Embracing VR

At Yavapai College, students in career and technical education programs try out virtual reality tools. (Photo: YC)

America’s community and technical colleges have long been perceived as no-frills institutions that offer specific skill sets, two-year degrees, and a cost-effective path to a four-year college or university. But this image is rapidly changing as more of these colleges are becoming centers of innovation, adapting new technologies to enhance their educational offerings and to provide students with experiences previously thought to be reserved for elite universities.

Virtual reality (VR), in particular, offers expansive possibilities, allowing students to engage in immersive learning environments that can simulate real-world scenarios — from medical procedures to industrial maintenance — without the associated risks and costs.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the need for innovative educational technologies, as many community colleges saw significant drops in enrollment while many industries felt the pain of workforce shortages. VR presents a solution to some of these challenges, providing engaging, remote learning opportunities that can accelerate skill development and transcend the limitations of geography and traditional classroom settings.

An expanded test run

Community colleges that have adopted VR technology are finding it to be an excellent fit, one that can be applied in very clear ways to support their central missions. It is becoming obvious, even to many of those who were initially skeptical, that VR represents a relevant and useful resource that must not be overlooked by these institutions.

Arizona’s Yavapai College piloted VR through a structured and experimental approach, involving multiple departments and classes, including 3D design, computer science, art history, CNC, construction, culinary, healthcare, HVAC, manufacturing and others. During the pilot year, more than 600 students participated in the VR programs, and 150 faculty members and 47 staff members were involved, along with 282 community members.  

The pilot demonstrated significant engagement from students, making difficult concepts easier to understand, increasing excitement about the topic and providing low-risk simulations of potentially dangerous activities. It also succeeded in reducing distractions and encouraging creativity.

The executive leadership team created a special project manager position to facilitate the adoption among faculty and staff. The team coordinated the integration of VR technology into the IT landscape and developed a structure to facilitate procurement, device management, faculty training, and evaluation of faculty and student VR experiences. This team continues to engage faculty across the district for opportunities to improve teaching and learning outcomes using immersive technology. 

To address equity issues, Yavapai College is leveraging grants and partnerships to reduce the cost of equipment. We have begun allowing headset checkout to provide access to VR technology for all students. We have created portable VR setups to help bring VR technology to students and teachers right in their classrooms as well as establishing dedicated XR labs and a booking system to manage equipment access efficiently. 

Finding ways to fund VR

One might wonder how cash-strapped community colleges can afford to invest in seemingly expensive VR technology. While cost is a valid concern, the return on investment can be substantial. VR can lead to enhanced student engagement and retention, potentially attracting more enrollments and increasing funding allocations.

The cost of VR technology is also decreasing as it becomes more mainstream, and there are opportunities for community and technical colleges to partner with employers in their community and seek grants specifically aimed at technological advancement. For example, Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Education Department to create five open educational resource (OER) nursing textbooks with 25 virtual reality simulations.

This has enabled nursing students there to become totally immersed in realistic healthcare scenarios and provide care for diverse patient populations by using a gaming laptop and Oculus Rift-S headset. Early success data showed that students who used the OpenRN resources and took the Next Generation National Council Licensure Examination had a 100% pass rate.

Expanding reach and impact

To overlook VR’s potential is to limit the transformative capacity of community and technical colleges to meet the evolving needs of both students and employers. As institutions seek to expand their reach and impact, integrating VR into their educational offerings is becoming a necessity, especially in an era where technological proficiency is increasingly linked to educational and career success.

The adoption of VR in community and technical colleges is a bold step towards making advanced learning tools accessible to a broader demographic. It aligns seamlessly with their mission, empowering them to break free from outdated stereotypes and reaffirm their roles as vital, forward-thinking pillars of the educational community.

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Lisa Rhine is president of Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. 

Erika Liodice is executive director of the Alliance for Innovation & Transformation, a nonprofit association that empowers higher-education leaders to transform their organizations.

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