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The world beyond Zoom – How VR can enhance learning in this new normal

March 26, 2020

As campuses are shutting down across the country and classes are moving entirely online, universities’ course offerings are becoming more and more indistinguishable. In this time of uncertainty, many students are questioning the cost of their education, and parents, whose 401K’s are decimated, are rethinking why their kids should be returning to campus in the Fall when hopefully the world opens up again.

While there isn’t an obvious answer to colleges being able to justify their cost in this new normal, one possible response is the next disruptive education technology – virtual reality.

Virtual reality was first introduced as a medium for education more than 20 years ago, but it’s only in recent years with the prevalence of affordable hardware and supporting infrastructure that VR has become an effective and scalable option. Additionally, we are seeing more and more studies that show how VR improves student engagement as well as learning outcomes.

Universities across the country are embracing VR in different ways – for example, University of Michigan is going all-in and implementing XR (extended reality – umbrella term for virtual, mixed and augmented reality) university-wide, while Emerson College has invested in a VR lab for a significant stake in the XR landscape.

The truth is that while VR is an exciting technology, implementing it effectively at scale takes significant budget and resources and a clear strategy behind it, which I’ll cover more in-depth in a later post.

But what can colleges and faculty members do NOW?

Here are three almost-immediately implementable steps, even during social distancing, you can take to start using VR with your learners.

[Please note that data privacy and security is the responsibility of the user and while these options can be used to supplement learning, longer term solutions would require a detailed evaluation of software.]

1. In-VR classes

Time to implement: half a day of quick onboarding for first-time users

If you and many of your students have access to VR headsets (e.g. Oculus Quest), you can easily replace or at least supplement regular 2D video conference meetings with in-VR meeting spaces such as Altspace VR, Engage and VR Chat.

Some of these platforms also have a desktop 2D version (e.g. AltspaceVR) so this is a pretty inclusive offering for everyone. You can use much of the same basic functionalities as you would in a video conferencing service like Zoom (e.g. whiteboard annotating, screenshare, mute functions) in addition to more interactive functionalities.

Check out this video of an instructor teaching Computer Science using AltspaceVR for inspiration.

2. 360-degree video (live!) classes  

Time to implement: half a day for set up and rehearsal

If you own or can purchase a 360 camera like the insta360 one-X, you can instantly live-stream via Youtube a 360 degree video of yourself lecturing from your home office or share a pre-recorded 360 video. Students can view this on their desktop in 2D but those with a VR headset can also watch this in VR.

Whether it’s in 2D or in a VR headset, using 360 degree videos breaks away from the monotony of video conference apps and could add further engagement and ‘spice’ to traditional online courses.

3. VR and AR course assignments

Time to implement: just the time required to research appropriate content

The XR world still struggles with the issue of lack of content but there’s still a lot of educational titles you can browse through. Check out some of these lists as a start:

Notable Mention:

SPACES is a software that bridges the gap between VR and traditional video conferencing software like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype. This was specifically built in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I personally have yet to try this out but you should! Download their beta version here.

One last thing to note is that virtual reality still has a long way to go in tackling accessibility. So while these options are not appropriate for all audiences, I hope it’ll spark some inspiration for additional engagement for your “Zoomers” (quite literally!).

There are of course more strategic, scalable and longer-term solutions that, if executed well, can transform the way we deliver content. Stay tuned for more on this… and until then, I hope you all stay safe.

About XR Terra

Founded in 2019, XR Terra empowers the next generation of XR talent through industry-driven education and training programs. XR Terra’s team of passionate entrepreneurs, XR experts, and tech leaders help aspiring XR professionals reshape their reality. To that end, XR Terra proudly offers scholarships committed to gender diversity and minority inclusion in tech. XR Terra is a Unity Authorized Training and Certification Partner.

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