Is there still time to build equity in Edtech virtual reality?  - EdSurge News

Is there still time to build equity in Edtech virtual reality? – EdSurge News

Not everyone is convinced that virtual reality technology could or should usher higher education into a future of avatars and holograms.

But regardless of this hype, virtual reality is already being used in colleges in ways that seem more mainstream, as a tool that can improve teaching and learning. For example, at Columbia University, professors are creating and using virtual reality tools to help students gain empathy across racial lines, learn dentistry techniques, and examine molecules in 3D. .

Virtual reality could also create new career opportunities for students. As the industry that develops virtual reality grows, it will need workers trained in the construction and application of this technology. A few institutions have study programs dedicated to this type of training, such as Husson University in Maine, which integrates courses in coding, design, mathematics and communication.

But what will ensure that these opportunities to get the most out of virtual reality are not limited to a few select educational institutions or the same groups of people who have done the best in previous cycles of development? technological?

That’s the question being asked by a team of researchers from the Brookings Institution think tank, through a new project that will probe the opportunities and barriers offered by virtual reality in higher education. For their first installment, the group released a report based on a roundtable held with leaders from community colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and historically black colleges and universities.

Concerns about equity in virtual reality are particularly salient now that corporations and colleges are racing to claim rights in the so-called metaverse, an interconnected virtual space where some digital prospectors believe they will make their fortunes.

“The universities that get on board the fastest with this will have some of the biggest payoffs,” says Rashawn Ray, a University of Maryland professor and Brookings principal investigator who is co-leading the research project.

A digital divide — or a bridge?

A virtual reality headset costs hundreds of dollars. That’s a steep price for the many students who already can’t afford up-to-date computers or sufficient internet connections to complete college. If the use of virtual reality in higher education expands without careful planning, it could further deepen this digital divide.

Additionally, the same types of students who are on the wrong side of the digital divide disproportionately enroll in colleges that tend to have fewer financial resources, such as community colleges, historically black universities, and colleges. other institutions serving minorities. And these colleges have been slower to adopt virtual reality technology due to the high initial costs of investing in it, according to the Brookings report.

However, while virtual reality and simulation tools can indeed be expensive, they also have the potential to be particularly useful in the same institutions that lack the resources for traditional teaching equipment which is even more expensive, like advanced science labs or workforce training technology.

Virtual reality tools could also, hypothetically, increase access to higher education by making it more possible to teach students who cannot necessarily travel to a university classroom. For example, Finger Lakes Community College in New York offers an advanced manufacturing course that uses virtual reality welding tools, allowing students from rural areas to participate without having to travel to the main campus, such as the recently reported Open Campus.

So whether the spread of virtual reality edtech worsens or lessens inequality depends on whether it follows or breaks historical patterns. Because the technology is in its infancy, Ray says it’s not too late to disrupt old habits.

“We have a chance to fix it,” he says.

That could give a boost to black, Latino and female college students, groups that haven’t benefited as much from previous waves of technological change, Ray adds. And it could help employers looking for more workers with the advanced technology skills needed to create and use virtual reality tools.

“You have to build a pipeline, a workforce that has the skills to be able to do that,” says Ray. “Community colleges are at the heart of this.”

VR Resource Sharing

At the University of Maryland, Ray directs the Applied Social Science Research Lab, which uses virtual reality simulations to train police officers to handle difficult situations. The room has VR goggles, a large TV screen, a VR camera, enough open space for someone to walk around while taking part in an immersive experience, and what Ray calls “enhanced computers” that can handle advanced software.

It’s the kind of facility, worth several thousand dollars, that not all colleges can afford.

That’s why Ray thinks universities that have the capacity for high-tech research should share their resources with other colleges, though he adds that this type of inter-institutional partnership is unlikely to emerge without intentional effort. Ray therefore argues that science funders could create more incentives for well-resourced colleges to build genuine relationships with community colleges and minority-serving institutions that support joint research programs using immersive technology. As a model of what this might look like, he cites the MPower program, which supports collaborations between two different branches of the University of Maryland system, as well as the “social justice alliance” that the University of Maryland established with Bowie State University. , a nearby HBCU.

Ray would also like to see more research incentives for colleges to invite members of local communities to engage in virtual reality studies that take place on campus. He says that could mean setting up summer programs for young people and finding someone with strong local ties to administer the program.

Or it could mean taking research off campus. Members of Ray’s lab bring mobile virtual reality technology tools to K-12 schools, where students and police together participate in simulations and conversations about how law enforcement officers interact with the public. Even students accustomed to using smartphones are often surprised and excited to try immersive technology, Ray says.

This encounter may well be the spark that puts a student on the path to a career in technology.

“Exposing them to this,” adds Ray, “is a huge win for what we do.”

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