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DENVER -- Most people who have tried using virtual reality think it’s cool -- if at first a little nausea-inducing. Augmented reality and 3-D printing and scanning at their best elicit awestruck expressions.

But at a session on the umbrella concept of “mixed reality” (abbreviated XR) here Thursday, attendees had some questions for the panel’s VR/AR/XR evangelists: Can these tools help students learn? Can institutions with limited budgets pull off ambitious projects? Can skeptical faculty members be convinced to experiment with unfamiliar technology?

The panelists, by and large, had answers at the ready. All four -- one each from Florida International University, Hamilton College, Syracuse University and Yale University -- have just finished the first year of a joint research project commissioned by Educause and sponsored by Hewlett-Packard to investigate the potential for immersive technology to supplement and even transform classroom experiences.

The project operated from a “spaghetti at the wall” approach, with an eye toward identifying approaches that could be replicated widely, according to D. Christopher Brooks, director of research at Educause.

The "Campus of the Future" report, written by Jeffrey Pomerantz, an associate professor of practice at Simmons College, was published this summer and marks the first step in an ongoing research initiative, according to Brooks.

At their core, three-dimensional technologies allow students to “go places they couldn’t otherwise go or do things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” Brooks said Thursday. Virtual reality environments transport users to space or inside microscopic cells; augmented reality gives students superpowers of object manipulation.

These experiences don’t spring up overnight, though. They require structured collaborations between instructors, instructional designers and IT units.

They also require an investment of time -- Brooks said during the session that Educause recommends taking a full semester to tinker with new technology and work out kinks before unveiling it in classrooms. Institutions with particularly ambitious projects ought to consider hiring a project manager specifically dedicated to those efforts, Brooks said.

Trial and Error

Panelists agreed that the most valuable and impressive mixed reality experiences work out after false starts and mistakes.

Yale has cycled through several approaches to spurring innovation in this space. A few years ago, its technology staff started in earnest with advertisements across campus offering grants to selected instructors for mixed reality projects, according to Randall Rode, Yale’s director of campus IT partner relationship and development. But some projects “foundered,” Rode said, without anyone assigned to support their iterative process.

Then Rode’s team tapped Yale’s center for teaching and learning and the engineering department to help instructors from across the institution who wanted to create 3-D experiences.

“We had some successes with that,” Rode said. “It didn’t feel like the perfect fit.” Each center had its own mission and didn't actively recruit new projects as much as Rode had hoped.

Now Yale has landed on a “hub model” for project development -- instructors propose projects and partner with students with technological capabilities to tap into a centralized pool of equipment and funding.

“We’ll see in six months how it goes,” said Rode.

Even successful efforts might not actually achieve the desired learning objective. At Hamilton, a project in the geosciences department to generate 3-D scans of the institution’s vast collection of rare minerals seemed worthwhile on paper but less so in practice, according to Ben Salzman, an instructional designer and 3-D technology specialist at Hamilton.

“We scanned two minerals and basically our geoscience professor said this isn’t really pedagogically that usable,” Salzman said. “It’s really wonderful to be able to spin it around in 3-D, but it didn’t really go back to learning objectives.” So Salzman’s team halted the project and moved on to a handful of more fruitful ideas, like a virtual representation of fantasy worlds for a literature course.

Wide Array of Options

Classroom applications of mixed reality can take many forms. Several panelists said they had already been getting started on mixed reality initiatives prior to the infusion of support from Educause and HP, which helped them settle on a direction for what Jason Webb, an instructional analyst at Syracuse University, described during the session as “piecemealing.”

While 3-D printing might seem to lend itself more naturally to the hard sciences, Yale’s humanities departments have cottoned to the technology as a portal to answering tough philosophical questions. In a course on selfhood, race, class and gender, 15 students had the option to write a final paper or complete a digital project instead. All but one, who had a family emergency late in the semester, opted for the latter.

One standout from that group, according to Rode, was an Asian woman who printed a 3-D model of her face, keeping one side intact and altering the other to illustrate the subtle effect of American beauty standards on her physical features.

At Florida International University, enterprising students in the College of Communication, Architecture and the Arts (CARTA) head to the CARTA Innovation Lab several miles off campus to create 3-D printed objects for a variety of clients outside the institution: a museum looking to reproduce objects in its collections to model effects of climate change; a surgeon hoping to create life-size replicas of internal organs to help patients understand their medical situations; even the musician Björk, who has absorbed 3-D printing into her eclectic collection of artistic pursuits.

The institution has even flirted with combining technology innovation with efforts to expand its financial aid offerings, according to John Stuart, CARTA's associate dean. The CARTA lab helped connect students to an Amazon seller who wanted users to see a 3-D virtual experience upon visiting its webpage. If the seller ended up purchasing any of the concepts students developed, students could keep the money as an “intellectual property” grant of sorts.

Syracuse’s journalism department has used virtual reality to train future reporters on the perils of preconceived notions and institutionalized bias, Webb said. One simulation briefs students about a police interrogation scene, shows it to them in virtual reality, then asks them whether the officer had brandished a weapon. Most students say yes even though the officer had not shown a weapon -- prompting conversations about the importance of keeping an open mind while reporting.

How to Get Started

One audience member asked panelists for advice on getting initiatives like these going at his own campus, where some faculty members have barely progressed from printing worksheets to generating PDF versions of course materials.

Rode, from Yale, wants to dispel the myth that virtual reality is the domain of only the most affluent, elite institutions. Headset costs have come down dramatically, he said, with some serviceable models available at a few hundred dollars. Besides, institutions would be better served forgoing an early investment in hardware and instead gravitating toward free online products like Unity, Organon and You by Sharecare, all of which allow users to create 3-D experiences from their desktop computers.

“Get one or two so people can play with them, but I wouldn’t say go out and buy a briefcase full of Oculus Gos because you’re going to figure out how to use them,” Rode said. “By the time you figure out how to use them, the things are going to be worthless.”

But what if instructors dig in their heels?

“Lower the barriers to entry, get them to create a simple scene,” Rode said. “This is not, you have to go through the 15-week training course. Start building on day one.”

What's Next

Other participating institutions included Case Western Reserve University, Dartmouth College, Gallaudet University, Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Lehigh University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of San Diego.

Plans are underway for a second cohort of institutions to undertake a similar effort, Brooks revealed during yesterday’s panel.

Meanwhile, Educause will open later this month an online campus survey on virtual reality experiences, with results to be announced at the Educause Learning Initiative conference this February in Anaheim, Calif., Brooks said.

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