A project at eleven colleges and universities investigated the ways that AR, VR, and 3D technologies can benefit teaching, learning, and research.
This was not my first rodeo. My first project as an educational technology researcher at the University of Minnesota in 2008 was to evaluate and assess the impact of a pair of technologically enhanced prototype classrooms with round tables, 360° glass markerboards, and laptop plug-ins with dedicated display panels. I was skeptical that learning spaces by themselves would make much of a difference in the lives of instructors and students, but I embraced the research project with gusto—it was, after all, my job. We found that learning spaces have an independent and significantly positive impact on student learning, and they shape the behavior of those working in them. Nearly a decade later, presented with the opportunity to engage in a new large-scale, cross-institutional educational technology evaluation of 3D technologies, I knew that EDUCAUSE had to seize the moment.
In early 2017, HP approached EDUCAUSE about conducting an evaluation of the use of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and 3D printing and scanning technologies at a handful of institutions they knew to be doing work in this space. The sheer diversity of institutions, timelines, and project types precluded a systematic assessment of the impact of these projects on teaching and learning. No, this was meant to be a "spaghetti against the wall" evaluation project, the exciting kind where institutions would cook up their experimental ideas and we would see what might stick. Specifically, we were looking to identify cool uses of 3D technologies drawn from a host of disciplines that have considerable potential to transform teaching practices, research approaches, and learning outcomes. Specifically, we had two main evaluation questions that guided the report on the Campus of the Future project:
- What educational activities lend themselves to the use of 3D technologies?
- What are the most effective 3D technologies for various learning goals?
Although this project is not the first of its kind, to our knowledge it is the broadest study of the integration of 3D technologies into education, spanning a large and diverse sample of institutions and learning environments and reaching a large number of users. In prior forays into the space of 3D technologies, it felt as if the pedagogical vision exceeded the capacity of the technology to deliver on that vision; now, it seems that the technology has caught up to (and possibly surpassed) our ability to leverage it creatively and effectively in the classroom and laboratory. The participating institutions that participated in this project were hand-picked precisely because they were already on the "bleeding edge" of integrating 3D technology into pedagogy.
The eleven institutions of higher education that participated in the Campus of the Future project were:
- Case Western Reserve University
- Dartmouth College
- Florida International University, College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA)
- Gallaudet University
- Hamilton College
- Harvard University, Graduate School of Education
- Lehigh University, The Wilbur Powerhouse
- MIT, Scheller Teacher Education Program
- Syracuse University, Newhouse School of Communications
- University of San Diego
- Yale University
Over the course of the academic year, EDUCAUSE collected data on each of the 3D technology projects using a baseline survey instrument, a biweekly status report survey, and a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with project leads and their teams. We also gathered information to support the project via LISTSERV conversations, a literature review of 3D technology uses, informal unstructured interviews, and project progress documentation publicly disseminated by project teams. These efforts helped identify some common challenges and obstacles to implementing and using 3D technologies across the projects. These included:
- Technical difficulties, ranging from the mundane, such as having the correct HDMI-to-DisplayPort adaptor, to the more complex, such as scanning reflective objects and inadequate RAM or graphics cards
- Training faculty, staff, and students how to use the new 3D technologies
- Figuring out the best and most appropriate methods to wed pedagogy to the technologies
One of our key discoveries about 3D technologies is that they really lend themselves to experiential or active learning approaches to instruction, creating opportunities for instructors from a range of disciplines to do things that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. A substantial portion of the report is dedicated to unpacking the ways in which 3D technologies create new opportunities for teaching and learning, supplementing them with real-world examples drawn from the Campus of the Future project participants:
- Re-creating historical spaces that are difficult or impossible to visit
- Building models of contemporary environments that can be easily manipulated
- Looking beneath the veneer of a structure to understand its construction
- Developing anatomy simulations to understand the spatial and functional relationships of organs
- Using overlays of existing processes to reveal or illustrate things that we simply cannot observe
- Touring the inside of a cell to identify and understand the functions of its components
- Touring structures, sites, and cities too large, delicate, or remote to visit in "real" life
- Designing, manipulating, and revising virtual objects that would otherwise be too expensive in analog form
I think we have come to a point where 3D technologies are ready for the prime time of the higher education classroom or laboratory. One of the biggest obstacles that presently confronts us is faculty and student access to these tools. Indeed, data from the 2018 ETRAC Student Survey found that only 4% of students in the United States reported having access to AR or VR headsets/goggles; slightly fewer (3%) students reported access to 3D printers. Certainly cost is one obstacle worthy of consideration. Another consideration is making these technologies freely available to students so that they can play, experiment, and work with them. We need to get these devices out from behind locked doors/labs and into more public areas (e.g., makerspaces). I am confident that students will think of uses for these technologies that faculty or researchers might never consider. And, educating students is, after all, the point.
Read the full report, Learning in Three Dimensions: Report on the EDUCAUSE/HP Campus of the Future Project, and additional materials on the EDUCAUSE/HP project research hub.
D. Christopher Brooks is Director of Research at EDUCAUSE.
© 2018 D. Christopher Brooks. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.