Taking virtual education beyond Zoom: How VR and AR can help

by Sarah Firisen

I was a Philosophy major in University from 1988-1991 (degrees are 3 years in the UK). To be accurate in British terms, I read Philosophy. Some friends and I would socialize with a group of our professors. We’d often talk and drink late into the night in the living room of one of the more gregarious lecturers. Reflecting on what I remember of philosophy 30 years later, a lot is from those late-night, informal conversations. One or more of the professors at the center of a group of intellectually curious young people. In contrast, the large lectures I sat through during the day had content that barely resonated at the time and certainly hasn’t stayed with me. Whether it’s high school or college, most people can probably relate. Talking with a friend recently who is a university professor, she said that she much prefers to assign reading to students which they can then discuss in smaller seminar groups rather than stand in front of them lecturing, knowing they’re not absorbing the information.

Education methodology hasn’t changed dramatically for hundreds, if not thousands of years. What has changed is that higher education has become very expensive in the US. Meanwhile, having a college degree has become an even greater predictor of professional success, “On average, college graduates make 84 percent more over a lifetime than their high school-educated counterparts. “ But this same report goes on to detail, “While everyone who attends college can expect a significant return on their investment, different undergraduate majors lead to markedly different careers— and significantly different wages.” I’m the mother of a college Junior who is going to graduate with not insignificant student debt. Top of mind for me is the question of her earning potential and ability to pay this loan back while maintaining a decent standard of living.  Like every other student, her schooling has been online for the last 4 months. It seems that her college plans to resume on-campus education in the Fall.  But other colleges have already announced that they will continue online.

Colleges have an economic incentive to resume business as usual as soon as they can. Colleges have lost revenue from departing international students. There have been other COVID-19 related economic impacts from not having students on campus. This includes significant lost revenue streams from college sports. I’m not going to try to address the thorny issues of the college economic model in the US. But I do think that this is a moment in history to pause and reflect on our children’s education.  How they’re taught informs the most pressing and immediate need of where they’re taught. When all schooling had to go online at a moment’s notice in March, it was a fire drill.  All education institutions tried to do the best they could at a moment’s notice. Back then, the hope was that we’d lockdown for a short while and then things would get back to normal, “There’s little likelihood that students will desert their real-world campuses for cyberspace en masse.” But for many students, going back isn’t a choice at this point. Now we need to think both more practically and creatively about how we can continue to educate our young people while keeping them safe. I’m not even going to try to comment on K-12 because I don’t think one size fits all. My 17-year old was able to continue her studies online much better than my friends’ much younger children.

Anyone who has had the bulk of their workday taken up with endless Zoom calls the last few months will agree, it’s not an improvement to replace someone talking at you in person with someone talking at you on a screen. And let’s acknowledge that having the physical space for privacy and the technology necessary for any kind of virtual learning is a privilege that hasn’t been available to far too many children and young people in this country during this crisis. My daughters each have their own bedroom, their own laptops, and good WIFI. Of course, there wasn’t equal access to a decent education for everyone pre-COVID. But we don’t need to exacerbate this very profound societal challenge. Instead, we can use this moment and the technology already available to us to address some of the cost, the inequality and the quality of education for everyone, “Up until now, online education has been relegated to the equivalent of a hobby at most universities. With the pandemic, it has become a backup plan. But if universities embrace this moment strategically, online education could expand access exponentially and drop its cost by magnitudes — all while shoring up revenues for universities in a way that is more recession-proof, policy-proof and pandemic-proof.”

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality technology (AR) could be a huge part of reimagining what education looks like. Some professors were able to use this technology, even in the mad scramble of March, to deliver education that wasn’t a poor imitation of the in-person experience but even surpassed it, “students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts have been expanding their knowledge and creativity online. Instructor Michelle Cortese, who is also a VR product designer for Facebook’s AR/VR Experiences team, has been teaching a performance class like nothing you’ve ever seen before….’My colleagues and I have reached a new level of collaboration and artistic ingenuity that I haven’t experienced before,’ said Bauer.”

Moving past its Peak of Inflated Expectations and Trough of Disillusionment, VR and AR seem to be scaling the Slope of Enlightenment and poised to enter the Plateau of Productivity. Headsets are getting lighter and cheaper. Companies like Facebook are doing extraordinary R&D. Last year, “Facebook Reality Labs, the company’s AR/VR R&D group, published detailed research on a method for hyper-realistic real-time virtual avatars”, allowing an impressively accurate representation of the nuances of users’ facial expressions.

There’s already been a lot of studies done and evidence produced that companies can move a lot of their job skill simulations to VR. Often, these simulations can improve outcomes, “In the study, which was recently presented at the annual meeting of the Western Orthopedic Association, medical students who were given VR training for the procedure completed it 20% faster and completed 38% more steps correctly than those in the traditionally trained group.”

PwC recently produced a study that demonstrates that VR can be a very effective way to train soft skills as well. Some of the stats discussed: Learners were trained 4 times faster than in the classroom; they were 275% more confident to apply the skills; 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the material and 4 times more focussed than their in-person trained peers. These numbers are based on adults and not young people. But given that young people are more inclined to technology and gaming than adults, the results might be even better with a younger audience.

My college-aged daughter was enrolled in a biology lab as lockdown started. The attempts to move that online were pretty dismal. And bio and chem labs do seem to be the kind of classes that will be the hardest, if not impossible, to replicate and even improve on with VR and AR. But already some institutions are pushing the boundaries of the technology in surprising and successful ways, “Imperial College has conducted what it said is the world’s first virtual ward round for medical students, which means an entire class of 350 students can watch a consultant examining patients rather than the three or four who have been able to accompany them in person. The virtual ward round involves the physician wearing Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses, which stream video to the students’ computers. While the doctor talks to the patient, students can hear both of them through the use of two microphones.” And as the article points out, the session can be recorded. This creates a library of cases that could be opened up to other students and even other universities.

If you’ve ever worn a VR or AR headset, you can envision the possible enrichment of all sorts of classes with some creative use of these technologies. From geography to astrology. From medicine to criminal justice.  These technologies enable education that is immersive rather than passive. This can aid with the retention of facts, comprehension, focus, and enjoyment of learning. We have the technology and now we have the burning platform. It’s time to ensure that education is engaging, relevant, widely available, and cost-effective. And most of all, that it’s safe.