Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are on the doorstep of education, and without a doubt, they will change how we teach and learn. The classroom of the future will be a hyper-immersive experience that will cater to an experiential learning environment through a purely digital ecosystem, fostering teaching and learning that closely mimics in-person interaction.

Whether simulating full environments with Virtual Reality, blending digital and real world elements with Augmented Reality, or utilizing machine learning with Artificial Intelligence, new technologies are poised to affect education at all levels, having a particularly profound effect on professional and continuing education as well as distance and online learning. As a higher education leader, are you ready to embrace these transformative teaching technologies?


From Virtual Tours to Medical Marvels

Virtual Reality (VR) applications are expected to grow quickly in education. And why not? Arguably the most established new reality-tech, VR has been around for decades and after years of popularity with the gaming industry, market analysis from Grandview Research suggests that the VR market size will hit $48.5 billion by 2025. Using this technology that simulates immersive experiences, hundreds of colleges and universities already offer virtual reality campus tours. But the potential impact of VR for online learning programs is massively significant, especially as the cost to attend post graduate studies continues to increase. VR allows us to bridge the gap between educators and learners. Distance learning tools can put educators and students together in the same room with digital representations of themselves—teachers can teleport into the VR world and guide students through their experiences.

According to ELearning Inside, the cost of VR consumer devices has been dropping with the development of VR headsets powered by mobile phones, along with VR compatible computers that now cost under $1,000. With these developments in mind, the implementation of VR technology is finally becoming more cost-effective for a range of institutions.

One of the problems in distance learning is students feeling a lack of presence; they miss out on interacting with fellow students and their teachers. As such, it is easy to see how a student could become despondent and quickly lose interest if they struggle to understand a concept and there is nobody available to help them. However, VR could change all that. Instead of sitting alone in front of a screen, they could pop on a headset and be in a virtual classroom with students and a teacher. Distance learning would suddenly have a sense of presence and students would perhaps feel more like they are “taking part.”

I recently visited Averett University in Danville, Virginia, where I used their VR system to “virtually” explore the inner workings of the human body. Using the proper gestures, students could zoom into the chest to see the chest muscles then click to see the inner cavity. From there, they can go deeper to see inside the heart, all the way to the cellular level. In this immersive experience, information was written out to explain the organs and anatomy alongside the VR exploration It was an amazing experience that demonstrated to me just how much the way students study the human body is being completely transformed.

Medical students can also use VR to simulate real-life surgery. Using virtual worlds to simulate medical procedures allow errors to be made without the catastrophic consequences of real procedures. Imagine the impact this can have on professional studies or continuing education programs where students are looking to build specific skills. On the topic of skill building through VR, a University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Professor of Physical Therapy and Anatomy commented to the UCSF News Center that “[virtual reality] has the potential to take us to the next level of experience so we can go from general anatomy learning to an environment where anatomy has been disrupted and the student has to act on it. This technology takes anatomy learning and applies it almost immediately.”

Virtual solutions have also been developed that allow students to forgo expensive travel by practicing their language skills in VR scenarios with AI-powered animated characters. Students can feel less inhibited than in real-life interactions to improve their language skills and receive real-time feedback. In one article by Educause illustrating uses of VR in educational settings, the author notes that in Nicole Mills’s French language and culture classes, “students meet native speakers at parties in their homes and eavesdrop on conversations in Parisian cafés, all without leaving Cambridge. Cultural immersion is a tried-and-true element of language instruction, and this project brings students into the 11th arrondissement of Paris through VR film narratives.” By making remarkable experiences available to students, VR technology can transform an array of disciplines.

What was once purely science fiction, like Tony Stark of the Iron Man movies creating the Iron Man suit using virtual reality, will be commonplace in the future. Even today, university medical researchers are exploring how VR can help treat everything from agoraphobia to burn wounds to stroke. Researchers creating new drugs, robotics or machines can experience the inner workings through modern VR. If adopted properly, with the right network capacity, VR can drive better research and learning experiences, and can do so in more affordable ways.

Distance Learning, Now Up Close

Moving this type of immersive learning experience further, augmented reality (AR) drives student engagement by simulating superimposed, artificial objects in real-world environments and enhancing their perception of reality. Students can explore, experience, or be involved in virtual objects as if they are present in that environment. Look at the popularity of this technology in applications like Pokémon Go or enhanced shopping experiences. Today’s students are accustomed to the oscillation between an online and in-person experience. In the future, teaching strategies will take advantage of these experiences to improve student engagement and success rates.

From STEM to the humanities, any subject matter can be enhanced by AR. Imagine engineering classes where students learning about jet propulsion can scan their textbook to see the Thrust Equation come to life with a rocket’s takeoff, or learn what happens if they mix the wrong organic compounds in chemistry class without being exposed to an unsafe lab environment. In other classes, students can see historic wars come to life, travel back in time to see FDR sitting on their desk delivering his speeches during World War II, watch the Trojan War happen around them, or simply land on the moon as astronauts. Students can already use AR in astronomy studies by merely pointing their phones at the night sky and letting software visualize planets and galaxies using location-based technology. Duke University, for example, has had humanities classes explore ancient buildings or archeological sites. Students are also able to access a virtual dissection table to learn about anatomical functions at the Western University of Health Sciences, Pomona, California, which allows them to navigate layers of vertical tissue. Similar technology developed by MEDIVIS for medical schools, nursing schools, and hospitals uses AR for the teaching of clinical anatomy and physiology and for advanced surgical visualization and planning.

A new trend for distance and continuing learners is a “blended” model, where students visit campus for a week or a weekend. Augmented reality applications can significantly help these first-time visitors. Similar to the future of Google Maps, a visitor can get directions to their destination, but along the way use their camera to gather information on buildings and activities, bringing the campus “to life.” On the visitor’s walk to the engineering lab, they can see that the building on their right has a dance class, or a debate club meeting at 9:00 p.m., they can walk up to walls listing the college’s benefactors to get biographical information on the donors, creating an experience that helps build affinity and sense of belonging to the school.

These solutions can be implemented both in the classroom and throughout online learning programs, creating new ways for students of all learning types to engage in their course content. Robots have even been developed that are controlled by students remotely, allowing them to not only witness a live classroom but also move around and navigate the space. While tabletop versions are often used by student athletes to avoid missing a class while traveling for games or matches, more full-scale robots are allowing students to fully participate in additional course activities. With AR’s immersive experiences, you have a more engaged class. The result: improved student outcomes.


Leading Higher Education Through Artificial Intelligence

Leading the expanding capabilities of AI is deep learning, which applies machine learning tools and techniques to solving just about any problem that requires “thought” – human or artificial. Harnessing machine learning technology, much like the AI tools used in self-driving cars or image recognition, educational applications span from giving computers “vision,” to speech recognition, machine translation, medical diagnosis, etc. I believe that deep learning is the new scientific infrastructure for research and learning that universities would be wise to embrace and lead. It has profound research applications in higher education and professional studies:

  • Researchers at one university are putting advanced image recognition (“computer vision”) to work, detecting one of the most aggressive, but treatable in early stages, types of cancer. Melanoma is not only be deadly, but it can also be difficult to screen accurately. The team trained a neural network to isolate features (texture and structure) of moles and suspicious lesions for better recognition.
  • Researchers at some of the top university medical research facilities, including University of California, Irvine, are working with gastroenterologists on improving colonoscopies. The scope of the future will pull in massive amounts of data to not only identify polyp growth, but also predict future polyp growth. The scope would show “green, orange and red” boxes around safe or potentially harmful growths.
  • AI teaching assistants have been used in undergraduate computing courses at Georgia Tech for several years. AI TAs can’t answer deep questions about content, but they are useful because students tend to ask the same questions again and again. Questions about assessment or deadlines are easily handled by AI, and students cannot immediately tell the difference between an AI and human TA.

What Do We Need to Make This Happen?

Indeed, high costs remain a challenge, but the day is not far, I believe, when AI and VR/AR tools will be as accessible as smartphones and desktop computers. We will just need to make sure we have the right infrastructure: sufficient wireless network capacity to support these astounding applications, PCs with enough computing power, and physical spaces that are suitable for the unique requirements of immersive experiences. We tend to forget that each device that enables fully-immersive technology—sensors, cameras, microphones, smartphones, glasses and others that have yet to be dreamed up—are all connected. And on the scale of bandwidth rapaciousness, VR/AR and Deep Learning are on the hungrier end of the technology used in higher education. Higher education institutions need to start thinking about their own VR/AR and AI adoption: what it might look like and what it might require in terms of infrastructure and support.

The ability to fully leverage these technologies will enable higher education institutions to transform learning and the campus at large to meet student needs. From personalized programs and more effective distance learning to stronger research capabilities and a more connected student life, the innovations of VR, AR, and deep learning can improve student success and satisfaction exponentially. Allowing students to more closely experience their academic focus in these ways will only bring more value to higher education. The array of offerings, when paired with the right disciplines and courses, can help universities fulfill student expectations in an ever-expanding technological world. Reality in any form comes at you fast. It was only about three to five years ago that BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), where employers allow staff to access company information on personal devices, was regarded as a new trend. Compounded by students’ expectation for access on an array of devices and personalized platforms VR/AR and AI are poised to transform teaching and learning. And it’s not too late to get ready, starting now.



Rajiv Shenoy is the Chief Technology Officer at Apogee, higher education’s largest managed technology services provider. Rajiv has spoken at over 50 industry events and has visited 400 universities and met with their leaders to share technology’s impact on university strategic goals. He joined Apogee when his digital media company, OrcaTV, was acquired in 2016. Currently, he serves on his local school district’s Advisory Board and is host of the podcast The Internet of Learning Podcast