It’s no secret that higher education is forever changed due to the Covid-19 lockdowns. Studies have shown that 97% of students enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in 2020 shifted to online learning, which forced academic institutions to enable remote learning at a pace that would never have happened otherwise. Now that students have experienced remote learning, with benefits like not having to move across the country or drive back and forth to the classroom, many will choose this path moving into the future. Institutions have also experienced a huge reduction in the overhead required to deliver training, and it’s only logical to think that many will continue in this way to meet the demands of remote-seeking students and optimize their financial margins.

Along with the benefits of remote learning come quite a few challenges that must be considered. Students feel disconnected from their professors and peers, they feel like they don’t have a chance to get interactive instruction and they feel like they are being fed more busy work than at any other time in their learning career. One student said “I am less than satisfied with my current learning situation as professors are using COVID to assign more work with less payoff, as online learning is less interactive than regular in-session courses. [The situation] would be improved if professors would assign homework that is interactive and meaningful and reflects the lecture rather than just plainly assigning homework assignments for points.” If we are going to continue on this path of remote learning, we need to leverage the latest tools and technology to make it as effective and enjoyable as possible. This is where I believe virtual reality will play a large role in the future.

In general we can label online learning in two broad categories, on one hand we have fully asynchronous content, where students can go through a course entirely at their own pace, with no live lectures or sessions with their professor or peers. On the other, we have fully live courses, which model the experience of a live classroom, with students meeting on a regular basis to watch lectures, engage in group work, and go about learning as if they were together. Of course there are many programs that provide a blend of live and asynchronous content, and based on recent research , “Students prefer pre-recorded video lectures to live ZOOM lectures; 53.8% chose pre-recorded video lectures, 7.7% chose live ZOOM lectures, and 30.8% chose both pre-recorded and ZOOM lectures when they were asked to select their preferred method of learning. The results of this research showed that pre-recorded video lectures are preferred to live ZOOM lectures due to their flexibility, convenience, and educational effectiveness.” I mean, you tell me, does this scene below look like an engaging experience?

Source: Inside HigherEd

As we look into the future, we need to find ways to solve these problems while keeping the benefits. Among its many strengths, virtual reality offers students and professors the ability to feel like they are together in the same space. Through this shared virtual presence, students can easily collaborate and leverage the power of the spatial computing medium to have animated floating 3D models, teleport to different environments, and have a hands-on immersive learning experience that wouldn’t be possible in a physical classroom. Virtual worlds can also provide embodied tutoring systems that leverage the immense data generated by the student as they interact with the content, and update the experience in real-time to enhance the efficacy of the learning. At Axon Park, we are working on an Adaptive Cognitive Load Balancing System (ACLBS) to adapt the training in real-time based on the cognitive load of the user. Given what we saw in the above mentioned research, with students being more interested in asynchronous digital learning, this is an exciting new opportunity for educators who have a passion for supporting this type of learning. Also with all the distractions on our phones and computers, being fully immersed in a virtual classroom can provide a focused space that is free from many common distractions.

Source: Oculus

All of this presents a unique and exciting opportunity for educational institutions who have the foresight to leverage these tools to enhance the remote learning experience of their students. There are some new models that are working for education institutions which can serve as the foundation for future remote educational structures.

Fully in-VR courses are likely to be common in the future, but given the limitations with hardware performance, display quality and overall comfort, this is not the path we would recommend for all students at the moment. Rather, VR should be used as a supplement to existing online learning modalities, to fill the gaps where flatscreen learning just won’t cut it.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re looking in on a VR enabled biology course. In this particular case, the course features live lectures in which students are expected to be on Zoom together. Perhaps in this scenario, the students go through content live together for 20 min, then once the Zoom lecture is finished, the instructor guides everyone to grab their VR headset, which could easily just be sitting on the desk next to them, then launch the Axon Park app and teleport to the biology section of the virtual campus.

Source: WisdomVR

From here, the students will get a 1-on-1 lesson from Axon, the AI tutor, at a molecular scale as they learn about the nuances of certain biological processes. After the 20 min AI-guided immersive experience, the students teleport to the course’s “main hub” space in the virtual campus where they can now see and hear each other live in their avatars. Breaking off into small groups, they move around the Hub space together looking at 3D models, interacting hands-on with the content, all while having thoughtful discussion. At the end of the session, they remove the VR headset and return to Zoom for the closure of the lecture (or just wrap the lesson after the VR discussion). The user experience for this is quite simple, just putting on and taking off a VR headset. By making this addition, students get so much more from the learning experience, being able to get hands-on with learning content while feeling like they are together, having a memorable experience that wouldn’t be possible on a flat screen. Learning in VR can be especially useful if the students are trying to learn a physical process. For example with nursing, how to perform certain procedures or conduct a patient assessment. On top of this, the virtual environment provides a powerful framework for conducting assessments of knowledge and skill. If a learner can correctly perform a procedure or sequence in a virtual hospital setting, it’s much more likely that they will be able to do the same in a real hospital setting.

As I am discussing this structure with education groups, the cost of hardware seemingly always comes up. Given what these students are currently paying for tuition, the cost of adding a headset is negligible. For example, if you buy an Oculus Quest 2 headset for each student, you’d be looking at $299 per learner. Spread over the course of two years, that would only cost $12.45 per month, or $6.23 per month over four years. This could also be a marketing perk to attract students to a specific program and a significant differentiator in what has become an ultra-competitive market.

One of the biggest challenges for academic institutions will be creating, or getting access to, the right type of high-quality VR learning content. Much like the early days of the internet and computers, creating content and programming can be quite time consuming and expensive, which is why if you are going to make an investment into building VR content, you need to know that it’s going to come out being high-quality, effective and scalable to as many students as possible. As an example, when looking at some of these fully-online Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs which cost $20K, just getting 100 new students into a program could generate $2 million in revenue. If the virtual content was designed to be asynchronous, which is what users claim to prefer, and guided by an AI instructor, it would have the potential to scale to thousands of students, while still delivering the same level of quality and consistency. This is a huge opportunity for forward looking institutions who want to be a leader in the future of online education.

The first step is to clarify which courses would benefit most from being supplemented with VR. Once this is done, you can then identify which specific parts of the curriculum would be most effective to build virtually. Again, the best path at this stage of the industry is likely not 100% in VR, but rather a blend of traditional learning methods, supplemented by the power of immersive learning. At Axon Park, this is our purpose and core focus, bringing the future of learning to the present and empowering as many students as we can along the way. If you’re interested to explore what it would take to bring one of your programs into VR, please get in touch and one of our VR education experts will be happy to explore potential opportunities with you.