Beyond Zoom: can virtual reality replace the classroom experience?

The virtual reality technology market is booming thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Jack Grove asks whether it might finally catch on in higher education

July 29, 2020
crowd wearing VR devices
Source: Getty

With fears still high that Covid-19 could run rampant when campuses reopen next month, online learning looks set to play a major role at most universities for the foreseeable future.

But will the same mix of Skype lectures, virtual seminars and online learning materials that students patiently accepted at the end of last semester cut it for a full year of academic teaching? Many think not and wonder whether virtual reality (VR) might provide a more engaging learning experience than the basic teleconferencing method adopted in lockdown.

“It won’t solve everything, but it could be an important part of the mix,” explained Lyron Bentovim, chief executive officer of the Glimpse Group, a New York-based VR company, who has used the technology to teach students at Fordham University, where he is a professor of entrepreneurship.

In Professor Bentovim’s classes, business students wearing VR headsets can hold virtual round-table discussions in which they appear as animated avatars and can also split into breakout groups to discuss certain issues. They can even make business pitches to simulated crowds – an experience that is hard to recreate even in more normal pre-coronavirus times, said Professor Bentovim.

“The great thing about VR learning is that it goes to a certain part of the brain, so that when students are eventually faced with a room of strangers, they feel like: ‘I’ve done this,’” he said.

That type of interactive learning lacks the excitement of vast, detailed alternative universes that many hoped VR would provide. But, for Professor Bentovim, this more realistic view of how VR might work at scale in higher education is a good thing.

“You can do some phenomenal things with the tech, but you can also do far easier stuff that helps students learn how to network, negotiate and present to a classroom,” he says.

Indeed, pitching a business idea to a panel of avatars is, for many, preferable to a typical Dragons’ Den-style encounter. “It’s much less intimidating for students,” he said.

Nonetheless, more complicated bespoke worlds can be created to order, explained Hugh Seaton, chief executive of Adept Reality, a subsidiary of Glimpse Group, which recently recreated Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for students taking summer school classes at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

“You can have videos of lions jumping out and other bespoke things, but we want to build tools that professors can [use] themselves,” explained Mr Seaton. “I’d say it’s no more complicated than using [the virtual learning environment] Blackboard, which most academics use every day,” he said.

One reason why VR has failed to go mainstream is that the price of the hardware has not fallen as many had expected: the most favoured type of headset, Oculus Rift, retails at about £400, although cheaper versions are available at about £310.

If students are barred from campus after a coronavirus outbreak, however, that cost proposition seems a bit different when many US students are paying $40,000 (£30,800) a year, said Mr Seaton. “It’s basically two or three sets of lab fees, and you’re not just paying for a set of beakers you can’t keep,” he added.

Others are less sure that VR is a viable alternative to Zoom or Skype. Around 2015, Glenn Gunhouse, professor of art history at Georgia State University, set out to use VR to teach the history of architecture. However, it became clear that the costs were “prohibitive…partly because I feared committing to a technology that might quickly become obsolete”.

“Enrolment in my classes also increased beyond what any campus computing lab could have handled,” added Professor Gunhouse.

Student access to reliable broadband internet service was another challenge. “When our courses were switched online, many of my students could not even…view the videos and PowerPoints that replaced my in-person lectures,” he said.

Using VR for a class of 12 or fewer, however, may be more viable, he admitted. “Although participants appear only as avatars, the fact that they look three-dimensional and seem to exist in a 3D space gives a more realistic sense of meeting together than viewing a mosaic of 2D headshots,” he said.

The imminent arrival of 5G internet, which will operate about 10 times faster than 4G, might also speed the adoption of VR, said James Bennett, professor of television and digital culture at Royal Holloway, University of London, who is leading the £5 million StoryFutures research project, which aims to help the UK’s 1,000 or so immersive storytelling companies to grow, with VR and augmented reality (AR) training predicted to be an $8.5 billion industry by 2023.

“As the UK rolls out 5G, headsets will get a lot lighter – they’ll be more like sunglasses,” explained Professor Bennett. “As it is, headset sales have gone through the roof – it’s really difficult to buy them because lots of different industries are engaging with the idea of training people at a distance.”

Professor Bennett’s project will involve eight “train the trainers” groups helping to improve VR competencies in UK universities, with computer scientists working alongside academics from the creative industries to ensure a truly engaging VR experience.

“We’re developing a set of lecturers who can embed immersive storytelling throughout the courses by giving them the time, budget and industry know-how to do this,” he explained. “Technology is important, but having professional-level creative experiences front and centre will be just as key to ensuring VR learning works.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Are universities turning on to VR?

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