Sep 12, 2023 - Technology

Virtual reality takes a seat in college classrooms

Illustration of a VR headset with a graduation cap resting on top

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As schools gingerly embrace virtual reality, Meta announced Tuesday that it's supplying VR equipment and resources to 15 U.S. universities as part of a broader goal to make classroom education more "immersive."

Why it matters: Teachers and tech executives say VR and the metaverse could eventually be a game-changer for hands-on learning, but there are lots of kinks to work out first.

  • "This is a long road," Nick Clegg, Meta's president of global affairs, tells Axios in an exclusive interview. "We're now moving from talking about the potential of these immersive technologies in the classroom to actually trying to develop a head of steam."

Driving the news: Meta is donating $300 Quest 2 headsets to 15 U.S. universities that use VR as a pedagogical tool.

  • Stanford University and the University of Iowa will use them to teach "soft skills" to business school students — how to have a difficult conversation with an employee, for example, or how to interview well.
  • Arizona State University, which has been working with VR startup Dreamscape since 2020, will use them to teach languages, enabling students to converse in new tongues in different virtual settings.
  • Morehouse College, which has been teaching a course on Black history in VR, will use them in its "digital twin" college — also called "metaversities" — where lessons are virtual.
  • Purdue Global will use them to train nurses in virtual simulations of hospitals, while Nova Southeastern University will use them to train medical students in anatomy.

The big picture: Meta, Apple and a host of other companies large and small are betting that VR, AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality) will become an integral part of the learning experience at all educational levels.

  • They predict VR headsets will become standard fixtures in classrooms, adopted over time the way calculators and laptops were in years past.
  • The so-called "EdTech" sector, in which hardware and software facilitate learning, is widely predicted to expand rapidly.
  • The pandemic acclimated students and teachers to virtual learning at the same time that VR headsets started to become more popular and affordable.

The equity issue: Advocates for VR in the schools say the metaverse can give disadvantaged students up-close-and-personal access to experiences that might otherwise be unavailable to them — like a visit to the Louvre or a field trip to NASA.

  • At a school in Muskegon, Michigan, for example, students "have used the goggles to tour the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or stand on the cliffs of Machu Picchu," per Education Week.

Of note: The body of research supporting the power of VR as a teaching tool is small but growing.

  • Meta cites work by PwC and Brookings on the power and immediacy of the metaverse as a learning environment.
  • Meta itself "is supporting a detailed, global research program that is looking at how to maximize the benefits of these technologies while minimizing the risks," Clegg wrote on Medium.

Yes, but: Many teachers are skittish about the introduction of VR — it's expensive and difficult to manage for a large group of students, and it can be hard to make sure everyone's engaged.

  • "It can be, at the moment, a little cumbersome for a teacher to have 12 to 15 headsets which all have to be personally configured and logged on," Clegg acknowledged.
  • Meta plans to build "far more classroom-ready applications of the hardware, so that you can basically take them out of the box, and they can be used," he said. "That's not the case at the moment."
  • While "we're not firing on all cylinders yet" in the classroom market, "we're seeing very strong demand," Clegg said.

Between the lines: Meta has been struggling to make its heavy financial investment in the metaverse pay off, and it sees the education market as potentially fruitful.

  • It will take "quite a while" before VR is "prevalent in education settings around the world on a scale that would make a society-wide difference," Clegg said, adding: "We believe it can."
  • "This is the phase where we're trying to build up sufficient research and an empirical base to prove the benefits of these technologies, and to get them into the hands of" educators and students.
  • VR "can't replace teachers," Clegg said. Rather, Meta's schools initiatives are "all about making sure that teachers have got the tools" they need.

Meta won't say how much it's giving to the 15 universities, other than that it's "donating Quest 2 devices and [is] available for any support the universities may need." (The Quest 2, released in 2020, is an older model; the latest is the $1,000 Quest Pro.)

  • "Some of the schools had their own devices previously, as they've been teaching using VR before this collaboration," a Meta spokeswoman said.
  • The software/applications that the universities are using aren't under Meta's purview.

Meta has set up "a $150 million fund called Meta Immersive Learning," Clegg wrote in a separate post on Medium.

  • "One project it has supported is a partnership with Prisms VR, run by a former teacher, to build a virtual math and science curriculum for grades 8–12, which is currently being piloted in Ohio with plans to expand to Boston and Los Angeles."
  • "Another is a partnership with Victory XR to launch 10 digital twin campuses — replicas of existing campuses constructed in fully spatial 3D, at colleges and universities in the United States."
  • Clegg tells Axios that the fund is paying for the Quest 2 devices for the universities.

💬 Thought bubble from Axios chief technology correspondent Ina Fried: VR has struggled to find its place, but learning and training are seen as areas where there could be enough value to justify both the cost and trade-offs in terms of bulkiness and short battery life.

What's next: As schools embrace VR, "the next ambition is personalized education," Clegg said.

  • "I think there's a mixture of a VR immersive experience with a personalized sort of AI engine behind [that] really will allow teachers to tailor their teaching to students."
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