Dec 22 2022

Immersive Learning’s Future in Higher Education

Experiential technologies continue to gain momentum in higher education, transforming teaching, learning and research.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way higher education approaches educational technology, accelerating adoption of equipment and methods that previously had been slowly gaining traction. The use of immersive learning technology, like virtual, augmented and extended reality, is also on the rise. In an EdTech Twitter poll, 19 percent of respondents said immersive learning is most relevant to their 2023 technology plans.

In a presentation at the 2022 EDUCAUSE annual conference, a team from the University of California, Berkeley, examined immersive technology in higher education using a “futures thinking” framework.

“The futures thinking framework really provides a methodology for thinking about where we are and where we want to be in the future,” says Chris Hoffman, associate director of research IT at UC Berkeley. “It’s not about gazing into a crystal ball. It’s not about saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen in the future.’ It’s about looking at looking at the past, looking at trends, looking at things that are happening on the ground now, and then thinking through different scenarios very holistically.”

Hoffman notes that this framework considers the past to be everything before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic was a tipping point for educational technology, he says, and it shined a light on challenges and opportunities within the space.

“How do we support classrooms where we have students and instructors who want to have a physical space, and others who want to have an online space, and some who want both, depending on what their particular situation is?” Hoffman says.

Immersive Technology Applies to Teaching, Learning and Research

VR and AR technologies require the use of a device to place the user into a particular scenario. This visualization is at the core of immersive learning and can be used for two different but overlapping purposes, Hoffman says.

The first is presentation, which is the primary use in teaching and learning; for example, an instructor or student gives a talk on a particular subject with the help of VR or AR. The second type of visualization is exploration, Hoffman says. Immersive learning technologies enable students and researchers to not only watch and listen to materials but to experience and explore them up close for a better understanding.

“You can understand a molecule better by seeing it than by trying to look at the molecular formula for it,” Hoffman says. “If we look at these important issues — visualization as presentation and exploration — we can see the long history of those functions in higher education and how they’ve been affected by technology.”

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The use of this technology can extend beyond the sciences, Hoffman says. In the humanities, for example, users can study ancient texts or art in virtual environments for an immersive experience.

“People want to use visualizations both to present and to explore,” he says. “One of the neat things about the XR technologies is they tend to end up blending those different kinds of modalities, so we see researchers who are using XR technologies in their research, but they also are very much engaged in using that as a teaching tool and developing very experiential learning opportunities with their students.”

How Is Immersive Technology Being Used at UC Berkeley?

At UC Berkeley, faculty members are blending teaching, learning and research with XR technologies in a few different ways, Hoffman says.

One example is happening in architecture classes in the school’s College of Environmental Design. Traditionally, students would build models of a building or a space, and their peers would gather around and critique their work. In a remote environment, this is harder to do. Architecture professor Luisa Caldas developed an XR solution that lets students to create models in virtual environments and allows their peers to truly experience them.

“They developed a virtual environment that right now is computer-based, but it allows people to go remotely into a virtual model of their building,” he says. “They can then navigate through the building or go into a classroom, and then they go into their design studio and they can import their 3D models that they’ve developed into the virtual classroom.”

From there, the experience is similar to an in-person experience: Students gather around and look at each other’s models, but they can also go inside the models to for a deeper discussion. The next step for this technology is to move the experience into a VR headset with the same range of tasks that exist on the computer screen.

Elsewhere at UC Berkeley, associate professor of Egyptology Rita Lucarelli is using VR technology to study hieroglyphics. Thanks to a grant awarded before the pandemic, her team built a VR experience that takes the user through an immersive tour of Egyptian burial sites.

“You start above the landscape, looking down at the different burial sites,” Hoffman says. “Then, you can descend underground to one of these burial tombs and enter a crypt where you can actually see a sarcophagus. You can use your controller to see the hieroglyphics, and if you select a section of hieroglyphics, it will bring up the English translation.”

The team is working to obtain a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to further develop this technology. Plans include working with a team in Egypt to create 3D models of the walls, which also are covered in hieroglyphics.

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VR and AR Adoption in Higher Education Will Continue to Grow

What does the future look like for experiential technologies in higher education? Hoffman says the first step is to define what the future is. The futures framework defines the future as 10 years from now, as major changes can happen over the course of a decade, and it’s just far enough out to help researchers think outside the box when developing potential scenarios. There are four possible scenarios Hoffman and his team are using when considering the future of VR, AR and XR in higher education.

“The first one is very static,” Hoffman says, indicating that in this scenario, there won’t be much change. “There are too many obstacles to broad adoption. We’ll just continue to see what we’re seeing now. We’ve got some leading-edge people dabbling, but it doesn’t really go beyond that.”

The second and third scenarios predict incremental change: The second scenario involves low levels of disruption, and the third involves high disruption.

“We do see an increase in the use of XR technologies, but there’s still a lot of stabilizing effects,” Hoffman says. “Cost is still an issue. We need to pay attention to our students’ data and how it is used in this these systems.”

The fourth scenario predicts abrupt change — like another pandemic, for instance — that requires the widespread adoption of the technology quickly.

READ MORE: Muhsinah Morris is leading Morehouse College into the metaverse.

Which scenario does Hoffman think is most likely?

“I’m an in-the-middle-of-the-road person,” he says. “I think it’s going to be kind of an incremental change, but I’m optimistic also. I think there will be some real disruption in higher education. That’s what I hope happens.”

Still, health, safety and accessibility should be addressed before immersive technologies become a requirement in the classroom and beyond.

“We want to make sure that people are using them in a safe environment,” Hoffman says. “Accessibility is a huge issue. We need to make sure that people who have visual or auditory impairments or different ranges of abilities can leverage these experiences for their education or research goals, so that we’re not leaving people out. Also, the technology is still expensive, it is still specialized, so we don’t we don’t want to leave people out.”

Security and privacy are also concerns, he says.

“We need to focus on issues with these technologies related to personal privacy and the huge amounts of data that can be gathered by a VR headset,” Hoffman says. “Consider the number of cameras that are capturing visuals of our body, of the spaces that we’re in. Different groups are trying to develop the first security policies for these kinds of devices and technologies. Those are going to help to slow the broad adoption in higher education contexts.”

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