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Is There Still Time to Build Equity into Virtual Reality Edtech?

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Not everyone is sold on the idea that virtual reality technology could or should bring higher education into a future of avatars and holograms.

But separate from that hype, virtual reality is already being used at colleges in ways that seem more mainstream, as a tool that has the potential to enhance teaching and learning. For example, at Columbia University, professors are creating and using virtual reality tools to help students gain empathy across racial lines, learn dentistry techniques and examine molecules in 3D.

Virtual reality could also create new career opportunities for students. As the industry that develops VR grows, it will need workers who are trained in how to build and apply this technology. A few institutions have degree programs dedicated to that kind of training, such as Husson University in Maine, which integrates classes in coding, design, math and communications.

But what will ensure that these opportunities for making the most of virtual reality aren’t limited to a select few educational institutions—or to the same groups of people who have made out best during past cycles of technology development?

The universities that get on board with this quickest are going to have some of the biggest payoffs.

—Rashawn Ray
That’s the question a team of researchers at the think tank Brookings Institution are asking, through a new project that will probe the opportunities and barriers virtual reality offers in higher education. For their first installment, the group published a report based on a roundtable discussion held with leaders from community colleges, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and historically Black colleges and universities.

Concerns about equity in virtual reality are especially salient now that corporations and colleges are racing to stake claims in the so-called metaverse—an interconnected virtual space where some digital prospectors believe they will strike it rich.

“The universities that get on board with this quickest are going to have some of the biggest payoffs,” says Rashawn Ray, a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at Brookings who is co-leading the research project.

A Digital Divide — Or Bridge?
A virtual reality headset costs hundreds of dollars. That’s a big price tag for the many students who already can’t afford up-to-date computers or internet connections adequate for completing their college coursework. If the use of virtual reality in higher education grows without careful planning, it could make this digital divide even more severe.

Additionally, the same types of students who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide enroll disproportionately at colleges that tend to have fewer financial resources, like community colleges, historically Black universities and other minority-serving institutions. And these colleges have been slower to adopt virtual reality technology because of the high upfront costs of investing in it, according to the Brookings report.

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