June 5, 2020

While students and faculty were away from campus during the winter break in January 2020, a group of 40 educators, instructional technologists, and industry leaders — mostly representatives of the institutions that participated in the HP/EDUCAUSE Campus of the Future research project — gathered at Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, to discuss the future of extended reality technologies (XR) in higher education. XR encompasses virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality based experiences, in this case focused on learning and research uses.

The XR Summit took place in January 2020 — a few days before the first recorded case of COVID-19 outside of China, and certainly before most people in the US were aware of it. It’s become commonplace to say that it’s a whole new world now, and that’s especially true in higher ed. The Spring 2020 semester unexpectedly moved online at almost all institutions around the world, summer courses at most institutions will also be entirely online, and as of this writing institutions are still discussing whether or not to hold campus-based courses at all in the Fall semester. If nothing else, COVID-19 has demonstrated that technologies to enable distance learning are critical to the very survival of institutions of higher ed. While one of the most important uses of XR is to provide experience of environments that are remote or dangerous, we did not imagine that would include our campuses.

What follows are the highlights of the two-day discussion, focusing on the challenges and opportunities for advancing XR usage across our campuses.

Challenges

Ownership: Someone on campus must advocate for XR technology. Communicating the value of XR for teaching and learning, showcasing successful use cases and evidence of impact, and providing access and space for users to use the technology, is a necessary first step in any action plan for promoting widespread adoption of XR on campus. Organizations need to find ways to gather change agents together to advocate for resources and attention. The interdisciplinary nature of XR technology, one of its greatest opportunities, is also one of its greatest challenges. Institutions of higher-ed tend to be quite siloed. Campus units have their own priorities, culture, and budgets. Everyone wants to collaborate across campus, but launching an actual collaboration can be difficult, as doing so requires cutting across existing organizational structures, and possibly developing entirely new structures.

Content: Every VR and AR development platform has its own repository, and some of the apps in these repositories have educational value, but those are in the minority. A few projects are underway by research groups at institutions of higher ed, to develop educational resources in XR, such as Cellverse teaching molecular biology and Electrostatic Playground to teach atomic physics, both at MIT. But these projects are often limited in scope, more research projects than finished products. Some traditional publishers have made inroads into the XR market such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill. But the applications from publishers are relatively expensive. There are few XR open educational resources available no robust platforms for instructors to create their own content . Most instructors do not have the time or resources to become their own Unity or Unreal developer just to use this technology in their teaching.

Platform fragmentation: There are several more or less competing XR development platforms, and each has many hardware-platform dependencies, some of which change with software or hardware updates. Furthermore, it is difficult to justify scaling the learning curve of these platforms, when their futures are often unclear. Recent examples include Google’s discontinuation of the Daydream VR project and headset vendor Magic Leap stepping back from the consumer market.

Rapid Pace of Change: The challenge of planning in an environment of rapidly-evolving technology was a consistent theme in discussions at the Summit. The standard higher-ed budget cycle, and the timeframe of faculty course planning, can make it difficult to project technology needs even a semester or two ahead. And this is often compounded by concerns about technology moving too fast to invest in: campus administration is often reluctant to purchase hardware that is almost guaranteed to be outdated or obsolete in a few years. Application hardware dependencies, coupled with a development cycle for XR educational experiences that can be measured in years, make for a risky endeavor.

Deployment: One further challenge of planning for XR in an institution of higher ed is that most XR hardware and software is designed for the consumer market, with the implicit assumption of a single purchaser and a single end user. But this assumption does not apply in institutions of higher ed, which are enterprise environments. To be useful in a classroom, an XR experience must allow for multiple users, often multiple simultaneous users. Many current educational XR experiences only allow for a single user.

What is to be done?

Stay Nimble: The group at the Summit agreed on the need to stay nimble by avoiding large technology deployments and significant technology investments: Purchasing one or two VR headsets, for example, is a much smaller investment, and presents much less of a risk of technology lock-in, than purchasing a lab-full.

Start Small: Being nimble also means leading with institutional needs: Institutions should start by developing pilot projects, small-scale uses of XR such as in specific courses and research projects, and other such use cases. This idea of a “minimum viable product” is of course not novel, though it is perhaps unusual in the context of higher ed. Work outside of the formal course structures. For instance FIU’s Miami Beach Urban Studios led the development of a new offering in the FIU First-Year Experience curriculum, developing a VR simulation called Community in partnership with the FIU College of Engineering & Computing and the office of Academic and Career Success.

Leverage Students: Empowering students to utilize XR for class projects was discussed as one way to introduce faculty to the possibilities of the technology without altering an existing course design, or operating on the timeframe of faculty course planning.

Build Community: Some institutions are taking the lead on this type of interdisciplinary collaboration. Part of the work of the Emerging Technologies Consortium at Columbia University and the XReality Center at The New School is to foster this sort of collaboration, via the types of events discussed above: hosting events for the campus community, promoting collaboration with faculty and students, providing space for the community to use the technology. A few faculty members at Syracuse University with an interest in XR started meeting informally in the 2017-18 academic year. This grassroots group has grown over time, and increased the scope of their efforts to include collaborative grant applications, and hosting events to showcase XR technology on campus. As of this writing, this group has been made “official”: The Office of the CIO has given the okay to building a centralized support mechanism under the campus IT unit for XR technology.

In closing, the XR in Education Summit itself was an opportunity for a community of interest to meet, to brainstorm, and to discuss possible collaborations. The Summit truly was a coalition of the willing. Our thanks to the ongoing support and mentorship from the team at HP.com, Intel, Microsoft and our other corporate partners.

COVID-19 has changed the world, and the role of institutions of higher-ed in it. As of this writing, quarantines around the world are just starting to lift. The past few months have made clear the potential of XR for teaching and learning. But it also has made clear that not all of the tools are in place yet for XR to be as useful in education as it could be. The goal of the XR in Education Summit was to create a vision and action plan for the future of XR technology in higher ed. Little did we know at the time that reality would make that vision more important than ever.

Participating Organizations: Barnard College, Bryant University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Digital Bodies, Educause, Florida International University, Hamilton College, Harvard University, HP, MIT, North Carolina School of Science and Math, Nvidia, Red Storm Entertainment, Syracuse University, The New School, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Pennsylvania, Wake Technical Community College, Yale University