Apr 06 2022

How Can Immersive Learning Be Used in Hybrid Classrooms?

Extended reality is gaining traction in higher ed, but integrating this immersive technology within remote environments comes with challenges.

As the pandemic affected higher education and forced universities to think creatively about keeping students engaged from afar, immersive learning continued to gain traction as a virtual tool to bring previously inaccessible concepts, locations and objects directly to students using technology.

Immersive learning is a technique that applies the principles of extended reality to create experiential environments. An EDUCAUSE QuickPoll conducted in November 2021 indicated that while many respondents were either not currently adopting extended reality technologies (34 percent), were in early stages of adoption (16 percent) or had adopted for a few specific projects (39 percent), 90 percent believed that extended reality adoption will increase over the next five years. When asked about anticipated areas of future extended reality adoption, 50 percent said online/remote/HyFlex learning would be a specific focus.

As immersive learning technology continues to gain traction, it’s important to know what it is, the technology needed to use it, and its potential to impact remote and hybrid education models.

DISCOVER: How emerging technologies help HBCUs retain students.

What Is Immersive Learning in Higher Ed?

Immersive learning is a highly experiential method of learning that uses technology to improve learning experiences and promote active participation. Immersive learning combines virtual, augmented and mixed reality with simulation learning, which allows students to practice critical work skills in a controlled environment.

Virtual reality (VR) places students in simulated environments, allowing them to access places, objects and scenarios that extend beyond the classroom. Augmented reality places virtual images on top of the current environment. Mixed reality combines the two, putting students into a virtual environment that brings together elements of the real world with simulated images and scenarios integrated within the scene.

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Immersive learning uses all or some of these techniques in conjunction with simulation and education. Students are either able to complete a task within these worlds or learn new concepts by experiencing a new environment. This learning style allows students to experience situations and scenarios that may not be possible in a traditional classroom setting. Students can also interact with and learn from each other in the virtual environment.

Immersive learning is particularly useful in STEM classes. Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, Tenn., partnered with HTC VIVE and T-Mobile to create a virtual cadaver lab, which allows pre-med students to examine the intricate details of the human body with only a headset and a high-speed cellular connection. Within the virtual environment, students can operate on and explore the human body with more precision than even real cadavers could allow for.

The university had previously been unable to purchase real cadavers due to cost constraints, but the immersive experience delivers a comparable lesson without the maintenance.

What Technology Is Needed for Immersive Learning?

Two main technology components are required for immersive learning: a device and a strong connection.

For VR, head-mounted displays like the Oculus Quest 2 or the HTC VIVE Pro Eye help bring virtual environments to life. Eye tracking technology and immersive sound are key to putting students directly into the virtual simulations. These devices also use “six degrees of freedom” (6DoF) controllers that allow students to interact with the items within the simulations.

FIND OUT: How universities are reimagining teaching labs for a virtual future.

In the early days of augmented reality, users held mobile devices, using their cameras to place virtual images within the world in front of them. But augmented reality technology has evolved in recent years: New tech has emerged, like the Lenovo ThinkReality A3 smart glasses, eliminating the need for handheld devices. Instead of looking through a screen, users look through the lenses, where virtual images are overlayed on top of the world directly in front of them.

Beyond the physical devices that bring these realities to life, a strong connection is vital to enter and remain in these worlds. Extended reality technology is bandwidth-intensive, and any drop in connectivity will cause a lag that will take the student out of the immersive learning experience — and possibly end it altogether.

Universities that have adopted immersive learning programs often have labs dedicated to this learning style, which are properly equipped to support the demand. At Fisk, the 5G environment provides the low latency, high capacity and speed that the bandwidth-intensive VR application requires.

An infrastructure that combines 5G connectivity with edge computing can efficiently process the large amounts of data that immersive technology requires. By splitting rendering and processing workloads between the devices and the cloud, universities can achieve efficiencies that can support the high bandwidth demands of immersive technology.

MORE ON VIRTUAL REALITY: VR advances bring new possibilities to higher education.

How Immersive Learning Can Be Used in Hybrid Education

Equipment and connectivity constraints are the two biggest barriers to taking immersive learning to remote environments. Headsets can be expensive, so loaning them to students or having them purchase their own is not always feasible. And a student’s home or dorm connectivity may not be strong enough to support the demands of a virtual learning environment.

But it can be done. At Colorado State University, the Clapp Lab for biomedical sciences uses virtual and augmented reality to help students study neurology and anatomy. In March 2020, when in-person classes stopped, the lab purchased and shipped laptops and VR headsets to each student in the program to continue their learning from home.

If distributing headsets to students is not feasible or bandwidth requirements cannot be met from their remote locations, a hybrid model can be a good option for these immersive classes. Students can be expected to come to class in person to use the devices and complete other lessons and coursework remotely if necessary.

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Other universities are employing simulations that don’t require the use of equipment. Instead, 360-degree video and hyperrealistic web-based simulations can be an adequate substitute. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, students at the school’s Extended Reality Lab are designing VR tools to simulate airplane maintenance. Online, the university continues to enhance its virtual labs. The Virtual Aerial Robotics Lab and Virtual Crash Lab allow students to simulate flights and crashes through an immersive online platform.

At Case Western Reserve University, students use Microsoft HoloLens devices with a proprietary medical education program designed by the university to interact with 3D anatomical models. If students do not have access to the VR headsets, they can use the software on a computer for a similar experience.

As immersive learning techniques continue to gain traction, colleges and universities will have to think critically about how to bring them to students in a way that will help them get the most out of the technology. Providing the right devices and sufficient bandwidth and successfully integrating them into remote or hybrid learning environments can all help universities move forward with these emerging technologies.

LEARN MORE: Microsoft's "Metaverse" to transform online learning.

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