Extended reality has enormous implications for higher education, but the challenge lies in ensuring these technologies are both evenly distributed and used appropriately for teaching and learning.
Extended reality–including augmented and virtual reality–is becoming more widespread, offering not only high-end expensive options, but increasingly affordable and accessible options via smartphones. And as extended reality becomes more accessible, its ability to impact teaching and learning becomes more real.
EDUCAUSE and HP collaborated on the Campus of the Future: 3D Technologies in Academe project, which focuses on a subset of extended-reality technologies, namely virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D scanning, and 3D printing. The project involves 11 institutions and is intended to identify innovative ways these 3D technologies are used, how they are impacting learning, and what lessons can be extrapolated for future use.
The project found that 3D technologies can support a number of learning goals across many disciplines. In particular, two findings stand out:
1. 3D technologies enable active and experiential learning
2. 3D technologies promote shared experiences and collaboration
HP provided the hardware and EDUCAUSE led the research and evaluations. Participating institutions already had 3D technology initiatives and were not intended to be representative of the state of higher ed. Those schools that did participate were expected to use the technology to explore how 3D technologies fit into the classroom and research projects, and how the technologies were used by both students and faculty.
Of course, every cutting-edge technology initiative is not without its hurdles, and the project did have its share.
1. Technical difficulties include hardware problems, such as the need for a particular hardware adaptor, and software problems, such as the need to update software drivers.
2. The technology learning curve also presents a challenge, and early adopters and innovators on campus might be able to lend a hand and help in this area.
3. Integrating new technology into teaching and learning is another hurdle. As author Jeffrey Pomerantz notes, “Learning how to use new technology is one thing; figuring out whether that technology is appropriate for one’s teaching, and if so how to integrate it into one’s courses, is something else entirely.”
The pedagogical uses of these 3D technologies are numerous, as participating schools found:
- Modeling the real, or recreating real world object in virtual environments, such as recreating historical sites.
- X-ray vision, such as peeling away surfaces of historical buildings to observe layers constructed over the course of history, or manipulating objects in ways beyond what is possible in the real world, such as in medicine.
- Dissection simulations, in which virtual reality is used to simulate the dissection and an augmented reality overlay makes it clear what everyone is looking at, leading to better understanding and engagement.
- Working with very small and very large objects, such as a virtual-reality model enabling the visualization and manipulation of atoms, cells, and enzymes.
- Design, such as visual arts and creating shapes or using materials that are difficult or too expensive to work with in the physical world.
- Collaboration, such as using virtual and augmented reality environments for the collaborative manipulation of digital models.
- Community outreach, such as using 3D technologies to foster STEAM interest among K-12 students.
As detailed in the report, the pedagogical implications are encouraging. But the future of 3D technologies in higher education will depend on their integration into these institutions.
When it comes to the organizational structure of higher-ed institutions as it relates to extended reality, the project’s recommendations include:
1. Provide adequate time and resources for setting up 3D technology
2. Provide adequate time for faculty to adopt 3D technology
3. Provide adequate resources to faculty during their adoption of 3D technology
4. Allocate a budget to 3D technology initiatives
5. Consider new staffing models for providing support
6. Develop mechanisms for campus IT and instructional design staff to collaborate
7. Hire or train developers and designers
8. Hire a project manager
9. House 3D technology in public spaces
10. Work toward integrating 3D technology into institutional operations
Concerning the development and implemenation of 3D technology:
1. Develop policies for the campus community around 3D technology
2. Provide support to the campus community for 3D technology
3. Provide differentiated levels of support for different use cases
4. Provide support for 360-degree video
5. Provide support for 3D modeling tools
6. Develop curricula for training sessions and workshops, and standards for support of 3D technology
7. Integrate 3D technology into the curricula of academic programs
8. Encourage community building and word of mouth
9. Deploy easy-to-use platforms for instructors who want to develop 3D models and simulations
The 3D technologies examined in the project do hold much promise for teaching and learning, but broader research is needed to determine which educational activities are best suited to extended reality technology, and which extended reality technologies are most effective for specific learning goals.
These needs call for research and teaching to work better together, and for these technologies to become more evenly distributed.