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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Reality in Higher Education

  • 5 Min Read

From improved grades and engagement to high cost and increased workloads, find out the impact virtual reality is having on higher education.

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When it comes to the future of higher education, it’s time to start wondering what’s on the horizon for students and instructors. In-person learning came first, followed by online instruction or blended learning. What’s next? 

While there are many different paths we could take, one road to consider is virtual reality. This immersive experience is no longer just for video games.  

Meta—Facebook’s parent company—recently invested $150 million in immersive learning to “transform the way we learn” and “create, explore and connect through VR.” It’s partnered with VictoryXR to help 10 universities create digital twin campuses, more playfully called metaversities. 

The company Edverse has developed its own metaverse educational experience that can be adopted by institutions or individuals. 

Will virtual reality become an actual reality in higher ed, or will it fade out like a forgotten fad? Let’s consider the drawbacks and benefits. 

Graphic of virtual reality headset.

Disadvantages of Virtual Reality in Higher Education 

Don’t let the flashiness of virtual reality obscure the challenges it can present.  

One downside of using virtual reality in higher education may be its cost. With students already facing rising tuition, textbook and living costs, having to purchase a headset to be able to attend class could be daunting. Put simply, it isn’t something every student can afford. 

It’s also costly for higher education institutions to make their campuses and courses accessible in the metaverse.    

One solution could be working with corporations to help fund virtual reality projects. But if that’s the route institutions take, they need to be careful to prioritize their needs and carve out autonomy when navigating the metaverse. Giving power to outsiders in these potential partnerships can ultimately lead to the value and cost of the projects being determined by those without the university’s best interests at heart. 

Another pain point related to the adoption of virtual reality lies with instructors and their workloads. Asking them to learn another modality on top of all their other responsibilities may not be feasible. With many instructors already facing burnout, having to tackle teaching in the metaverse could be too much to ask. 

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If institutions do want to push forward with virtual reality in their discourse, it’s important to give faculty the time to learn the new tech—even if that means temporarily removing other responsibilities. 

Lastly, there’s the question of virtual reality removing the social aspect of higher education. If students are locked into a headset all day, are they still having the full university experience? One silver lining—the headsets are portable and can be used off campus or in a normal classroom among peers. 

Benefits of Virtual Reality in Higher Education 

There are two sides to every story—including the use of virtual reality in higher ed.  

One benefit is the level of excitement it can garner among students. In a survey done by McKinsey & Company, 37% of the 800 student participants said they’re most excited about what augmented reality and virtual reality have to offer in terms of entertainment. If students are excited about using the tech, this can lead to a boost in engagement levels.  

But virtual reality isn’t all about entertainment—it needs to show a return on investment.  

history class taught through virtual reality at Morehouse College saw a 10% increase in student grade average when compared to online or traditional learning modalities. The same class also saw an increase in attendance rates

The immersive nature of virtual reality can also open the door to new discoveries. Neil McDonnell, a research fellow at the University of Glasgow, had a colleague whose use of virtual reality helped them notice a new feature of a close protein mutation. After five years of teaching about these close protein mutations, using virtual reality and examining these proteins from a different perspective as 3D objects led the colleague to visualize the new feature. 

In late 2020, a study was conducted involving almost 50 undergraduate and postgraduate students taking part in a virtual course. Some positive findings due to the use of virtual reality in the class included: 

  • learners had a purposeful space that was shared and owned by them 
  • students were naturally inclined to work in groups 
  • participants could openly share their identity or keep it private depending on the avatar they chose 

Students’ interest is increased when they have access to such a unique space. More notably, since participants were able to decide how to portray themselves in the environment, the space was more inclusive. Students could decide how they wanted to be represented without any preconceived notions from their peers 

The Future of Virtual Reality in Higher Education 

Introducing virtual reality into your repertoire of tech at your institution isn’t something that will happen overnight. Here are some things you may want to ask and think about when deciding whether virtual reality is right for your institution:  

  • consider if your institution is interested in partnering with an outside brand 
  • turn to your faculty for their expertise in where grant funding might be able to come into play 
  • survey your students to see if virtual reality is something that interests them 
  • find a keen instructor who may be willing to help tackle the challenge of learning a new modality 
  • test out a few products on the market to see if virtual reality is a good fit for your institution 

After exploring your options and considering the advantages and disadvantages of virtual reality in higher ed, it’s important to put a plan in place before moving forward. 

With an upward trend in online and blended learning, new tech—whether virtual reality or something else—is going to continue to pop up. It’s worth keeping a pulse on what’s new and what could work best for your institution when looking to the future of tech use in higher ed.