Can higher education make the changes to pave the way for a polytechnic education experience where technology empowers student learning?

Immersive tech, AI, and polytechnic education at scale


Can higher ed make the changes to pave the way for a future where technology empowers student learning?

Key points:

Institutions of higher education, long viewed as the enablers of social mobility, are facing significant erosion of public confidence. Increasing concerns are being voiced about the value of a degree and the viability of current models of higher education that still largely follow the structures, priorities, and constraints of past centuries, rather than evolving to meet current needs and those of the future.

The rapid and accelerating changes in skills needed to succeed in the workforce have further highlighted the perceived, and real, disconnect between academic knowledge and workforce skills–and the lack of integration between disciplinary and humanistic knowledge. Of special concern is the large number of business leaders who increasingly believe that recent graduates are ill-prepared in aspects such as work-ethic, communications, and technological skills[1] [2] .

The current situation should catalyze increased interest in modalities that focus on active learning, with the acquisition of competencies through modalities of inquiry and discovery through experiences that ensure a true integration of advanced academic knowledge and workforce skills, all of which are characteristic of Polytechnic models of education.

The Polytechnic approach can be traced to the establishment of institutions such as the Braunschweig University of Technology in 1745, Ecole Polytechnique in 1794, Rensselaer Polytechnic and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 1824, and the Technical University of Denmark in 1829, each of which placed emphasis on experiential learning and a focus on technology without losing the critical aspects of humanistic (soft) skills.

While the value and effectiveness of such institutions is often extolled, an increase in the number of such institutions, as well as the number of students/learners served, has been limited by issues of resource constraints, faculty expertise, ability to replicate complex and realistic workforce scenarios, and technical details of industrial environments with authenticity in a traditional classroom/laboratory setting. A further set of challenges relates to assuring that the use of the “learn-by-doing” modality does not reduce academic education to a purely vocational level, ensuring continuous updating of curricula and equipment, and instructor expertise, to match advances in technological tools and platforms, as well as the need to engage in a deep and meaningful way with industry, which is often difficult due to constraints of geographic location.

However, advances in digital and immersive technologies, as well as AI, have perhaps provided now an opportunity to revisit and re-envision the use of these highly successful models. This does not, in any way, imply that the model of 1-on-1 engagement and in working with one’s hands in a face-to-face modality should be replaced, but rather that the advances provide the ability for adaptation of the polytechnic model to dramatically increase the number of learners and provide an effective path of meeting changing needs in the workforce.

1. Experiential learning

AR/ VR/ XR and AI can enable learners to gain from active learning over a range of levels, from simple simulations to the replication of complex interactive real-world environments. Already used extensively in the training of healthcare professionals to replicate real-life situations that might otherwise not be experienced by students, these technologies have tremendous potential in engineering and technology education. Consider, for example, aerospace engineers replicating not just the experience of taking apart and rebuilding a jet engine, but also experimenting with “what-if” scenarios, learning about the intricacies of compression pressure ratios and turbine inlet temperature through actual immersive scenarios, rather than through 1-D equations that at times make it difficult for learners to associate cause and effect and to build hypotheses for alternatives.

In another use, nuclear engineers would be able to visualize effects of changing operational, functional, and material parameters and even experience nuclear criticality and how to attain re-criticality, while experiencing the stresses of decision making under pressure in “real-world” simulations. Similarly, civil engineers could see the effects of their design choices on the integrity and overall performance of complex structural systems, visualizing and experiencing the interaction of various design parameters on the response at component, structural, and systems (including that of a city or region) levels of extreme events such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and snowstorms. While a limited number of students may be fortunate to view experiments near, or at, full scale in specialized facilities (such as Oregon State University’s Hinsdale Wave Research Lab that can simulate tsunamis, or UCSD’s outdoor 6-DOF shake table that can reproduce realistic earthquake ground motions for the testing of full-scale structures), most will not have such opportunities and for all a realistic “what-if” experience through multiple scenarios will be cost-prohibitive, thus reverting their knowledge to primarily text-book type single dimensional experiences.

In addition, experiential learning can now include team-based scenarios, including those necessitating development of real time communication and decision-making skills, as well as being able to learn about critical aspects including social context, ethics, and responsibility side by side with learning through virtual immersion rather than through abstract constructs associated with guidelines and design codes. Further, students could have the ability to view past designs through the eyes of their inventors and designers learning by following developments and understanding context.

All of these have the power of breaking down the barriers of traditional learning, enabling far greater reliance on the process of discovery and inquiry, ensuring practice and training in true scenarios including hazardous conditions without the limitations of physical resources and risks. Learners could also have access, through immersive/digital technologies, to experts on a global basis as well as physical scenarios and training that might have previously been restricted to only the very few who were geographically close to the location of interest. Experiential learning from the laboratory to the design desk, and even internships, takes on an entirely new meaning and impact, opening these not just to a few but to significantly larger numbers of learners, unconstrained by previous confines of space and location, enabling “learning-by-doing” in true polytechnic fashion through the answering of questions and challenging of concepts and hypotheses, rather than by rote learning.

2. Personalized Engagement

A major advantage of the polytechnic mode is the ability for a student to learn directly from the expert in a 1-on-1 mode or in a small group. AIbased platforms can now make this available to a far greater number with the added advantage of adaptive learning that accounts for, and adapts to, prior experience, or lack thereof, in building on strengths rather than deficits. They can also enable the incorporation of individualized tutoring 24/7, with the potential of platforms serving as sounding boards to better structure and form arguments as well as provide contextual learning opportunities by simulating discussions. Consider the power of engaging with an AI-enabled virtual Jack Kilby or Robert Noyce in a discussion about microchips and the initiation of the semiconductor revolution, or Werner von Braun as related to rocket design and space travel, or John Roebling about the challenges of bridge design. In a similar vein, in conjunction with XR/VR, learners could be transported into a range of historical situations including disasters, not just to learn through immersion but also to think critically and view the events through their own eyes. The use of technology in such contexts could catalyze critical thinking and analysis at levels heretofore not possible at scale. 

In addition, this level of personalized engagement furthers the polytechnic advantage of enabling each learner to build specialized expertise and skills. This approach also makes it possible, through moderated use of AI, for rapid curation and updating of courses, adding new materials as they become relevant to the future of the workforce decreasing the effects of information obsolescence that plagues many programs today. The ability to meld and match different experts, and levels of expertise, into a student’s learning journey through immersion integrated with personalization opens avenues heretofore unimaginable in the integration of advanced academic knowledge and workforce skills. Such a level of attention to the individual learner and future employee would rarely be possible today even at the best institutions. The appropriate use of technology could make it available to thousands without loss in rigor and effectiveness. In addition, this could enable different paths to be designed, selected, and followed by learners moving away from the one-size-fits-all modality, thereby also ensuring the ability to constantly stay relevant through a fluid and agile, modularized, and nonlinear learning curriculum that is constantly updated. Personalized engagement thus ensures paths of learning that are designed for the individual and chosen career path, maximizing both the development of skills and preparation for a rapidly changing workforce, serving as the means of ensuring continued relevance of the learner.

3. Competency-Based Learning and Qualification

In the apprentice model used in guilds in the 18th and 19th centuries, qualification for a skill-based career was earned through an internship, completion of which guaranteed the competency. Polytechnic education models build on this through a comprehensive and rigorous “active-learning” or “learning-by-doing” approach assessing competency through a series of designed engagements and projects, which is both expert- and resource-intensive, constraining its use at scale.

The model used in most institutions of higher education today is far from this, with graduation at times being achieved with a bare minimum of general knowledge rather than mastery. Polytechnic students, such as those from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, are thus highly recruited by industry because of their hands-on learning and focus on competency. These models also necessitate close and ongoing interaction with industry, both in the classroom and outside, the facilitation of which can be restricted by geography as related to location of industry and the institution, as well as the ability of learners to relocate. Technological platforms and tools can alleviate these constraints through a rigorous, yet individualized, process of learning, enabling the pace of progression and extent of focus to depend on the demonstration of ability by the learner, ensuring that progression is based on mastery. Learning then is transformed from a rather ineffective “time-in-seat” test-based approach that assesses rote learning more than skills and accomplishments of comprehensive understanding to one of mastery, with assessments being built into the learning process continuum, as in polytechnics, but enabling this at scale.

Education, i.e., the acquisition of knowledge and skills and the demonstration of competency, can thus be made possible through technology involving experiential and personalized learning with learners being exposed to a much deeper and wider range of experiences. The inclusion of certifications and credentials becomes intrinsic to these modules, along with cultivation of lifelong learning skills.

The combination of advances in digital/immersive technology and AI shows significant potential for transforming education, especially in technological and engineering fields, using a polytechnic model to enhance both experiential learning and critical thinking skills, simultaneously with enhancing innovation. It must, however, be emphasized that these technologies are still in their formative stages. Aspects such as data privacy and security, IP considerations, and issues related to ethics and AI bias, as well as of training and resources, and those related to regulations are in their nascent stage and will need to be considered with due thought and foresight. Nonetheless, the advances offer exciting prospects for the enhancement of the polytechnic model at scale, transcending limitations of traditional classrooms and textbook-based passive learning. We have the opportunity of reimagining education as an immersive, personalized, and dynamic system, fostering critical thinking, true inter-/multi-disciplinary learning, and integration of advanced academic knowledge with the skills necessary for success in a rapidly changing technological and information-intensive workforce.

The question is whether we, in higher ed, are willing to make the changes that will pave the way for a future where technology empowers student learning, fostering experiences that are critical to their success, preparing graduates to thrive in a rapidly converging world, or if we will allow ourselves to lose relevance and leadership.


[1] https://www.intelligent.com/4-in-10-business-leaders-say-recent-college-grads-are-unprepared-to-enter-workforce/

[2] M. Marrin, Why Business Leaders Think College Grads Aren’t Ready to Work, Poets and Quants, August 10, 2023. https://poetsandquantsforundergrads.com/news/meghans-why-business-leaders-think-40-of-college-grads-are-not-ready-to-work/

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