Is There Still Time to Build Equity into Virtual Reality Edtech?

Not everyone is sold on the idea that virtual reality technology could or should bring higher education into a future of avatars and holograms.

But separate from that hype, virtual reality is already being used at colleges in ways that seem more mainstream, as a tool that has the potential to enhance 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 VR grows, it will need workers who are trained in how to build and apply this technology. A few institutions have degree programs dedicated to that kind of training, such as Husson University in Maine, which integrates classes in coding, design, math and communications.

But what will ensure that these opportunities for making the most of virtual reality aren’t limited to a select few educational institutions—or to the same groups of people who have made out best during past cycles of technology development?

That’s the question a team of researchers at the think tank Brookings Institution are asking, through a new project that will probe the opportunities and barriers virtual reality offers in higher education. For their first installment, the group published a report based on a roundtable discussion held with leaders from community colleges, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and historically Black colleges and universities.

Concerns about equity in virtual reality are especially salient now that corporations and colleges are racing to stake claims in the so-called metaverse—an interconnected virtual space where some digital prospectors believe they will strike it rich.

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

A Digital Divide — Or Bridge?

A virtual reality headset costs hundreds of dollars. That’s a big price tag for the many students who already can’t afford up-to-date computers or internet connections adequate for completing their college coursework. If the use of virtual reality in higher education grows without careful planning, it could make this digital divide even more severe.

Additionally, the same types of students who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide enroll disproportionately at colleges that tend to have fewer financial resources, like community colleges, historically Black universities and other minority-serving institutions. And these colleges have been slower to adopt virtual reality technology because of the high upfront costs of investing in it, according to the Brookings report.

However, although virtual reality and simulation tools can indeed be costly, they also have the potential to be especially useful at the very same institutions that lack resources for traditional teaching equipment that is even more expensive, like advanced science labs or workforce-training technology.

Virtual reality tools also hypothetically could increase access to higher education by making it more possible to teach students who can’t necessarily make it to a college classroom. For example, Finger Lakes Community College in New York offers an advanced manufacturing class that uses virtual reality welding tools, which enables students in rural areas to participate without having to travel to the main campus, as Open Campus recently reported.

So whether the spread of virtual reality edtech worsens or alleviates inequities depends on whether it follows—or breaks with—historical patterns. Because the technology is in its early stages, Ray argues it’s not too late to disrupt old habits.

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

Doing so could give a boost to Black, Latino and women students, groups who haven’t benefited as much from previous waves of tech evolution, Ray adds. And that could help employers hungry for more workers who have the advanced tech skills needed to build and use virtual reality tools.

“You have to build a pipeline, a labor force, that has the skill set to be able to do this,” Ray says. “Community colleges are central to this.”

Sharing VR Resources

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

It’s the kind of setup—worth many thousands of dollars—that not every college can afford.

That’s why Ray believes universities that have the capacity for high-tech research should share their resources with other colleges—although he adds that this kind of cross-institutional partnership is unlikely to emerge without intentional effort. So Ray argues that science grant-makers could create more incentives for well-resourced colleges to build authentic relationships with community colleges and minority-serving institutions that support joint research programs using immersive technology. As a model for how this might look, he points to 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 has established with Bowie State University, a nearby HBCU.

Ray also would like to see more research incentives nudging colleges to invite members of local communities to engage with the virtual reality studies happening on campus. He says that might mean setting up summer programs for youth—and getting someone with strong local ties to administer the program.

Or it might mean taking research off campus. Members of Ray’s lab take mobile VR tech tools into K-12 schools, where students and police participate together 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 the immersive technology, Ray says.

That encounter just might be the spark that sets a student on a path toward a technology career.

“To expose them to this,” Ray adds, “is a huge win for what we’re doing.”

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