Four ways extended reality will influence higher education

Higher Education
November 5, 2020
6 minutes
Fergus Bruce

The potential for extended reality - the collective term for augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) technologies - to enhance the way we learn is substantial.  


Higher education institutions are under greater pressure than ever to create the best possible student experiences, and to deliver exceptional, technology-enabled teaching to increasingly diverse student populations. This was true even before we consider the impact of Covid-19 on teaching delivery worldwide. With XR technology now beginning to find its feet in education settings (after gaining traction in the gaming, entertainment, and enterprise training), it is very well positioned to meet some of these challenges.  

Of course, digital technology has been enhancing education for decades. The late 1980’s and 1990’s saw the introduction of networked computers for collaborative learning, which soon moved online, and then to MOOC’s and extra-institutional platforms like Coursera and Udemy. But XR offers educators a new, seductive interplay of visualisation technology and human perception, with the capacity to transform both teaching and learning experiences.  

Early research and applications in military and aviation settings have demonstrated that simulation and practise-based training using XR is highly effective. The education sector, however, has been surprisingly slow to adapt and scale this kind of knowledge for modern teaching environments - slow to seek to seek the step-changes in teaching and learning that XR has the potential to deliver.  

Here are four ways in which immersive technology can transform higher education:

Immersion in virtual worlds

Active learner engagement and situated learning offer significant benefits over passive observation, receipt, and interpretation of information by promoting the formation of new experience-based knowledge. The application of technology in education has mostly focused on making information more accessible and interactive, but virtual reality takes this much further, enhancing learning experiences through more naturalistic presentation of the information, interaction with (and thus experience of) simulated environments, and substantial reductions in a learner’s cognitive load.  

Teaching therefore must adapt to this changing medium and move from abstract, passive, and 2D learning formats to practical, situated, and natively 3D curricula.  

The future ubiquity of AR

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s predication that AR will become “as important as eating three meals a day” may still be years away from coming to pass, but wearable AR devices are fast approaching a form-factor that will see them become a common feature of our everyday lives.  

Where VR creates new, remote and, imagined worlds, AR technology augments the physical world, adding layers of data onto what we can see with the naked eye. It augments and contextualises our vision with information, sound, video and graphics.

Many AR applications - for example Mondly, a language learning app with a virtual teacher, or tools used by NASA to simulate spacewalking - already provide new ways of teaching and learning, bridging the gap between the virtual and real world. Researchers are already beginning to see the benefits of such applications, including increased understanding, memory retention and task performance (and the sheer enjoyment involved in learning this way).  

Institutions and educators who can combine the benefits of building virtual worlds with the enhanced experience of augmented reality will transform teaching experiences for the next generation of learners.  

‘Anytime, anywhere’ teaching

Accessibility is an ongoing concern for universities, and the ability to teach remotely significantly reduces some of the physical barriers that students may face in attending classes or lectures in person. Covid-19 has only served to intensify this challenge. Using mixed reality technologies - and not just to replicate the lab environment - could dramatically improve current distance learning formats, ensuring parity in teaching quality on and off campus.  

The 2020 pandemic has already changed the way we live, work and play. Our societies and cultures have already had to confront rapid change, and it has become clear that central activities in our everyday lives can be carried out entirely remotely. This transformation in how we live and work may also be a catalyst for universities to make a longer term move away from traditional methods of teaching, and even when students can return to campus, VR technologies offer clear benefits in delivering a richer blended learning experience.  

One of the key barriers to mass adoption of immersive technology to-date has been the accessibility of affordability of VR hardware for students. We’re trying to address this with edify, removing the need for students to have VR headsets, and allowing them to dial in to their teacher’s vision and virtual classrooms via widely used video conferencing platforms. We are calling this ‘VR by proxy’, or ‘shared immersion’.  

Personalisation of the learning experience

Immersive learning has already been proven to offer a powerful alignment of learner motivation and knowledge retention, but its true potential lies in its capacity to capture very fine-grained personalisation of learning.  

If data is ‘the new oil’ - then culturally significant organisations like universities (who are already capturing more data about their students, teaching and estates than ever before) are in an excellent position to make sure they benefit from it in manner that helps our culture advance.  

Extended reality technology will increasingly enable institutions and teachers to not only better understand learner profiles through advanced data analytics, not to use that information to develop highly individuated improved pedagogy. Supported by edge computing, immersive visualisation means this kind of personalised learning experience will soon be delivered rapidly - even live - directly to a student’s vision.

In the modern higher education institutions, it is not unusual for lectures to be delivered to more than 400 students at once, and tutorial groups of 20 or more and not uncommon. This leaves little room to cater for each student learning types and sensibilities. XR technologies can help present a more detailed picture of exactly how an individual student learns, enabling educators to create tailored experiences which are optimised for each learner.  

The next generation of immersive learning will be based on the current pedagogical research and will also contribute to further understanding on how learning takes place from student to student. But recent reviews of immersive VR and learning illustrate the palpable lack of large, fine-grained data sets recording the learning process; necessitating multiple, time-consuming, and invasive modes of data collection to drive validity and reliability in the results. The active, direct nature of this learning process observation and data collection runs the risk of interrupting and changing the process it intends to understand, undermining the accuracy of the results.  

So, what are we doing to address this with edify? Well, the anonymised and passive observation of the interactions and gestures a learner makes during the process of accessing, assimilating, and internalising new information will produce massive, unique, and extraordinary detailed new cohorts of data. Our mission is to make sure these data feed both new research and the rapid deployment of highly personalised learning experiences - to the benefit of learners, educators, and society at large.  

Built by a team of academics, technologists, gamers, and philosophers, working in partnership with Glasgow University, edify helps learners learn by doing.

To celebrate the launch of edify, funding is available to create and build a limited number of virtual educational experiences for Universities (Semester 20/21). Anyone working in higher academia can take part!

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