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VRARA Holds Annual Education Forum

Educational institutions and solution providers virtually met to talk all things XR.


The VRAR Association held their regular Education Forum online on April 29. The virtual event, which included networking rounds, panel discussions, and expert presentations, was attended by hundreds of educators and solution providers.

According to event organizers Kris Kolo and Carlos Ochoa, the event is “the largest VR/AR event in education.” The event was attended by representatives from over 70 universities in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and was attended by representatives from dozens of companies providing VR and AR education solutions.

ARPost wasn’t able to attend all of the sessions and, even virtually, there’s no substitute for being there. However, we teased out some session trends and highlights in case you missed this year’s event.

Debating the Importance of Headsets

The Education Forum toed a close line when it came to hardware. Dedicated VR headsets and software packages were toted by some speakers, while hardware-agnostic WebXR solutions were praised by others. Accessibility in terms of cost and learning curve were recurring themes, as were immersion, and data and security.

Headsets as a Learning Tool

“Doing things in VR is very close to doing things in real life,” HP’s Cécile Tezenas du Montcel, an XR and data science specialist said in a presentation on enhancing VR learning experiences. “There is a direct relationship between cognitive load and expertise… There is also a direct connection between biometric data and cognitive load.”

Specifically, Tezenas du Montcel was talking about the HP Reverb Gen 2, a headset so advanced that data it collects on its user can be used to track engagement and retention.

Retention can be improved when focus is improved, which headsets can also help with, according to Esther Tang, a graduate student in UX studying XR at the University of Michigan.

“[In a headset] you’re kind of forced to pay attention because you don’t have any distractions like your phone or your laptop,” Tang said in a presentation with Jeremy Nelson, director of the university’s XR initiative. “You’re face-to-face with people so you want to talk or it’s awkward just like in real life.”

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Tang’s comments also touched on what MetaVRse co-founderJulie Smithsoncalled “the attention economy” and what Living Popups COO Paula Davidson called “the blend between technology and education.”

Headsets as a Barrier

HP has gotten a lot of questions regarding data security and Tezenas du Montcel did say that the data is managed on-device (and that data isn’t part of HP’s business model). However, security, as well as the benefits of long-term immersion, were questioned by other speakers.

“We have pervasive access, but that also means that we know who you are, we know where you are, we know what you think,” Immersive Design Research Lab Leader Heather Barker said in a panel discussion on Augmented Ecosystems.

In the same discussion (and other discussions throughout the day) Facebook’s ownership of Oculus also came up as a privacy concern. Ochoa, who moderated the panel, even called Facebook’s ownership of Oculus “another barrier” to entry and adoption. “We need to establish a roadmap where ethics, personal security, and identity will be saved,” said Ochoa.

Unfortunately, Oculus is currently the most affordable VR headset, particularly for educational institutions.

“It’s not like everyone can afford headsets,” said Infinity Campus co-founder and CTO Philip Wogart. “This is very expensive hardware that we’re talking about.”

The price of VR headsets and experiences also means that these powerful learning tools are not available to everyone in the ways that most of us want education to be.

“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” said Brightline Interactive CEO and Managing Partner Tyler Gates.

AR, “Immersive Spaces,” and WebXR

In the panel on augmented environments, Florencia Moltini, Marketing Head of Immersive Tech at CamOnApp pointed out that, while less immersive, XR experiences available on mobile devices are more accessible because of the ubiquity and comparatively low cost of phones and tablets.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing XR across all devices and VR becomes almost the premium experience because it is so immersive,” Lenovo Global Education Solutions Manager, Brian Moynihan, said in a Hot Topics Round Table.

And, according to Moynihan, the experiences that run on these devices are also becoming more readily available. “You’re not seeing the stores in the same way that Apple and Google have their app stores,” said Moynihan.

Interestingly, discussions of a “post-appstore world” had also been one of the trends at the GDC showcase event held by Oculus and Unity in March. No matter where these experiences come from, they are also more likely to be cross-platform compatible, which also makes them more accessible and inclusive.

Finally, these “lighter-weight” experiences also serve as an introduction to XR for education to the people who are often least comfortable with it: the educators.

VR Evangelization and Adoption in Education

“We have kids who are very comfortable with the technology and teachers and administrators who are not so comfortable,” said Davidson.

Moltini and others pointed out that while the pandemic has encouraged educators around the world to explore immersive education, it didn’t prepare them for teaching in immersive environments.

“When the pandemic started, we sent [grad] students headsets and taught them how to use social VR to teach a class… and they really liked it,” Ithaca College Associate Director of Innovative Technologies, Becky Lane, said in the featured talk with Moynihan. “Usually I’ve been the pied piper going around with a headset and saying, ‘hey put this on.’”

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Institutions like Ithaca College and the University of Michigan have put more work into creating and had more success at promoting XR education initiatives. However, that isn’t the way that it usually plays out.

“In most universities, we’re seeing [XR] really finding a home in one department or another, usually because of the dedication of one or two staff members,” said Moynihan. “It’s not usually a top-down approach.”

This is partially a problem with how formal education is structured, and partially a problem of how technologists approach XR.

“We have the solutions, it’s just hard to employ them holistically in institutions that weren’t intended to deliver this kind of technology,” said Gates. “We’re always willing to imagine how AR can be used 8-10 years from now and completely unable to imagine how it can be useful 8-10 months from now.”

Keep On Talking

The VARA Education Forum is behind us for another season. However, that’s no reason to stop talking about VR and AR in education. As Smithson so eloquently put it, “Collaboration and how we work together and share these ideas is so important right now. This forum is just today, but these conversations need to continue happening so that we can keep advancing together.”

The next of the major VRARA events is their Global Summit, taking place online from June 2-4, but there are smaller, more focused, and regional events happening all the time. ARPost has every intention of covering the Global Summit but as we said at the top, there’s no substitute for being there – even virtually.

Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.