Virtual Reality In Higher Education: What’s the Status?

Virtual reality is transforming higher education in Australia, and the wave is just beginning. In contrast to augmented reality, which is more about overlaying virtual content onto physical objects and places, virtual reality is usually a more immersive experience, letting you interact with virtual objects within an entirely virtual environment. Many universities around the world are leveraging both virtual reality and augmented reality to help enhance the learning experience. Here’s how.

Virtual reality for self-directed learning

At La Trobe University in Melbourne, teachers are using virtual headsets to help students learn about human anatomy as part of a 12-week program.

“La Trobe anatomy students learn from working with skeletons, models, VR, human specimens and AR,” said Dr Aaron McDonald, Head of the Anatomy Discipline, in a press release. “Augmented Reality allows students to visualise and manipulate anatomical structures and develop a deep understanding. You can superimpose anatomical structures over a peer who can perform movements along with the app, to better understand muscle function. It is a great resource for both team work and self-directed learning.”

What’s more, students can take the technology with them anywhere and continue to explore and learn, whether they’re in class or not. The university is already seeing positive learning outcomes, with many La Trobe students reporting that the technology has helped them improved their grades.

Head sets for trial and error

At the University of Adelaide, students are learning about animal handling through VR training, which has been an essential resource as coronavirus restrictions have limited agriculture education options. In one immersive experience, students donned a headset and found themselves in a yard full of Droughtmaster cattle, instructed to move and draft animals to understand flight zones. If they stood in the wrong position, they would be kicked. Unconventional as it may sound, this provides a unique opportunity to deepen learning.

“It never replaces live practical work but it gives an additional element to being able to teach where you can get them to make a fairly significant mistake but teach around that mistake,” says University of Adelaide lecturer Dr Mandi Carr. “That’s not just the person making the mistake, that’s the others watching too. You can take longer, you can make that mistake and keep making it and try to develop your learning around why. Then when you get to be able to do live animal practices your teaching becomes more efficient.”

Co-created content

According to EDUCAUSE’s 2020 Horizon Report, it’s become clear over the past three years that virtual reality “can be effectively deployed to support skills-based and competency pedagogies; that it can expand the range of hands-on learning experience; and that it can ‘enable high-touch, high-cost learning experiences to be scaled up.’”

Another interesting outcome is that, much like OER, virtual reality can allow students to co-create course content with instructors. At California State University, San Bernardino, students create VR content in partnership with faculty as part of the Immersive Media & Learning Lab. “The lab has recently created a certificate in extended reality production, which can include a course in entrepreneurship to help students with their first XR startup.”

Some students are even creating their own educational VR apps while at uni, leading to some exciting developments in edtech. Vipin Dhunnoo, a sustainable environments and planning and project management student at Bond University, has created an app called Aftermath which lets people experience the potential impacts of climate change through an Oculus Quest headset. “The idea is like a time machine,” he says, “to take you to the aftermath of climate change; for people to experience the effects we’re causing now, using our current behaviours. They would be transported into a world where sea level has taken its toll on coastal regions, and there’ll be things that were there to adapt to sea level rise but unfortunately failed, like sea walls.”

Marketing and virtual tours

Some universities are even using VR as a marketing tool. The University of Technology Sydney, for example, uses a VR app to show prospective students that the campus is safe and accessible. It can also provide a virtual tour of the campus for international students or those who can’t manage to visit before applying. Monash University encourages interested students to visit its website in order to access a virtual tour either using a head set or as a desktop experience in Safari. From the comfort of your home, you can explore its Green Chemical Futures building, Medicine and Medicine Education divisions, Science precinct, New Horizons building, Science Technology Research Innovation Precinct, Journalism department, and various campuses.

Virtual reality is offering some promising benefits to higher education. The trend won’t be slowing down any time soon, so educators and students should expect to see more virtual reality technology enter Australian markets and classrooms in the very near future. It couldn’t be a better time, as creative education solutions are becoming more important than ever.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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