by A.J. O’Connell

In 1999, THE Journal published an article about virtual reality (VR) in education. “The future is here,” it crowed.

The piece, which went on to discuss virtual field trips and the other possibilities of VR in education, was typical of the articles and academic papers being published at the time: commercial video games had been experimenting with VR for a few years, The Matrix movie had just come out, and VR had the potential to change education forever.

But thanks to technological limitations and prohibitive costs, it didn’t. Not for years. 

Now, 20 years after that breathless article, VR technology is finally catching up with its promise. It’s starting to transform college life as professors introduce VR and augmented reality (AR) into their lessons, students tour colleges from afar, and academics gather online, rather than in person, for conferences.

Administrators interested in the potential of VR may be interested in bringing these innovations to their school, and may also be concerned about the challenges and risk of VR and its cousins, AR, and mixed reality (MR). What can administrators do to encourage the use of VR on campus, and what policies should they be thinking of to keep their students and faculty safe? Here are some things to think about: 

  • Virtual campus tours
  • Virtual orientation activities
  • Virtual conferences for professors
  • Ensuring that virtual reality is accessible for all
  • Ethics in virtual reality

Virtual campus tours

Virtual campus tours have been around for some time, ranging from video tours to Google Earth-style tours that can be viewed via browser. Those tours are a helpful tool for students who want to see a campus, but may not be able to get there in person.

 GEAR UP NC, however, takes it to another level. North Carolina’s state school system uses their app to give virtual tours of all 16 of their campuses.

“For us, it is really about can a middle school or high school student imagine themselves at college?” said Steven King, associate professor of interactive and multimedia at The University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, when interviewed earlier this year on Helix Education’s Enterprise Enrollment Growth podcast

If a student can imagine themselves being on campus and going to class, said King, they’re much more likely to take the necessary steps to prepare for college. 

“We wanted to take that campus tour to as many students as possible,” he said. 

GEAR UP uses Google Cardboard, which pairs with a smartphone, the app, and a cardboard viewer, to bring college tours — filmed in 365-degree video with interactive elements — to as many students in the state of North Carolina as possible. The videos were carefully planned, for both the comfort of the students (each video is three minutes long because that’s about how long a person can hold a Google Cardboard before their arms tire), and to show off the best aspects of each campus. 

According to King, the online campus tours have brought awareness to some of North Carolina’s less known state schools, and have allowed students who might not otherwise be able to take an in-person school tour, either for financial reasons, or because they can’t actually get to campus. 

Virtual orientation

An extended reality experience can also help students when they arrive on campus. Thanks to Pokémon Go, most students are fairly familiar with the concept of augmented reality (AR) — they’re moving around in the real world, but using their phone as a window into a virtual one. 

Cal Poly Pomona took advantage of AR for its library orientation and scavenger hunt, using an app called Aurasma. The orientation allows students to walk through the library, searching for pokeball signs, and watching videos that acquaint them with the library.

Meanwhile, the University of Chicago debuted a massive, elaborate mixed-reality game for its 2018 freshman class orientation. The game — designed to help first-generation, low-income, LBGTQ, and other marginalized students feel more accepted and comfortable with taking advantage of the school’s resources — took place online and off, inviting students to solve puzzles and mysteries, and figure out which players were real and which were fake online identities. 

photo courtesy of Jean Lachat, Wired

photo courtesy of Jean Lachat, Wired

Virtual conferences

Professors are expected to attend and present at conferences, but for those who live in remote areas, or who can’t travel for financial, medical, or even political reasons, attending those conferences can be a struggle. 

Sure, a professor might be able to follow a conference’s hashtag on Twitter, watch selected panels on YouTube, and interact with attendees via responses and direct message — but that can be a lot of effort, and it doesn’t count as actually attending the conference. In 2015, two academics decided to change that. 

Virtually Connecting was founded by by writer Rebecca J. Hogue and Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. Bali was unable to attend many of the conferences her peers were attending, so she and Hogue decided to use technology to allow Bali to participate more actively, talking to onsite conference presenters and attendees via online chats.

“We felt like we were doing something akin to what is done at popular sports events,” the pair wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Doing interviews with the stars (e.g. keynote speakers and other presenters) and filming them so other people could watch, vicariously enjoying parts of what they were missing. But we did one better: we invited other virtual participants into the interview, so it was not a broadcast but a conversation; not a relationship between star and fan, but between peers.”

Since then, the project has grown to include several different formats: small groups, virtual presenters at conferences, and virtual break-out sessions. 

Conferences are also going fully virtual; Lethbridge College’s Merging Realities, the first fully conference to take place completely in VR was held for the second year this year. 

Increasing accessibility within virtual reality

Virtual, augmented, and extended reality are able to make campuses and educational experiences more accessible, bringing campus tours to financially disadvantaged students or allowing house-bound professors to attend conferences — but virtual reality has a long way to go when it comes to accessibility. 

While it’s tempting to see VR as an accessibility solution, VR may cause its own accessibility problems. This is important, as schools move towards having immersive VR experiences on campus. One need only look toward the world of gaming to see where VR’s accessibility issues lie. 

For example, many headsets require a player to be in a certain position (usually standing) to use VR, or people with disabilities may need help to put a headset on or take it off, which is a problem when a player is in a virtual environment and can’t see if help is nearby. Other VR experiences make the gamer choose — they can use the VR headset or the handheld controller, but not both. When the VR headset is live, the handheld controller is locked out. Limiting options in this way also means limiting accessibility. 

A.J. Ryan, writing for the AbleGamers blog, says he seldom uses VR because he doesn’t want to be tethered to a computer, unable to see or escape without help.

“I can’t just drive off in my wheelchair with my head attached to a headset plugged in my computer,” he writes. “For me to use VR by myself often, headsets would have to be wireless and also have a way for me to see through the headset to navigate the real world. I also would like to see VR headsets handle exceptions better and not hang on bright static images when they freeze. An on-board way to reboot the headset automatically would stop me from worrying about this issue.”

Perhaps even more relevant to some of the initiatives mentioned here is the need for accessible VR for the vision and hearing impaired. A virtual campus tour for visually-impaired students may require a voice interface, or a tour designed for Microsoft’s Canetroller, a controller that uses audio and haptic feedback to help the blind to experience virtual reality. A virtual video tour for the hearing-impaired may require subtitles. 

If your campus is introducing VR or other extended realities, it’s important to make sure they’re widely accessible. This may mean asking students of varying abilities for input on your initiative before launch. 

virtual reality

The ethics of VR

Educators excited by the possibilities of new technologies online learning have always had to reckon with unexpected ethical issues — are students blogging on the open internet for class safe from harassment? What happens when a group of trolls attack a MOOC?

The same is true for VR and AR. Administrators who support and promote virtual initiatives have a responsibility to put policies in place that will protect participants. This can be complicated for developing technologies because the ethical dilemmas may not yet exist, but there are some basic areas where administrators can start

  • Harassment: Harassment is rampant online, and administrators should expect that harassment will take place in virtual settings as well, putting anti-harassment policies into place. 
  • Content warnings: Virtual reality is an excellent tool for allowing students to see through other people’s eyes, and experience racism, sexism, and ableism they might not experience in their own lives. Some of these modules may necessarily be upsetting, such as the non-profit Animal Equity’s iAnimal 360° experience, which puts virtually places students inside a slaughterhouse. Anything with violent content may require a warning so that a student can opt out of the modules if they need to. This is especially important for students who have suffered a specific trauma that might be covered in a VR module, like racially-motivated violence.
  • Student privacy: The privacy of student information is paramount on most campuses, but this can be complicated when VR and other technologies are introduced. Some colleges are introducing wearable technology on campus, for example — but this could potentially present a problem since wearables are still fairly new technology, and not always secure. If a college wants to introduce wearables and VR, administrators will have to look at the student data that tech generates and take steps to secure it, just as they would protect any other student information. 

The future (as it was envisioned in 1999) is finally here. VR has matured and is revolutionizing colleges, offering access to low income students, professors who live on other continents, and people with disabilities. But with great virtual capabilities come new challenges; administrators will have to be inclusive when developing new VR initiatives and policies in order to realize the true potential of extended realities for everyone on campus.

About the author

A.J. O’Connell is a journalist, author, and former adjunct who lives in New England. She’s written for Campus Technology, Electric Literature, and The Establishment.

THE Journal, Virtual Reality In Schools: The Ultimate Educational Technology, cached

GEAR UP VR’s site

Helix Education Enterprise Enrollment Growth Podcast: Ep. 92: The University of North Carolina System’s Virtual Reality Campus Tours w/ Steven King

Cal Poly Pomona, Pokémon Go Scavenger Hunt

Wired, An Alternate Reality Game That Takes Freshman Orientation to a New Level

Virtually Connecting site 

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Beyond Twitter: Virtually Connecting at Conferences, by Rebecca J. Hogue and Maha Bali

Merging Realities 2019 site

Thoughts on Accessibility Issues With VR, by A.J. Ryan,

AR Post, Inclusivity of VR and AR Accessibility for the Visually and Hearing Impaired by Patricia Chang. 

Microsoft, Enabling People with Visual Impairments to Navigate Virtual Reality with a Haptic and Auditory Cane Simulation

Educause Review, VR and AR: The Ethical Challenges Ahead, by Emory Craig and Maya Georgieva

Digital Bodies, A Virtual Reality Slaughterhouse as a Learning Experience by Emory Craig

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