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In the future, everyone has virtual reality (VR) headsets. VR technology has improved exponentially, and it is now possible to host the entire college or university experience online. Students wake up in the morning, put on their headsets, and then ‘enter’ their labs or lectures. In a post-COVID world, higher education (HE) is now (in part) a simulation experience.

This scenario may seem far-fetched, but it may be closer to reality than we think. Virtual reality (VR) has gained momentum in higher education (HE) in the last decade, athwart growing industry demand for future workforces (Dick, 2021). In 2018, two-thirds of HE institutions in the United States (U.S.) had either partially or fully implemented VR solutions into their classrooms (Dick, 2021). From STEM education and technical training to arts and humanities, the uptake has been led by disciplines where the curricular focus and learning opportunities are notably enriched through interaction with real-world objects and environments (Marks & Thomas, 2021). But, the COVID-19 pandemic further propelled the implementation of new technologies into the educational sector. VR re-emerged as educators looked for ways to mitigate the problems remote and distance learning has compared to face-to-face (Nesenbergs et al., 2021). Such initiatives, however, have not been widespread. Many remain speculative and dismiss the technology based on its immaturity, high cost, and lack of best practice methods (Bates, 2021). Yet, as research and development continue, one question persists — How might VR transform the future of HE?

Built around this question, this paper explores the current state of VR in HE by highlighting a few applications that are building the foundation for a future teaching and learning situation where VR technology and HE are seamlessly integrated. It starts by reflecting on some of the most noticeable changes in HE spurred by the COVID-19 crisis. From here, it proceeds with a review of several case studies that leverage VR to enhance the learning process. Finally, it moves on to imagine a future scenario involving VR technology and its impact on HE in 2030. But, first, a look at some key definitions.

Virtual reality (VR) “implies a complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world” (The Franklin Institute as cited in Bates, 2019, para 7). It is a computer-generated world made possible using a VR headset and accompanying software that together create a completely digital, 360 degree, immersive user experience: one where the environment and objects can be manipulated, interacted with, and explored as if they are really there (Bates, 2019).
Higher education (HE) is “education beyond the secondary level especially: education provided by a college or university.” (Merriam Webster, n.d.).
Distance learning, also known as distance education, e-learning, and online learning, is “a form of education in which the main elements include physical separation of teachers and students during instruction and the use of various technologies to facilitate student-teacher and student-student communication.” (Berg & Simonson, 2016).

The COVID-19 crisis of early 2020 accelerated the digitalization of HE (OECD, 2021). Many colleges and universities worldwide were forced to transition from face-to-face to remote instruction with varying levels of success (OECD, 2021). In countries like the U.S., with a robust technological infrastructure and high-speed internet, the shift to remote and distance learning allowed education to continue relatively uninterrupted (UNESCO, 2020). Even so, campus closures burdened communication and deprived students of a broad range of learning opportunities (Laufer et al., 2021). This led many institutions to pursue creative ways to meet student needs and survive in a fully online environment (OECD, 2021). Initially, most opted for low-tech solutions, such as Zoom and other third-party communication tools, to technologically mitigate emerging issues (OECD, 2021). But, this pieced-together approach only highlighted the need for transformation of remote and distance learning not simply to survive a time of crisis but to adjust to a new normal (Nesenbergs et al., 2021). With that, VR, as a teaching and learning tool, gained renewed interest as it promises to deliver the best aspects of both real-world experience and distance learning into a single platform (Dick, 2021; Shuster, n.d.).

Currently, online communication is increasingly being used in HE education. But, it is not without problems. One major drawback is a lack of social presence (Mystakidis, 2020); a disadvantage exacerbated by steps taken against the spread of COVID-19 (e.g., social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines). According to research (Sikali, 2020), “physical interactions are an essential part of human social experience, and they are particularly important for the social development of young people [and] are also an integral part of their learning” (para 2).

Mystakidis (2020) presents a case study detailing how VR technology can be effectively applied to HE distance education to support rich social interactions and collaborative learning in a virtual space regardless of the users’ geographic location. He states that as students lack social and emotional connection in typical 2D distance learning environments, fully expressive VR avatars allow students and their instructors to engage with one another in a way that resembles real-life interactions. The aim was to improve student learning experiences, engagement, and knowledge performance. The study concludes on a positive note; however, Mystakidis (2020) asserts that VR is not meant to replace face-to-face interactions as they “carry a tremendous pedagogical value that is difficult to replicate in online environments” (p. 1). Nonetheless, the technology offers a rich alternative that can lead students to experiences they would otherwise be without.

Marks & Thomas (2021) share the same view regarding the potential of VR application in HE and address another significant disadvantage of distance education: lack of practical elements (Marks & Thomas, 2021). Unlike Mystakidis (2020), Marks & Thomas’ (2021) research presents three teaching case studies portraying the benefits of adopting VR in disciplines where the curricular focus encourages learners to explore real-world objects and environments’ hands-on’ for themselves. The researchers built a VR laboratory to immerse students from various disciplines (e.g., engineering, arts and social sciences, and science) in diverse or inaccessible environments.

The first study explored communities in poor rural areas and informal urban settlements in some of the least developed parts of the world. The teaching pedagogy used intended to promote collaborative learning to develop competencies in critical thinking and empathy. The second had students conduct an independent understanding of laboratory hazards in a risk-free VR-based environment. The focus was solely on developing student competencies in problem-solving while affording them the ability to work at their own pace and repeat lessons and exercises as needed. The third and last study had students individually manipulate 3D models of steel structures, an experience students could not replicate in the real world as working with physical models of actual scale could pose safety concerns. This teaching case developed the student’s spatial visualization skills along with innovative thinking.

The authors (Marks & Thomas, 2021) note the positive effect all three cases had on students, allowing them to develop a range of practical skills and knowledge that would be difficult, impossible, or dangerous in real-world environments.

The studies described demonstrate the potential of VR to transform HE by bringing embodied, experiential learning to anyone, anywhere. In all case studies, there appears a clear purpose for using the technology and a teaching and learning framework that supports its integration. So, even though VR is still in its developmental phase, these researchers have showcased best practice pedagogical guidelines for using it in HE while highlighting its ability to improve current distance learning deficiencies. But, what will emerge as the new normal once campuses in the U.S. safely reopen?

Over the next decade, the teaching and learning experience for both staff and students is perceived to change substantially. By 2025, VR in education is forecasted to be a $700 million industry (Statista, 2021). While it is unlikely to replace face-to-face learning, it may help sustain classroom continuity with the continuous push towards virtual learning. Furthermore, staff and students’ expectations will have changed, and a demand for more flexible teaching and learning will lead HE to move permanently to a more blended or hybrid system.

Moreover, with greater access to low-cost VR devices and effective content, education will become more relevant to the workplace, providing highly realistic hands-on learning experiences, especially important for pedagogical frameworks based on problem-based or experiential learning. In this new educational model, the role of teacher will be more critical than ever. While VR will likely transform HE and expand learning opportunities, it will not be viewed as a device that equips learners with skills and knowledge. Learning will remain human-powered, and technology will service the journey. Creating socially enhanced, immersive and interactive, experiences rather than simply digitizing traditional methods will be the key to this model’s success. Although a virtual lecture, lab, or social interaction will not be a total replacement for the real thing, for those who would not otherwise have access, VR will transform HE by providing all learners with opportunities to experience.

The above provides a utopian view of what HE seamlessly integrated with VR could look like by 2030. The pandemic has raised critical questions addressing the existential core of HE institutions. By envisioning future scenarios, this time of crisis becomes an opportunity to pause and reflect: what kind of educational experience do we ultimately want for future students?

Young people today will be our instructional designers, craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and future business leaders. So, while the pandemic undoubtedly offers a unique opportunity to implement novel technologies, using VR to assist remote and distance learning in HE does not have to end beyond this crisis. VR can elevate online learning by providing learners with an embodied experience that reduces barriers from physical space, improves skill development, fosters work-related experience, enhances collaboration, and increases access to HE for an expanded community in ways that traditional methods would not be able to accommodate. Of course, implementing VR into the HE system will have advantages and disadvantages, some easy to imagine, others likely to become known only in time. Nevertheless, from the research presented, there is a consensus that VR is a valuable tool for HE, and its portrayal in the distance learning context inclines towards utopia.

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