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At the recent XR at Michigan Summit, Coursera and the University of Michigan partnered to unveil the next stage of online learning: extended reality (XR) enhanced immersive learning experiences. As part of the program, 10 new XR courses will become available in 2023.

I asked Betty Vandenbosch, chief content officer at Coursera, and Lauren Atkins Budde, director of open learning initiatives at the University of Michigan, if they’d be willing to share some insights into the program, including how XR might shape the future of learning.

Q: U-M and Coursera have a long history of working together to advance online learning. What’s surprised you most about how online learning has changed in the last 10 years, and what role do you see XR playing in the future?

Betty: It’s amazing to think that MOOCs were largely treated as an experiment in 2012. However, thanks to our partners’ emphasis on designing high-quality learning experiences, MOOCs have stood the test of time—and through the years we’ve been able to introduce larger credentials, including certificates and full degree programs from university and industry leaders. With XR, we are pushing the envelope once again, blazing a new trail that will help learners develop skills needed for the future of work.

As one of Coursera’s founding partners, U-M continues to innovate and lead the digital transformation of higher education. Together, we are using XR to enable social learning through role-play simulations and expand access to high-risk, high-cost education, such as mobility, manufacturing and health-care training. As blended learning becomes the norm in higher education, I believe XR courses will play an integral role in helping learners develop practical and human skills.

With this technology, we have the potential to train a whole new class of workers who are more skilled and confident than ever before. There’s really no better education than experience, and XR allows students to get hands-on experience in new ways.

Lauren: I don’t know that’s really a surprise, but it feels like it’s taken so long for many institutions to see the substantial value in online learning, both in terms of for-credit programs and noncredit/alternative credentials. I think learners figured it out a long time ago, but I am happy to see how much energy is now being poured into this space.

Being able to embed quality, effective extended reality experiences into online courses is exponentially a game-changer. One of the persistent constraints of online learning, especially at scale, is how do learners get hands-on practice? How do they experience specific contexts and situations? How do they learn things that are best experienced? XR provides that opportunity for actively doing different kinds of tasks, in various environments, in ways that would otherwise not be possible. It will open up both how we teach online and also what we teach online.

Q: Tell me about the new XR-enhanced courses. How did you decide which subjects to cover first with immersive learning, and what impact do you hope they’ll make?

Lauren: These courses are really exciting and cover a broad range of disciplines, which is particularly important. To choose the right subjects, we did an extensive review of insights from industry partners, learners and market research on in-demand and emerging future-of-work skills and then paired that with content opportunities where immersive learning is really a value-add and creates what our learning experience designers call “embodied learning.” We focused on the skills that benefit from firsthand experience, concepts that are easier to understand through 3-D visualization and interaction, and contexts that are expensive or dangerous to reproduce in a physical space. Some of our current topics include feedback loops, implicit bias, the future of mobility, AR/VR in manufacturing, learning experience design and key nursing skills.

There is a wide variety of extended reality technologies that we’ll be using across these courses, ranging from augmented reality to 360 interactive videos to virtual production, and our learning experts are working with faculty to determine which XR technologies are the best fit for the skills and concepts they’re teaching.

A huge part of this initiative is the evaluative aspect of identifying impacts, implications and best practices for creating at-scale asynchronous courses with immersive elements, so we don’t have everything figured out yet—and we’re excited about that. Our current hypothesis is that the immersive elements we add to courses will help learners learn more quickly, better synthesize the concepts and be able to more effectively practice skills in a more authentic-feeling environment than they would otherwise. Learners will still recognize the familiar overall course experience within the Coursera platform but now will have access to these additional interactive experiences.

Betty: We heard from many industry leaders that there is an urgent need to train learners on human skills, future thinking and specialized vertical content for growing industries such as health care. The first three of 10 XR courses will debut in early 2023 and include:

  • People, Technology & Future of Mobility
  • Advancing Health Equity Through Continuing Education
  • Feedback Loops: How to Give and Get Better Feedback

Future courses will cover topics including AR/VR in manufacturing, implicit bias, nursing skills and learning experience design.

Studies found that students reported increased learning outcomes, and employees had more confidence applying new skills, when learning with VR. Human and person-to-person skills in the workplace are just as important as technical skills, and these courses will allow learners to gain experience that encompasses so much more than what a traditional textbook offers.

With this kind of technology in the hands of educators and learners, we can help create a highly trained workforce with the right skills, confidence and experience to excel from anywhere in the world. Now anyone, anywhere can not just learn but practice the critical skills they need to succeed.

Q: What advice do you have for instructors and universities about how they can leverage XR or other new technology to enhance learning and teaching?

Betty: As we begin this new chapter of online learning, there is so much to be excited about. The same technology employed by Disney’s The Mandalorian is at the disposal of educators. They can use video wall technology and virtual production tools to mix live-action footage and computer graphics in real time. Faculty can transport their students to locations they were never able to go to—think of a high-risk environment such as a nuclear reactor. Medical students can practice hand surgery numerous times before practicing in a lab. The possibilities are endless with XR.

There’s also a great deal that we still don’t know. We won’t always get it right, especially in the beginning. But that encourages us to experiment and partner, especially with those who have led the way. Sharing best practices, especially in the iteration phase, should help us refine this new immersive way of teaching and learning.

Lauren: I always appreciate hearing our director for the XR initiative, Jeremy Nelson, remind folks that XR is a spectrum of technology, not just virtual reality, and in a lot of ways we are all probably engaging in some kind of extended-reality experience on a regular basis, even if it’s just through the Ikea app or Pokémon Go on our phones. Educators should keep that broad array of XR in mind as a set of tools that can be leveraged to meet different needs and goals, and not feel like they have to dive a 100 percent into just virtual reality if it’s not the right fit for a student’s needs.

As with any educational technology, the technology is not the end goal but instead a way to facilitate a learning experience. It will take time, patience, investment and partnerships to create the right integration. We’d love to hear more about how other folks are thinking about and integrating XR in their physical and online classrooms, so please reach out!

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