn to that person when you’re talking to them. So, for us, VR has proven valuable for working and looking at three-dimensional data, and it’s also highly engaging.”

A 2020 study showed how efficient VR learning can be, with a 75 percent retention rate over 5 and 10 percent respectively for lectures and reading. The only form of learning that beat VR was teaching others, with a retention rate of 90 percent.

Another study in a Beijing classroom compared VR with traditional methods and reported students taught using VR scored 27 to 32 percent higher in tests.

As with any connected technology, VR has its share of privacy and cybersecurity concerns. It may store sensitive personal data and is vulnerable to data breach and ‘deep fakes – artificial video footage that closely mimics how a real person acts and sounds. Anyone investing in VR should learn about reducing cybersecurity and privacy risk and follow security steps like encrypting sensitive data and keeping firmware up to date.

VR has much to offer in education, improving engagement, information retention and facilitating hard-to-replicate experiences, from high-pressure situations they’d face on a job or traveling back in time to see historical events play out. Although its adoption is far from widespread, headsets are selling fast, and big players are entering the market for developing VR learning experiences. With privacy and security at the forefront of our minds, VR could open new levels of skill, competence and opportunity for the next generation.

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About authors

Aishwarya Jagani is a freelance tech writer based in India. She writes on cybersecurity, science and the human impact of technology.