VR in higher ed isn’t hype. It’s here to help.

A recent article in Forbes stated that the growing trend of VR in higher ed was more hype than help and suggested that VR won’t have the impact that it’s forecasted to have.
But they got it all wrong.
There’s a problem in education and current solutions aren’t solving it.
Dropout rates are daunting. Particularly in the sciences, there is a massive need for students, but a declining number of graduates. We can’t neglect that we have a problem – and that what we’re doing right now just isn’t sufficient in solving it.
Even the students who do graduate are experiencing a gap between what they’re being taught and the skills they’re expected to have in their future careers.
The main reason for this is that the practical setting that allows students to develop these skills is hard to access.
Laboratory experiments are expensive, time consuming, and occasionally constrained by safety concerns. For that reason, classes that take place in labs are often the first to be removed from courses, despite the fact that they provide students with an invaluable practical counterpart to the theoretical classes.

There is research supporting the effectiveness of VR in education

You may think: what’s so different about watching chemical molecules interacting and recombining in VR compared to in a regular Youtube video?
The answer is simple: One requires your passive attention, the other demands your active participation.
VR isn’t ‘just’ about creating a cool, immersive, 3D experience, it’s about creating a powerful learning tool that when integrated with theoretical and practical tasks like experiments, multi-modal presentation of theory, instant feedback and knowledge scaffolding can increase learning outcomes to a significant extent.

There are a number of studies to support the effectiveness of virtual learning tools.
As early as 2011, a report published by the US National Research Council concluded that “simulations and games have great potential to improve science learning in elementary, secondary and undergraduate science classrooms.
Studies on simulation based learning suggest that simulations can help future generations of doctors transfer the learnings gained in virtual laboratory settings into everyday clinical practice. The findings also suggest that the simulations are valuable in training skills that are otherwise difficult to acquire in traditional medical education due to the lack of access to real patients and laboratories.
In addition to the obvious goal of increasing knowledge and learning outcomes, simulations do something that few other learning tools seem to focus on. That is to increase the students self-efficacy and general interest, which has the potential to influence the students’ academic, and ultimately professional, careers.
Additionally, a 2018 study on VR has shown that students report increased levels of presence and motivation and they enjoyed themselves more when using VR – which may be the missing ingredients in making sure that the students that start learning STEM also finish and graduate.

VR is not the next MOOC

MOOCs have faced their fair share of criticism.
Partly because there isn’t much innovation in MOOCs: they’re essentially ‘just’ an online version of a classroom, and hence offer the same content in the same format – just through a screen.
What we shouldn’t neglect to appreciate is that they provide way more people with access to the courses offered. They allow people to take ownership of when and where the learning takes place, and at what pace.
That being said, no virtual world can replace a campus community. But who said it was trying to?
The virtual lab simulations can effectively be used to compliment existing education, not just substitute it, and with that, fulfill essential tasks such as relieving students of stress when entering the lab for the first time. Instead of thinking of VR as a solution in itself, it may be a good idea to start thinking of it as an added benefit to help students learn and engage.

VR helps higher ed institutions solve their most fundamental problem: budgeting

Higher ed institutions face one major barrier to improving their lines of education in particular, and that is money. Although it’s tempting to say that VR technology is expensive, it’s contribution to affordability isn’t hard to fathom at all:
We’ve established that practical laboratory experience is an essential component of developing scientific students’ skills and preparing them for ‘the real world’. And what does a lab cost? Well, certainly more than a bunch of VR headsets.
The key word here is access.
VR provides invaluable access to equipment that is otherwise too expensive for the institutions to afford, such as Next Generation Sequencing machines that are now standard for cancer research and drug development, but not at all affordable.

Even if the institutions already have these labs, it’s still worth the investment.
In the sciences, the latest equipment and consumables are expensive. So expensive that it makes it close to impossible for schools to provide students with access to the equipment that they’ll need to know how to use once they graduate.

VR doesn’t have to stand alone

A study on Labster’s virtual labs indicates that a gamified laboratory simulation can significantly increase both learning outcomes and motivation levels when compared with, and particularly when combined with, traditional teaching.
In other words, it’s not the VR alone that’s going to revolutionize higher education – it’s how it’s applied and utilized in connection with all the best aspects of the educational system. That means classroom lectures, teamwork, individual assignments, gamified elements, storytelling, 3D animations, learning through failure (and the list goes on) all can and should work together to create learning experiences that not only teach students curricula, but engage them and prepare them for the life that faces them after their education.
In fact, VR has its biggest potential in preparing students and bringing them from their books to their first job.
A VR experience can provide the student with that otherwise missing step between theory and practice. This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t make use of ‘the real thing’ if (and that’s a big if) they do have access to it.
Only one thing will keep VR from being the disruptor it’s made out to be: conservative mindsets and rigid systems that will keep institutions and their students from adopting the tools that will truly push forward the educational revolution that is so desperately needed.
So believe the hype. VR is here to help.

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