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Is there still time to incorporate equity into edtech via virtual reality?

Not everyone agrees that higher education should or could transition to an era of avatars and holograms thanks to virtual reality technologies.


Aside from the marketing hype, virtual reality is already being used in colleges in ways that appear more commonplace as a technology that could improve teaching and learning. At Columbia University, for instance, academics are developing and utilising virtual reality applications to assist students in developing empathy across racial boundaries, learning dental procedures, and viewing molecules in 3D.


Students may find new employment prospects thanks to virtual reality. As the VR development sector expands, it will require individuals skilled in creating and utilising this technology. A few universities offer degree programmes specifically designed for that kind of instruction, such Husson University in Maine, which combines classes in communications, math, design, and coding.


What, however, will make sure that these chances to benefit the most from virtual reality aren’t just available to a small number of educational institutions or to the same social classes that have benefited the most from previous technology development cycles?


Through a new study that will examine the opportunities and challenges presented by virtual reality in higher education, a group of researchers at the think tank Brookings Institution are attempting to answer that question. The group’s first report was based on a roundtable discussion with representatives from historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and community institutions.


An interconnected virtual environment where some digital prospectors hope to strike it rich, the so-called metaverse, is where companies and colleges are vying for ownership, raising concerns about equality in virtual reality to a new level.


Rashawn Ray, a professor at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at Brookings who is co-leading the study project, asserts that “the universities that jump on board with this quickest are going to have some of the highest payoffs.”


A Bridge or a Digital Divide?
Costs of a virtual reality headset run into the hundreds. For the many students who already struggle to pay for modern computers and reliable internet connections necessary for finishing their college assignments, that’s a hefty price tag. Without careful preparation, the use of virtual reality in higher education could exacerbate the current digital divide.


Additionally, students who are on the wrong side of the digital divide enrol in greater numbers at community schools, historically Black universities, and other minority-serving institutions, which typically have less financial support. According to the Brookings analysis, many universities have been slower to adopt virtual reality technology due to the hefty initial investment expenditures.


Nevertheless, despite the fact that virtual reality and simulation tools can be expensive, they also have the potential to be extremely beneficial at the very same institutions that lack the funding for more conventional teaching equipment that is also more expensive, such as advanced science labs or workforce-training technology.


The use of virtual reality tools to teach students who can’t necessarily attend college classes could theoretically enhance access to higher education. For instance, as recently reported by Open Campus, Finger Lakes Community College in New York provides an advanced manufacturing course that makes use of virtual reality welding gear. This allows students from rural locations to enrol without having to drive to the main campus.


Therefore, whether the adoption of virtual reality education technology exacerbates or reduces inequalities relies on whether it adheres to—or deviates from—historical tendencies. Ray contends that while the technology is still in its infancy, it’s not too late to change long-standing practises.


He says, “We have a chance to fix it.

According to Ray, doing so might aid Black, Latino, and female students, who haven’t gained as much from earlier waves of technological development. And it might aid firms that are desperate for more people with the cutting-edge technical skills required to create and operate virtual reality technologies.


A pipeline and labour force with the necessary skills must be created, according to Ray. Community colleges play a crucial role in this.


Exchange of VR resources
Ray is the director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, which employs virtual reality simulations to teach police officers how to deal with challenging circumstances. The facility is equipped with VR goggles, a big TV, a VR camera, enough space for people to move around while engaging in an immersive experience, and what Ray refers to as “suped-up computers” that can run sophisticated software.


It’s the kind of system that not all colleges can afford, costing thousands of dollars.


Ray asserts that institutions with the potential for high-tech research should share their resources with other universities, however he also notes that this kind of inter-institutional collaboration is unlikely to occur naturally. Ray contends that science grant-makers may increase incentives for well-resourced colleges to establish genuine connections with community colleges and institutions that serve underrepresented groups and encourage collaborative research projects that use immersive technology. He cites the MPower programme, which fosters cooperation across two distinct University of Maryland branches, as well as the “social justice alliance” that the University of Maryland has developed with adjacent HBCU Bowie State University as examples of what this might include.


Ray would also like to see more research incentives encouraging institutions to ask local residents to participate in the virtual reality experiments being conducted on campus. According to him, doing so might entail setting up summer programmes for kids and hiring a strong local connection to run the programme.


Or it can entail conducting research elsewhere. Ray’s lab members bring mobile VR technology into K–12 schools where students and police engage in role-playing and discussions about how law enforcement agents interact with the general public. Ray claims that even kids who are used to using cellphones are frequently astonished and eager to test the immersive technology.


It’s possible the experience will inspire a student to pursue a career in technology.

Ray continues, “To expose them to this is a major win for what we’re doing.

Himanshu Mahawar

Himanshu Mahawar is the Editor and Founder at Flaunt Weekly.

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