From XR Pilots to Full-Scale Deployments: Considerations

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The Extended Reality (XR) Implementation Strategy Workbook can help higher education institutions transition XR experiments from the pilot phase to broad institutional deployments by guiding them through five strategic dimensions that shape the expanded use of XR technology in educational environments.

Blue metaverse with icons in the shape of a planet.
Credit: President KUMA / © 2024

Extended reality (XR) technologies are maturing rapidly. These technologies show great promise in advancing student learning outcomes and making educational resources more available. Higher education program leaders are beginning to investigate how to effectively integrate a spectrum of immersive technologies, including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), into their educational programs. While technology pilot deployments allow access to XR headsets, virtual metaverse campuses, and XR learning applications, once the pilot period ends, campus leaders may struggle to transition promising experimental-stage projects to broader institutional deployments.Footnote1 This article presents the XR Implementation Strategy Workbook, a strategic planning framework to help campuses transition XR experiments to broader institutional deployments. The XR training benefits are fully realized when experimental-stage projects transition to tactical and scaled institutional deployments.

XR technologies offer a set of capabilities that immerse users in educational experiences, such as interacting with 3D patient anatomy models, taking virtual field trips to historical sites like the Anne Frank House, and simulating safe spaces for students to practice and prepare for real-world experiences, such as public speaking in a large auditorium. XR hardware and software costs are decreasing, and the capabilities of these technologies are improving rapidly. Studies have found that students who use XR training are more engaged with the content, display more confidence with the material, and retain more information than students who use traditional training methods.Footnote2 For example, XR training for science and health simulations is equivalent to in-person training in terms of student outcomes, but it has a lower cost in terms of faculty time, equipment, and facility expenditures. XR has the potential to help institutions make their learning content more accessible and cost-effective and accelerate student learning in the process.


The list below includes definitions for some common terminology and context for how the terms will be used in this article. The definitions are somewhat fluid as XR technologies are evolving quickly, and our collective understanding of how to talk about the experiences enabled by these technologies is growing.

  • Extended reality (XR) is a spectrum of computer-generated environments that merge the physical and virtual worlds. It includes VR, AR, and mixed reality (MR). For this discussion, XR assumes the use of a head-mounted display (e.g., a Meta Quest or Microsoft HoloLens headset).
  • Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated simulation that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. VR places the user inside an experience that feels real and allows the user to interact with 3D objects and environments.
  • Augmented reality (AR) superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view. AR can be used to provide information about the real world, such as driving directions or product information, or create interactive experiences, such as video games or virtual tours.
  • Mixed reality (MR) is a combination of VR and AR. In MR, digital content is overlaid on the real world, and the user can interact with the content in real time. MR is often used in industrial applications, such as training or product design.

Strategic Dimensions

When moving beyond the experimental phase of a new XR application, early adopters often self-select based on their enthusiasm for exploring and learning new technologies. Focusing on the XR hardware and software at this stage is necessary to understand what is possible and whether these technologies might benefit the learning mission of the institution. A different set of considerations—where technology is not the most important component—comes into play when moving beyond the pilot phase.

Viewing an organization in several dimensions can be useful when implementing a change initiative. John Carroll, Gordon Kaufman Professor of Management Emeritus and professor post-tenure of work and organization studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, outlined a three-lens framework (with strategic, political, and cultural aspects) for understanding organizations.Footnote3 We propose expanding the three-lens framework to include five strategic dimensions.

  • Content: Purchase, create, and manage the XR application content.
  • Institutional Culture: Engage key stakeholders at appropriate levels; follow standard institutional timelines and approval processes.
  • Implementation and System Operations: Align the project with existing institutional technology support providers.
  • Financial: Create budget models to plan for appropriate technology replacement cycles and accommodate expected growth and rapidly shifting vendor product offerings.
  • Technology: Provide XR technology hardware, software, and cloud-based services.

Viewing an institution across five strategic dimensions provides a level of detail that is more appropriate for new technology implementations. The dimensions are mapped across the following three institutional technology implementation phases (with details to help planners consider what must be addressed during each phase).

  • Experimental: Begin to deploy XR in isolated teaching, clinical, and research instances to test the technology, understand its capabilities, and identify promising benefits.
  • Tactical: Model and repeat XR deployments with proven benefits across multiple instances over a sustained period within defined use cases.
  • Scaled: Prioritize XR when evaluating instructional delivery models with deployments across multiple departments, programs, and use cases.

To illustrate how the strategic dimensions and technology implementation phases intersect, consider an experimental deployment that receives a small innovation grant. The grant allows the institution to purchase VR headsets and test XR applications with students. At this experimental stage, the faculty innovators don't need to consider factors such as 24/7 technical support and future hardware replacement. If the experiment is successful, transitioning to a tactical or scaled deployment requires formalized operational support, a content strategy, cultural alignment, and financial life-cycle planning.

Figure 1. XR Innovation Implementation Framework
Progress chart showing the three XR technology implementation phases—experimental, tactical, and scaled—and the five strategic dimensions of content, institutional culture, implementation and system operations, financial, and technology.

Using the Workbook

The XR Strategy Implementation Workbook was tested in February 2023 with fifty higher education leaders representing twenty-three medical teaching institutions in a strategic planning workshop at Yale University. Participants were led through a series of facilitated discussion prompts over two days. Activities included scanning the current state of the participants' institutions, envisioning what they wanted to achieve, and analyzing the gaps that needed to be filled to achieve those goals. Finally, participants began crafting action plans for progressing toward their desired state.

The participants were asked to consider all five strategic dimensions (content, institutional culture, implementation and system operations, financial, and technology) during each activity. Note that technology is just one of the five dimensions in the strategic implementation plan. The other four dimensions play crucial roles in transitioning from a pilot project to a fully scaled technology implementation.

The following are things to consider for each strategic dimension.


A primary concern for higher education institutions exploring XR applications is the incomplete inventory of mature XR learning resources and content. While promising off-the-shelf applications are available, they often do not adequately align with instructional needs, particularly within specific disciplines. Utilizing faculty- or student-created content tools appears enticing, and models for such approaches do exist. In contrast, custom vendor projects can be perceived as prohibitively expensive, especially when the benefits of the XR solution are unproven. Integrating XR content into the curriculum takes time and careful planning, and following established campus practices is required. The life cycle and portability of content are crucial to avoid scenarios in which good content is locked into an out-of-date application, or changing and updating teaching materials is complex and costly.

A level of content immaturity can be tolerated in experimental-stage deployments. Transitioning to tactical or scaled deployments requires a clear plan for the content life cycle. The plan should define how content is approved, maintained, and updated to match curricular requirements. XR technology developments often outpace academic approval processes, underscoring the need for continuous collaboration and understanding between higher education and industry stakeholders.

Institutional Culture

Institutional culture plays a significant role in XR adoption.Footnote4 Community-building programs like the Emerging Technologies Consortium at Columbia University have successfully increased interest in XR and promoted cross-departmental collaborations. This peer-driven approach can be more effective in engaging faculty than technologist-led workshops. Developing students as enthusiastic ambassadors for XR technologies can also be effective in attracting faculty interest. Creating XR communities of practice aimed at faculty and students can be a low-stakes way to build faculty buy-in at all phases of adoption. During the experimental phase, the focus is on generating awareness with external vendors and peer presenters. As deployment moves toward the tactical and scaled phases, the focus shifts to making internal presentations and building cross-departmental partnerships and technology sharing.

Implementation and System Operations

Introducing new technology can create uncertainty about which department supports XR devices and applications. College and university campuses often have technical support divided between multiple departments, such as information technology, instructional technology, library, media services, and facilities operations. Experimental-phase deployments usually rely on informal support from individual faculty or students, which can be unreliable when other campus commitments demand their attention. Moving an XR deployment through the tactical and scaled phases requires a defined support system within existing departmental structures.

Regulatory and digital technology policy requirements apply to XR technologies. However, limited scope and temporary XR classroom experiments often exist under the radar in terms of meeting many of these policy requirements. Transitioning XR applications to larger, more permanent tactical and scaled deployments subjects them to these requirements. Meeting these requirements can pose significant barriers due to the immature stage of the technologies. For example, digital accessibility of classroom materials is a federal requirement in the United States. Yet few XR applications provide closed-captioning of video content, accessibility for screen reader software, or similar accommodations that are common in other types of educational content. The data privacy and security requirements for the higher education industry [e.g., the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)] are vastly different from similar guidelines for the gaming or social media industries, which many XR providers are more familiar with. Institutional leaders should start conversations with promising XR vendors and campus policy teams during the experimental phase to ensure digital technology policy responsibilities are met during the tactical and scaled phases.


Seed grants or external donations are essential in the early phases of XR exploration and adoption, but what happens when the initial funding runs out? For example, in 2022, a group of higher education institutions were provided with VR headsets and virtual campus environments as part of an industry-funded pilot program.Footnote5 While these "metaversities" have received positive feedback from campus XR users, the institutions are realizing that they do not have financial support plans in place to continue or grow the programs past the experimental phase.

Financial strategy involves more than just new funding sources. For instance, XR investments in a health training program could reduce costs associated with cadaver labs, physical clinical simulation facilities, and standardized patient actors.Footnote6 However, the potential returns on these investments are difficult to quantify and require campus leaders to accept the possibility that their institutions will not get a positive return.

The scale of an XR implementation also factors into financial planning. Per-student costs associated with one course—or even one class session of a course—are significant. Broad deployments increase the value of the XR investments by spreading costs across a program and opening opportunities to justify new funding sources, such as tuition and fees, as part of the student's program costs. However, the promised financial benefits will not be realized if there is poor user adoption, which cycles back to the importance of the content, culture, and implementation dimensions. The total price tag of an XR technology deployment extends beyond the hardware and software licensing costs to include change management, community building, and similar activities.


The quickly evolving nature of XR technologies creates challenges for colleges and universities that are planning to transition from the experimental phase to more mature deployments. The availability of XR devices and operating platforms from manufacturers over multiyear planning and implementation cycles common in higher education is concerning. Classroom lab computers can have five-year life spans, while support for the Meta Quest 1 headset was dropped two years after the release of the Quest 2. YouTube 360 video, a popular, low-cost, accessible XR option for classroom use, dropped iPhone support in the fall of 2022, leaving some classrooms stranded. This is tolerable with a short-term experimental XR application deployment, but the shift to tactical and scaled phases requires vendors that are willing to provide an enterprise-class approach with more extended product support structures. Some of the more popular consumer XR companies may not be willing to provide this level of support.


XR technologies promise to make educational content more available to learners, increase student engagement with course content, and provide more cost-effective learning resources. This article provides an overview of key considerations and a framework to help guide strategic planning discussions with key campus stakeholders. Any educational institution looking to advance beyond early stage, pilot XR experiments can use the XR Strategy Implementation Workbook. While early adopters tend to focus on the specific technologies being used, broader adoption requires campus leaders to consider other key factors, including content, institutional culture, implementation and system operations, and finances. Understanding how these factors influence each other is crucial to successfully transitioning a promising XR experiment into a fully realized institutional deployment.


  1. Lauren Coffey, "'Metaversities' Face Virtual Learning's Financial Realities," Inside Higher Ed, July 11, 2023. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. The Effectiveness of Virtual Reality Soft Skills Training in the Enterprise: A Study, public report (New York, NY: PWC, June 2020). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. John S. Carroll, "Three Lenses for Understanding Reliable, Safe and Effective Organizations: Strategic Design, Political, and Cultural Approaches," in Organizing for Reliability: A Guide for Research and Practice, eds. Karlene H. Roberts and Ranga Ramanujam (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), 37–60. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Claudio Brasca et al., "How Technology Is Shaping Learning in Higher Education," McKinsey & Company, Education Practice (website), June 15, 2022. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Lauren Coffey, "'Metaversities' Face Virtual Learning's Financial Realities," Inside Higher Ed, July 11, 2023. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Ronan Jenkins, "How Dynamics 365 Mixed Reality on HoloLens 2 Is Accelerating ROI for the Healthcare Industry," Microsoft Dynamics 365 Blog, April 27, 2022. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.

Randall Rode is an Education Strategy Consultant.

Mirjana Spasojevic is Technology Research and Development Senior Principal at Accenture Labs.

© 2024 Randall Rode and Mirjana Spasojevic. The content of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International License.