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What does the classroom of the future look and feel like? What about the future of work? How will immersive technologies support our exploration and understanding of problems, enable our acquisition of new skills, and strengthen our interactions with each other? As the spheres of learning and work move rapidly toward hybrid modes of interaction, we are optimistic about the role extended reality (XR) technologies can play in enhancing the ways we learn and work together.

We launched a new campuswide XR Initiative at the University of Michigan 18 months ago to explore how emerging XR technologies can strengthen the quality of a Michigan education, cultivate an interdisciplinary scholarly community of practice and enhance a nationwide network for academic innovation. The disruption caused by the pandemic to education and industry has only made us more confident in the role XR technology can play in helping us understand our world and each other. It is also clear we must do it ethically, compassionately and equitably.

As we approach our inaugural XR at Michigan Summit next week, an event open to participants across the growing XR ecosystem, we are optimistic about the future of XR in learning. There is no shortage of challenges to address. But there are also reasons to be hopeful if we continue to invest our collective energy in ways that fully consider the implications of extended reality technologies. As we look ahead toward the rest of 2021, here are five reasons we are hopeful about the future of XR in learning.

1. An emerging privacy framework, ethical guidelines and immersive technology standards can ensure a more durable future.

XR technologies generate enormous amounts of personal information and expand the definition of what must be protected, including biometrically inferred data. We have an opportunity to lay a solid foundation about data protection and transparency in a way that hasn’t been done with other emerging technologies. The XR Safety Initiative, a 501(c)(3) global not-for-profit organization that promotes privacy, security and ethics in immersive environments, has been setting real standards in these areas. It has convened a group of global experts from industry, academia and government to create the XRSI Privacy Framework 1.0 to set a baseline set of standards, guidelines and best, regulation-agnostic practices. At UM, we have worked with colleagues at Georgia Tech to help contribute to the framework in the areas of FERPA, Title VI and Title IX as well as GDPR and CCPA. This important work is already getting the attention of major XR vendors including Facebook and Microsoft as well as policy advocates in the U.S. federal government.

2. Collaboration across higher education institutions and industry partners is accelerating experimentation and laying the groundwork for a sustainable ecosystem for XR in learning.

Higher education has been exploring the uses of XR since the last major wave of virtual reality in the late ’90s. In the last five years, there has been a significant increase in the development and distribution of XR experiences for teaching and learning. Institutions ranging from community colleges and vocational schools to R-1 research institutions have been using XR technologies in various capacities, and the pace of growth is becoming more rapid. In the summer of 2020, a group of more than 150 institutions from 25 countries came together to form Champions in Higher Education for XR (CHEX) to share ideas and knowledge about how to start XR programs and deploy technology throughout their institutions. Major industry collaborations from companies including Microsoft, Lenovo, HP and HTC have created mutually beneficial products from devices to software delivery platforms. The willingness of colleagues across higher education to share lessons learned with XR technology procurement, device management, content creation and data collection has accelerated adoption and implementation of new vendor solutions.

3. XR is impacting learning and is already transforming particular fields like health-care education and care delivery.

Schools of nursing and medical schools have been some of the earliest adopters of XR technologies and have pushed the boundaries of what these devices and platforms can do. Simulation is a major part of any health-care education curriculum, and virtual reality has been at the forefront of simulation for years. A medical or nursing student can practice a high-risk scenario in a low-stakes environment such as performing infant cardiac arrest protocols in VR before ever doing it on a real child. The Imperial College of London has been partnering with Microsoft to use the HoloLens 2 mixed reality headset to perform ward rounds during COVID to reduce exposure to patients and students. One physician wears the HoloLens 2 into a patient room while the rest of the student team participates and learns remotely through a Microsoft Teams meeting. In December 2020, UM partnered with Imperial College of London to create the first International Mixed Reality Grand Rounds to showcase the power of this technology across countries and health systems. In another example, Case Western University developed an application for the HoloLens called HoloAnatomy that allows medical students to learn anatomy by interacting with holograms with fellow students all in the HoloLens headset. In March of 2020, Case Western sent 185 HoloLens devices to all first-year medical students and continued teaching anatomy remotely without missing a beat.

At UM, faculty in the School of Nursing looked to XR as a mode of teaching to help solve challenges presented by COVID in delivering skills-based learning for undergraduate and graduate students. It began exploring how the HoloLens 2 with Dynamics 365 Guides could be used with traditional mannequins to enhance the learning experience and provide a more self-guided method of instruction.

XR is certainly not reserved for health education alone. In the 18 months since we launched our campuswide XR initiative, we have funded 22 projects from 11 schools and colleges. Projects on topics such as construction architecture, English literature, virtual physics labs and a VR nuclear reactor are demonstrating the wide potential of XR in learning.

4. Innovations focusing on the democratization of content creation could have a significant impact on capacity, participation and adoption.

Content creation is one of the largest barriers to adoption of XR technologies. While procuring headsets remains a major challenge, it is access to a high-quality catalog of experiences to run on those headsets that often stands in the way of learning innovation. The current method to create high-quality experiences is to use game engines such as Unity or Unreal Engine, by Epic Games. However, development in these environments still requires significant time and resources. There is a rapidly growing number of vendors that are creating platforms on the web that utilize WebXR to allow content creators to develop XR experiences with low or no code requirements, and 360-degree video VR is the area that has advanced the most in the past year. There are many platforms on the market today that allow you to upload 360-degree photos and videos and create digital interactions and branching logic on top of uploaded media to create a rich interactive experience. The more UX and learning experience designers can create and edit content, the faster these technologies can be used to make a broader impact in higher education.

There are many exciting efforts to support the democratization of content creation and the expansion of human capital contributing to innovation in XR and learning. For example, the Center for Academic Innovation at UM recently partnered with Michael Nebeling, a faculty member at UM’s School of Information, to create a new series of online courses called Extended Reality for Everybody. Additionally, the University of London Goldsmiths created a virtual reality specialization focused on how to create VR content. Companies like Unity and Epic Games are creating self-guided online courses to help solve the content creation problem. As more companies embrace XR technologies in their day-to-day work, we expect increased demand for content creators and more mature platforms to meet the needs of the market.

5. XR is revolutionizing soft-skills training in areas critical to the future of work and in a way that complements rapid adoption of online and hybrid learning.

We are seeing increased demand from faculty at Michigan to explore the use of XR technologies to help develop and master competencies and soft skills across almost every school or college. Major corporations are investing millions of dollars in VR technologies to help train their workers in soft skills training in partnership with companies such as STRIVR and Talespin. According to a study by PwC in 2020, VR learners were four times faster to train than in a classroom, 275 percent more confident in their ability to apply the skills after the VR and 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content compared with classroom learners. As the future of learning and work becomes more hybrid and remote, augmented and virtual reality solutions provide opportunities to train at scale and bring people together in new ways. During the pandemic, VMware used virtual reality to onboard all new hires by sending these employees a VR headset loaded with training and collaboration tools to virtually meet up with their teams. XR can provide ways for people to practice difficult situations and high-risk skills in a controlled and repeatable way. It also offers the option to remotely collaborate with people that are in the office, on their computer or on another XR device. Here again we see incredible opportunity for further collaboration between higher education and industry partners who share a commitment to ethical innovation and sustainability in the future of work.

These are among the top reasons we are hopeful about the future of XR in learning. What else are you excited about? While we didn’t focus on challenges and issues in this article, there is no shortage of problems to work through. What are your biggest concerns about XR in learning? Do you see other opportunities for XR to positively shape the classroom of the future and the future of work? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter (#XR4Learning) to strengthen our shared understanding about the potential opportunities and important challenges that we should explore together.

James DeVaney (@DeVaneyGoBlue) is the associate vice provost for academic innovation and the founding executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan.

Jeremy Nelson (@Jernel_Umich) is the director of the XR initiative at the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan.

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