4 Questions to Ask Before Adopting Virtual Simulations to Drive Student Success and Retention

Whether you use laptops, tablets, or VR headsets, make sure you have the right use cases for immersive digital learning experiences. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Bodekaer Jensen

LABSTER

An educational institution faced with budget constraints and growing student dropout rates — and really, which one isn’t — may look to virtualize and hybridize courses to directly address these challenges. Not only can this maximize savings, but the online flexibility is attractive to many students, as long as they are provided with engaging, worthwhile experiences.

‘Any new edtech tool should be a value-add rather than an additional burden.’

The 2023 Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report found that two-thirds of higher education institutions are “adding new online programs based on student demand” to spur enrollment and retention. With the right amount of creativity and the right approach, most coursework in education can be virtualized today. But as we know from Jurassic Park, just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should! The key is to make virtualization effective and productive. An immersive digital learning experience won’t automatically result in a better outcome for students, even if it saves budgets or instructor time.

Any new edtech tool should be a value-add rather than an additional burden. I’ve found there are four specific use cases for virtual simulations, at least in my area of expertise, science and healthcare education. If any one of these factors applies, then virtualization is a worthwhile option.

1. Engaging. Will this make a topic more interesting? There are some topics on which instructors struggle to engage back-row student attention through classic text-based lectures and basic videos. But virtual learning, especially when enhanced with gamified storytelling, can bring boring subjects to life and inspire — and retain — students through opportunities to gain relevant knowledge by standing in the shoes of real scientists, interacting with advanced equipment, learning techniques, performing experiments, and “traveling” through the human body or the universe. In fact, 77% of educators surveyed by the XR Association (XRA) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) believe the use of immersive technologies “inspires curiosity and increases student engagement.”

2. Time-consuming. Will virtualization make student and faculty time in physical classrooms more efficient?  Simulations can reduce the instructor burden of developing lectures on content more quickly introduced (and easily absorbed) through an immersive, interactive experience. For lab science, simulations can bolster pre-lab training so that students come better prepared to the physical facility, and time there can be reserved for collaborative peer work, in-person teacher feedback, and instructor-led analysis and discussion. Particularly in an era of teacher shortages in many rural areas, virtualization of certain subjects can help overburdened faculty introduce new units, make lessons more relatable, and compile feedback to more quickly evaluate and adjust curriculum and develop quizzes to meet student needs.

3. Expensive. Is the course I want to virtualize costly to offer? An educator with a very limited budget may not be able to tap equipment resources in sufficient quantities. Lab facilities may be basic or only available within strict timeframes, and field trips may not figure in financial plans. Virtualization of lab coursework can be used for teaching both theory and techniques, and can help institutions add competitive offerings without needing to raise tuition. It can expand opportunities for students to experience state-of-the-art facilities and field work that would be cost-prohibitive in real life. It can enhance accessibility for students with physical challenges. 

4. Dangerous to teach. Could the experiments that students will undertake pose a threat to their safety? Virtualized lab coursework can allow students to research viruses that are above the Biosafety Level (BSL) of containment that the institution is allowed to teach. Simulations can provide virtual safety training to prepare students with the required skills, confidence and PPE experience for when they do enter physical labs. They ready students for hypothetical situations that are impossible to practice safely in a physical lab, such as an explosion, acid spill, or biohazard contamination. 

Choosing among laptops, tablets or fully immersive VR

Upon deciding if a use case merits virtualization, the follow-on question is if students will benefit from three-dimensional virtual reality requiring an investment in specialized VR headgear. Will student learning experiences be enhanced from the sense of “real” presence achieved through higher-order immersive VR?  In many cases, lower-order immersive simulations through a web browser on a standard two-dimensional desktop, laptop, or tablet display will serve the purpose well. 

Recognizing logistical headaches

Most research that I’ve seen shows about a 10 to 20% increase in memory retention of learning through VR applications, but it depends on the design and context of the experience. The challenges and costs involved in setting up a dedicated VR classroom space, purchasing and managing headsets for a large number of simultaneous users, adjusting to eye strain and dizziness, and training students as well as instructors, must be taken into consideration. In my opinion, until these logistical issues are resolved, VR remains a practical option for many institutions only where immersiveness is truly value-adding to the use case.

Simulating emotional responses

Where VR is exceptionally strong and definitely worth its challenges is in learning use cases involving emotional engagement or empathy. Because immersive VR tricks the brain into believing the virtual stimuli are real, it intensifies the emotional response that can heighten the person’s capacity for learning. As a result, a PwC study finds that VR is a highly effective tool for human resources training for developing leadership and people-management skills, for practicing delivering bad news, or to help people confront fears such as public speaking. In healthcare professions such as nursing, VR provides opportunities to practice skills and exercise clinical judgment in high-acuity scenarios and hone therapeutic communication.

Collaborating to reduce edtech fatigue

For institutions having to manage hundreds of tools and systems, adding new edtech can turn into a nightmare without proper integrations and close collaboration with IT administrator groups. But students and faculty also need a voice in the decision-making process. A 2023 survey of edtech faculty by WGU Labs’ College Innovation Network (CIN) found the people furthest from the classroom (e.g., administrators, instructional designers, department chairs) are believed to have the greatest influence on edtech adoption decisions, while those most directly affected (students and faculty) have the smallest voice.

In my experience, there is often a disconnect between edtech companies and the educational institutions they serve. Building for interoperability is an absolutely critical factor that many edtech vendors ignore, tending to focus on standalone solutions rather than on the pain points of the people who have to integrate the solutions as well as verify their value and results. To address this disconnect and to reduce edtech fatigue, institutions could create edtech committees that involve students and faculty in addition to IT administrators. These could conduct focus groups and regularly survey edtech users about their experiences. Regular audits will also help identify tools that are not meeting expectations, have outlived their purpose, or become redundant.

Incorporating virtual simulations wisely

Asking educators to take on a “sage on the stage” role is a thing of the past. But set aside the alarmism of virtual avatars replacing human teachers in simulations. Even if an educational institution decides to virtualize coursework through a 2D screen or 3D headgear based on one of the four use cases I’ve outlined, there remains huge value for students in having time with a human instructor. It’s up to faculty, administrators, and students working together to determine how to incorporate virtual coursework wisely into curricula to provide the most advantages in terms of access, engagement, and flexibility.

Michael Bodekaer Jensen is the CEO and co-founder of Labster, whose interactive virtual training simulations have reinforced the exciting connection between science and the real world for more than six million students in educational institutions around the globe, empowering the next generation of scientists. He can be reached at michael@labster.com.

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