Defining Distance Education
For the uninitiated, distance education is a formalized way of learning remotely using electronic communication. A distance education program can be completely remote or be a combination of traditional classroom instructions and distance learning.
The main advantage of distance education is the ability to learn no matter where you live or what other responsibilities you have. You can fit your learning around your work and home life, making distance education especially beneficial for students with location or scheduling problems. And it’s definitely here to stay, as Pace University President Marvin Krislov reports that the demand for distance learning has been growing steadily in higher education.
Distance education is not without its challenges. The most commonly cited disadvantages of distance education are the lack of engagement and the difficulty of collaborating with other students. This is where VR comes in, as it can potentially revolutionize how institutions conduct distance education.
How Can VR Change Distance Learning?
Pennsylvania State University’s Conrad Tucker argues that VR can provide solutions to distance learning’s limitations by introducing tactile interaction to combat lack of engagement. By providing a real-time touch experience, where students can remotely “feel” objects, we introduce, immediate engagement and experiential learning into the equation.
Because VR provides an immersive experience, the chance of getting distracted during class is reduced compared to regular distance learning, where a student can be easily distracted when watching a lecture on his or her computer. VR can create a more connected and dynamic learning environment compared to simply looking at a screen.
But the greatest aspect of VR in education is the ability to bring practice into theory with fewer resources. People learn best through practice, and VR provides students the opportunity to interact with lifelike simulations rather than just reading about them from an e-book.
Recently, the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine has started using VR for their anatomy classes, which lets students dissect a body without an actual cadaver. This is a welcome update to traditional approaches to learning anatomy, which are limited by the inaccessibility of certain organs and the stark differences between living bodies and cadavers. Outside of medicine, there are VR applications that teach subjects like chemistry and astronomy to students across learning levels. Virtual Lab, for example, is an application that lets students conduct lab experiments and save them to the cloud.
Many educational institutions have a lot to gain from adapting VR into their curricula, and are poised to to integrate it more completely than other organizations. For example, some schools like Maryville University are part of Apple’s Distinguished Schools Program. This signifies how online universities today are able to innovate the educational experience in a tech-forward and future-focused manner, integrating new technologies to enhance the learning experience and usher in the digital age.
Edge Computing and Integrating VR
One of the biggest challenges VR applications face today is latency, especially when tactile (touch) components are included—Even the slightest delay when VR headset can cause the viewer to get motion sickness and any significant lag may render the application useless or too cumbersome, thereby cancelling out its benefits.
By placing servers near the edge of the access network, rich tactile VR applications can be streamed to inexpensive headsets. This both improves the experience and potentially reduces the overall costs to students.
As Peter Christy points out, mobile operators may be in the ideal position to deliver VR applications. By investing in edge infrastructure, mobile operators can provide a platform that supports remote education at very large scale.
Virtual Reality as implemented with edge computing would add great value to the quality of education provided by remote learning institutions. Through the use of edge computing, institutions would be able to provide VR experiences that are immersive and life-like, providing better educational experiences to wider audiences..