VR in Higher Education: with Examples

Updated February 05, 2020 - Sophie Thompson

Virtual Reality (VR) has the potential to transform the way we learn and teach, from providing in-depth knowledge and helping us understand complex subjects to facilitating language immersion and virtual trips.

It’s already widely used in schools for younger children, but we’re seeing its use more and more in higher education for a variety of reasons, including its ability to enhance learning and help with student recruitment.

In this article, we make the case for using VR in higher education, illustrating how and why it’s being used, with real-life examples of universities, business schools and colleges who are already taking full advantage of the technology.

Enhancing learning and soft skills

A key benefits of using VR in education is that you learn through experience. VR allows us to bring 2D objects to life and makes visualisation a reality, enabling us to experience more than ever, and learn in an immersive way. The practical implications of this are huge, as VR opens up new ways to learn skills that were otherwise difficult to teach.

One of the first uses of VR in higher education was to train students’ soft skills. VirtualSpeech is being used by universities around the world to improve communication skills essential for employment after graduation. These skills require realistic practice, which is impossible to achieve on a consistent basis with traditional online learning methods.

In-app screenshot of instant voice analytics inside the VirtualSpeech app

In-app screenshot of the instant voice analytics inside the VirtualSpeech app.

Within VR, students can practice soft skills whenever they want and receive feedback on their performance with features such as speech analysis. VR is a great tool for training these skills, as a large percentage of people have speech anxiety - practicing in VR provides a safe environment that allows you to desensitise from a real-life audience.

Lecturers in Europe, North America, and Australia are using VirtualSpeech to enhance their students’ skillset. VirtualSpeech offer two courses that are particularly relevant in this space; the public speaking and job interview courses.

For distance learning

As college campuses become global, the location independence of VR becomes more prominent, and a big factor in helping to promote distance learning.

Stanford School of Business is already offering a certificate programme delivered entirely through VR, and at the University of British Columbia Law School, students are enjoying VR lectures using VR Chat. The application provides virtual online chat spaces where students with a VR headset can project themselves and interact with lecturers and other students.

First VR lecture by VR Chat at the British Columbia Law School in 2014

The first VR lecture by VR Chat at the British Columbia Law School in 2014

Social VR applications may also help reduce high dropout rates associated with online courses, by helping remote students feel more connected and less isolated. Books will always be an integral part of university learning. But when teaching people around the world in geographically different locations, the benefits of VR and the social connection it creates, are huge.

To bring learning to life

One of the most obvious benefits of VR is transforming lectures into immersive learning experiences, enabling lecturers to truly bring their subject to life. Civil engineering students could use VR to design buildings, history students could explore Roman ruins, physics students could explore the universe. The possibilities for immersive education are near endless.

The University of Westminster has already implemented a virtual space for criminal law students. By using VR, students search for clues to create and build a solid murder case. Instead of simply reading through witness statements they can walk around the crime scene and ascertain, for example, whether a witness would have actually been able to see the crime. This gives the student an unparalleled experience in a very practical topic, that could otherwise be hard to demonstrate.

VR criminal law murder case at the University of Westminster

In-app screenshot of a VR criminal law murder case at the University of Westminster

For improved collaboration and group learning

VR has the potential to greatly enhance collaboration between teachers and students, both in distance learning and classroom-based teaching. It gives teachers the opportunity to make learning experiences social by allowing students to verbally communicate with each other and show body language through their avatar.

The Giza Project, a non-profit international initiative based at Harvard University, assembles information about all the archaeological activity at the world’s most famous site - the Giza Pyramids and surrounding settlements, using digital archaeology.

Students in China participating in the Giza Project with Harvard University

Students in China participating in the Giza Project with Harvard University (image source)

Harvard partnered with Zhejiang University in China to conduct an anthropological lesson, with the help of rumii, a social VR software.

Half of the students were studying at Harvard, half at Zhejiang University, and were working together as avatars in a VR-equipped classroom to study ancient Egyptian characters along a tomb. Both were using the standalone Oculus Go headset (now discontinued), and worked together to identify certain hieroglyphics.

Using avatars and mapped facial expressions, the students on opposite sides of the world could come together to discuss, synthesize, and learn from one another.

Prepare students for the workplace and jobs

An increasing number of universities are offering VR courses and opening their own VR labs. This is a reflection of the confidence in the power of VR in years to come. Opening VR labs is one of the most practical uses of VR in higher education and is an important step in encouraging content development and setting a global standard for VR content.

Application and distribution of VR First Labs and Hackathons

Locations of VR First Labs and Hackathons

Many of these labs have been facilitated by VR First, who have over 50 VR/AR labs worldwide, including over 5000 developers.

The theory behind the initiative is that VR and AR will have a significant impact on the job market in the future and students should be equipped with skills around emerging technologies, as well as being familiar with their creation and implementation.

The recruitment site Hired published a State of Software Engineers survey, showing that in 2019, the demand for VR/AR engineers grew by 1400%, demonstrating that the demand is already here.

For student recruitment

Recruiting students is a competitive business and campus tours are an essential part of the process. Not only can it become expensive for the prospective student, it’s also time consuming for them and their families.

Virtual tours allow students to explore campus from the comfort of their own home, thus reducing the number of universities they look around in real life. Some may even find a virtual tour sufficient to make their decision.

YouVisit have already created virtual tours for some of the most prestigious universities in the world, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia. Their VR experience has on average 10.4 minutes of engagement, inquiries increase 18% and they have a 27% increase in physical visits to the universities after the VR experience.

Inside YouVisit virtual tour of Harvard

Inside YouVisit's virtual tour of Harvard

To reduce the cost of training students

Universities and colleges constantly have to invest in the most up-to-date equipment for their students, such as lab apparatus, medical appliances, chemistry sets etc. With small budgets this often means students are sharing equipment with several other students, limiting the time they get to learn on the equipment. VR training simulators allow educators to scale at a far lower cost, and provide greater learning opportunities.

Arch Virtual creates VR medical training experiences that help students practice surgical operations. They practice medical procedures in virtual reality environments before conducting them for real. This works out to be far more cost and space effective than providing these facilities for every student.

A visual example of Arch Virtual’s technology in practice

A visual example of Arch Virtual’s technology in practice

The use of VR in education will dramatically increase over the next few years. While it is unlikely to replace traditional face-to-face teaching methods anytime soon, it will continue to be used to enhance learning and educational experiences.

From choosing a university to landing your first job after graduation, to taking students located all over the world through the same lecture at the same time, the next generation of learners, and teachers, will be guided with VR.