Virtual reality may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s increasingly reality--and being used in new ways, including in education. And that means institutional IT departments need to begin thinking about how to integrate it, and other new technologies, into their operations, says Emory Craig, director of e-learning and instructional technology at College of New Rochelle in New York.
Craig’s role at New Rochelle puts him in charge of both making sure online course systems are operational and integrating emerging technologies into classrooms. That means managing the learning management system and working with staff and faculty to make sure things are running smoothly. This process could involve setting up lecture capture, for example, and arranging for the digital storage of those lectures. Or, it could mean working with faculty to establish split classrooms, where lectures are placed online and in-class time is used for workshops, questions and special projects.
“They’re looking for things that are user friendly, very simple to use, and that have a great deal of support,” Craig says of the faculty at New Rochelle. That’s why New Rochelle’s IT department recently moved to a cloud-native (i.e., applications built specifically for cloud platforms) learning management system; to help give faculty the tools they need to support technology-forward teaching.
But Craig’s role also means working with different players at the college to introduce new technologies for online and electronic learning. Virtual reality increasingly plays a role here. Many people think of virtual reality as a way to make video games more entertaining, or perhaps something to be used only by the richest or more technologically connected people. But it’s increasingly a tool that can be accessed by all kinds of people, Craig says, with materials as easily accessible as a $15 viewer made of cardboard.
“This is the future of learning, media and entertainment,” Craig says of developments in virtual reality. “It is going to transform everything we do.” And it shouldn’t be all that surprising given that virtual reality has been named a key trend for anyone involved in IT Infrastructure these days. While it’s clearly an end user computing trend, it will fall to IT professionals to ensure the proper infrastructure is in place to support it.
According to Craig, there are three key ways this IT trend can be integrated into the education industry. The first is to provide realistic, deeply immersive experiences. “It opens up the opportunity to not just read a text about something or watch a film about something, but to step into an environment,” he says. It could be used, for example, to insert students into historical situations.
Additionally, virtual reality can be used to provide training based on more specific scenarios such as a particular natural setting or medical procedure. “I already have nursing faculty talking about how they could use something like this to help train their nursing students,” Craig says.
Finally, virtual reality can add new powers to documentary filmmaking, another powerful teaching tool, Craig says. “It’s one thing to watch something on a screen. It’s another thing to step inside a screen and be inside an experience,” he says.
Craig is well aware of the cost restraints many universities are working under, and how that might affect the willingness of institutions to experiment with new technology like virtual reality or split classrooms. But as costs lower and technology advances, the tools for virtual reality on a smaller scale become increasingly accessible. Craig currently has his students use cardboard viewers for a course he’s currently teaching on new media and society, for example. It provides them--and the college--with an easy way to see what kinds of things are capable with this technology, and where it might be worthwhile to invest in the future.
“For a lot of institutions, I think it’s hard to put the financial commitment into it until you see exactly what you’re going to do with it,” Craig says. “It becomes kind of a quick win.” The same approach could be applied to any IT department. And making larger-scale choices, like choosing a cloud-based learning management system that allows for the integration of emerging technology, can help an institution or IT department take a big leap forward.
“That’s a really exciting thing, and something that I’d love to see being rolled out more,” Craig says of the moves an IT department can take to make classrooms more engaging, interactive and collaborative. “We’re in a modern era where it’s increasingly difficult to say ‘I’m just going to stand in front of a room and I’m going to tell you what I know.'”
Terri Coles is a freelance writer based in St. John’s, NL. Her work covers topics as diverse as food, health and business. If you have a story you would like profiled, contact her at [email protected]
The IT Innovators series of articles is underwritten by Microsoft, and is editorially independent.