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Virtual Reality is Transforming Higher Ed

Episode 146

April 11, 2023 27 minutes


EAB’s Michael Koppenheffer and Colin Koproske discuss ways that virtual reality is already transforming higher ed. Colin recently hosted a delegation of university presidents on a tour of the Dreamscape Learn offices in Los Angeles where they got to “kick the tires” on new virtual reality course content that Dreamscape developed in partnership with Arizona State University.

Michael explains what separates an average virtual campus tour from a great one and explains why they have become an indispensable recruiting tool for colleges.


0:00:10.1 S1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we examine ways that virtual reality already enables students to do things like take a tour of your campus from the comfort of home, or take a tour of the inside of a microscopic cell in their college biology class, while ChatGPT and artificial intelligence may be hogging the headlines right now, make no mistake. Virtual reality is coming on like a freight train in higher Ed, so give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:46.5 Michael: Hello everyone, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Michael Koppenheffer, and not only am I an occasional contributor to the Office Hours podcast, but in my day job, I lead marketing and analytics for EAB’s Enroll 360 division. So my work there is focused on helping colleges and universities find new first-time freshmen, so applying new technologies, digital platforms to find and engage more right fit students. So in order to do that well, our team has to sift through a lot of shiny new technologies and innovations and all the hype that surrounds them and figure out what’s a good fit for institutions in achieving their objectives. So one area of particular interest in those new technologies and innovations is the use of virtual reality, so virtual reality is a learning tool, and also as a way that perspective students can use to explore institutions before they ever arrive in-person. So with me today to discuss, this is my long-time colleague, Colin Koproske, Collin do you mind telling us a little bit about your role at EAB?

0:01:57.7 Colin: Sure Michael. And good to be with you today. Again, my name is Colin Koproske, I’m a Managing Director here at EAB. I’ve been here a better part of 13 years in part tracking pedagogical innovations, I was here working on the Mook Tsunami in 2011-2012 when that hit and threatened to disrupt higher Ed, but I also do a lot of research in partnership with our Chief partner officer around the big friends that presidents and Chief Strategy Officers in higher Ed are thinking about, are worried about, are paranoid about or excited about, and part of that job involves a series of events we’ve been doing for the last five years or so, called the Presidential experience labs. That idea came about and with regard to what if we take presidents to a out-of sector exemplar or a company, an organization that’s doing something really interesting, that’s not just a traditional college or university, and we try to understand how we might apply those lessons to the challenges Colleges and the universities face. So we took presidents to Zappos, a shoe sales company, a internet portal to get presidents to think about customer service and innovation and organizational values. We took them to LinkedIn, to Google, to Slack. We had a virtual presidential experience lab with a design firm called IDEO to get presidents thinking about design thinking.

0:03:24.4 Colin: But relevant to today’s conversation, Michael, this year’s presidential Experience Lab has been in partnership with a company called Dreamscape in Los Angeles and Arizona State University, no stranger to innovation around virtual reality in higher Ed. So Dreamscape was founded by Walter Parkes, who’s a famous Hollywood producer behind Gladiator, Minority Report, Men in Black, some of our favorite movies, and he’s been working with Michael Crow in the Biology faculty in particular at ASU to apply VR to higher Ed. So that’s been kind of an interesting focus of our work with presidents this year.

0:04:03.8 Michael: That’s so cool. And to be clear, colleges are already incorporating virtual reality in the classroom today, right? So this isn’t just some futuristic vision?

0:04:13.5 Colin: That’s right. So VR headsets exist, there are students and faculty who have strapped on those headsets and are in the virtual world as we speak, and we’ll get deeper into that, but I thought, Michael, you might get us started by talking about the way EAB has used, virtual and augmented reality in our work.

0:04:32.0 Michael: Great idea. Let’s start with the idea of virtual tours. So this is not a new idea, recruiting teams and missions teams have been using some types of virtual reality for years to offer campus tours through the internet and help prospective students envision what life might be like, it’s a great way to kick the tires, a great way to gather information, and it’s helpful because as we all know, many students and families can’t afford to fly across the country or even drive across the state or the city to visit schools, they may be interested in. So important part of the toolkit for admissions teams. So in December of 2019, EAB acquired the leading company that did this type of virtual tour a company called YouVisit, that creates campus tours and other interactive content, and we did not know at that time that in three months a pandemic would change everything about life for pretty much everybody in the planet, but in particular for admissions and for college search campuses across America would be shut down. So virtual tours became essentially the only way that students and families could replicate the experience of walking across campus, soaking up atmosphere, learning about what it was really like, as you might expect, Colin, demand for virtual tours surged among students and institutions during the pandemic.

0:06:03.3 Michael: We have a statistic we like to cite that between March 13th, which a lot of people think about as the marker of the first day of the pandemic a few years ago and April 13th, so just one month later, nearly 1.4 million people viewed a virtual campus tour on YouVisit, and that was a rate that was about 220% higher than what we saw a year earlier, and as you might imagine, we got a ton of inbound interest from institutions who did not have a virtual tour, but wanted one, so it was a technology tailor-made for the pandemic. Now that we’ve returned to some level of normalcy or at least, I hope everyone listening has, we’ve seen the pent-up demand for in-person experiences return, we’ve done a bunch of surveys and consenting activities, and what we found is that for most institutions, you’ve definitely seen in-person admitted student and information sessions and tours back. But virtual tours are still a critical tool.

0:07:17.3 Colin: So that’s fascinating, Michael. So we invested in virtual tours, pre-pandemic, this was already a thing. Then we had a year or two, depending on where you were and what region you were in, what the lockdown was like, where this was the only way to get students to your campus. Now we’re in this kind of hybrid world that’s combining the best of virtual with actual face-to-face campus tours, so what would you say we’ve learned since that mandatory early 2020 lockdown period in this world of virtual tours.

0:07:51.1 Michael: So I can answer that question from a couple of different vantage points, one is from the vantage point of students and families, so what we are seeing from the data is that the virtual tour is becoming a earlier step in the exploration process, not a replacement for in-person experiences. So as we have seen attendance in in-person visits can return to pre-pandemic levels, we are still seeing the quantity of virtual tours remaining pretty steady going into the post-pandemic period, and what we’re taking from this as we interview students and families, we find that often students are using virtual tours to narrow their consideration set to learn a little bit more about the schools that are on their list, and then in-person experiences are moving a little later in the process, so in the past, at least some of our partners tell us what we would see is that a lot of students would be visiting before they apply, now we’re seeing that experience moving a little bit later in concert with students applying to more and more institutions, so that is a big manifestation of what we’re seeing and from the institution side, we’re seeing our partners, we’re seeing colleges and universities think about virtual tours much more as a core part of their marketing toolkit.

0:09:20.4 Colin: And what would you say, separates, now that we’re kind of investing more in this space and thinking more about where it might go in the future, what separates just a basic cool looking virtual tour with this 360 cam and a more compelling useful marketing apparatus that’s a little bit more immersive for students.

0:09:41.9 Michael: Well, there are a couple of things that I think make up the best tours standard part, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with the creative and technologist, of YouVisit team to help pinpoint this better. So one thing is about the depth and complexity of the interactions that are possible within virtual tours, so a lot of people think of virtual tours as like they may have seen in other media like houses for sale where you can kinda just walk through the rooms and spin around and look at things, and obviously, that is cool, and it’s part of the experience of being able to see something virtually, but you can do so much more than just have a 360-degree pan, you can embed videos, you can embed information, you can create action zones where if a visitor touches something, it will come to life, you can have a narrator off to the side, you can really enrich the interactive part of a virtual tour to make it an experience that is not just worth walking through, but worth returning to. So that is one dimension, the other dimension is really about narrative and story telling, so you can do a tour that is just about walking on campus, and you start at the gate and then you go to the student center and then you go to the library.

0:11:01.4 Michael: And then you go to the dining hall, or you can really start with the idea of themes and objectives, so what is it that you want a visitor to take away? And then you think about the story you want them to walk through, so what is the arc, what is the hook what gets someone interested, what are the ways that you are continuing to build interest in momentum and even some mystery, how are you giving them bits along the way that continue to hold their interest and make them want to do more, the best tours really are structured like a great movie or a great novel, and we have some really cool examples of tours that have done exactly that.

0:11:41.3 Colin: And to be clear, are you guys sticking to just tours of colleges and universities in those campuses or are there ways to apply this outside of that sphere as well?

0:11:52.1 Michael: We have taken some of the same approaches that we use for colleges and universities and we have applied them to other types of tours so we’ve done some tours for corporate recruitment use cases, so perspective employees, giving it a sense of what it might actually be like to work at a company, because if you think about it, that’s a very similar experience for the person who’s in the search mode. We’ve also done tours for non-profits, we made a tour for an organization in Washington, DC that helps children build reading skills and social-emotional skills, ’cause really the common denominator here is taking these new technologies, these interactions, these 360-degree experiences, all of this virtual reality, but combining them with established principles, story-telling to give people more immersive, more engaging ways to gather and interact with the new information.

0:12:44.0 Michael: It’s definitely safe to say that virtual tours are continuing to be an integral part of the recruiting process. And that I think we all will continue to discover new ways to use this technology to get more creative, more immersive, more engaging. So let’s shift gears now. Let’s get back to that event you mentioned earlier that was in LA with the folks from ASU and Dreamscape, tell us a little bit more about the format of the event and some of the takeaways for you in how higher Ed could integrate virtual reality as an instructional tool.

0:13:19.6 Colin: Yeah, great question, I’m happy to talk a little bit more about that event. And to be clear, we had our first one in December of last year, but we’ve got one more addition of this on May 3rd and 4th, so if you’re a president out there and you’re interested in this, definitely follow up with with us to see if you can take part in this. The format of the day is really one day about immersion in the experience, just for the goal of entertainment, there are kind of quick 20-minute sessions, we put Presidents through in groups of four to six about riding a dragon or rescuing a humpback whale who’s in danger, putting you in really cool kind of immersive avatar, like not just 3D, but VR experiences, less applied directly to the classroom, but just to get Presidents up to speed on where this technology has gone, how far it’s come, the fidelity of it, the quality of it. The visceral nature of experiencing it, and then on day two, we delve into the specific application to an ASU use case of biology classroom. They’ve kind of taken their introductory biology course, and remember, ASU is not a small school, so I believe more than 6,000 of their undergraduates this spring took a biology course that had as a core component of it, a lab based in virtual reality.

0:14:38.5 Colin: So on day two, we’re taking Presidents through this experience, part of it is what they call the immersive classroom, which is just a futuristic Zoom meeting in an immersive, visceral VR environment where the professor or the faculty member, the instructor can take you to the Pyramids, take you under water and take you inside of a cell, and then also some modules of a futuristic scenario, a cinematic scenario, they’ve designed something called the alien zoo, so you find exotic species on a different planet that’s sick and you have to investigate why it’s sick. You figure out along the way that it’s a particular kind of virus, you’re learning about molecular biology, but it’s almost kind of crushing up the pill inside something much more exciting and entertainment aligned for students. So we spend a lot of time trying to help the presidents at this event understand what this means beyond a cool video game-like experience, and I would say there are three big challenges that this technology or this kind of narrative experience. And we use that word a lot. Narrative storytelling could address in learning, the first big challenge is the challenge of application, and so that is the common question. How will I use this.

0:16:00.7 Colin: There’s information in the textbook in the classroom, it’s hard to see, hard to visualize things, if you think about reading about a cell or reading about a black hole, if you’re just reading about it in a text, it’s not visceral and you can’t really play around it with your hands and understand what you’re gonna do with it, it’s also hard to simulate lots of things that you want students to practice, and that could be something like surgery, or it could be a dangerous high risk situation, so it’s really helpful from an application experiential learning standpoint, getting students to learn by doing and not just reading. Second challenge, I think it addresses is inspiration, so that’s making something cool or interesting to students who aren’t just in and of themselves inherently intrinsically motivated to memorize math equations. So Walter Parkes, who I talk about earlier said, we’ve known the hero narrative makes a lot of money in Hollywood for a long time, so you take a scenario, there’s an enemy, there’s a big global challenge, the stakes are really high, and you and your rag tag band of heroes and heroines are going to overcome this against impossible odds, if you apply a situation like that to a well set of learning objectives, you can get many more students interested in it.

0:17:20.4 Colin: And then the final challenge, I would say is participation, so and that’s the question is how are we going to afford this hands-on applied experience and VR headsets are about the cost of a fancy cellphone now, $300 to $1,500, depending on how much you wanna spend on it. But I think we’ll get to a point where this actually allows students with less means to travel to the pyramids to get really engaging kinds of experiences that right now, you really need a lot of resources to experience. So that’s one way to think about how you might apply this to some of the challenges and learning beyond just touring cool technologies.

0:18:02.3 Michael: It sound like some pretty amazing applications of virtual reality to change how students learn and change how effectively they apprehend new material, where do you actually see this going over the next few years, because for all the promise that you detail, it still sounds so futuristic to me. It’s hard for me to imagine colleges and universities across the country, all have VR headsets in their lecture halls, but perhaps I’m not being imaginative enough. Where do you think this is going?

0:18:35.0 Colin: Yeah, and in the near term, I think the folks talking banging the drum about VR have lost the PR war to AI, which we’re all kind of like struggling to figure out these days, but I think these two things will merge in some interesting way, so let me answer it in three stages, in the immediate, I’ll say 1.0 of VR application in higher Ed is kind of the beginnings of what we’ve referred to as the metaverse, and there are schools like Morehouse and others that are essentially trying to build virtual copies of their campus how do we try to replicate in a basic graphical form, our stadium our library our classrooms? I think that in virtual commencement, the graphical fidelity and quality of these is not Like reality yet, but it’s really kind of an access and flexibility play, it’s, “Hey”

0:19:25.5 Colin: Rather than having a lot of cadavers in a cadaver lab, what if we were able to do this at a much lower cost for many more students in a virtual environment, or what if you’re sick or you’re away. How can you come to this social event and experience it in some way, or as you said, a compelling virtual tour of a physical campus space that we have, we’d still rather you be physically there if you could, but this provides some semblance of access…

0:19:52.3 Colin: I’ll say that’s 1.0. 2.0 is the singularity where VR becomes indistinguishable from reality, and so that’s the point, I don’t know when this will be but let’s imagine it’s 2030-ish. This is really when the way we collaborate in school and at work will transform, so when this becomes true, I think Michael you and I will feel like we’re physically together right now instead of looking at each other in a Zoom meeting, it will supplant this kind of traditional Zoom meetings, and interestingly, we’ve talked a lot about Gen Z or a generation of anxious introverts who have more social anxiety, who are worried about the kinds of engagement, maybe you and I grew up with, this might provide another option to be much more together with people who you’re not physically proximate with, I also think, remember, AI is gonna be advancing quickly at the same time, so I don’t know the answer here, but the crystal ball worry I’d have is at the same time that it becomes possible to have a really human experience with another human virtually, it’ll start to become impossible to know whether you’re with a real human or not, so we’ll see what dystopian movies get made about, that kind of situation.

0:21:07.1 Michael: That’s a wild vision of the future Colin. And at the same time, I’m just reflecting on the fact that here we are together on this video conversation that probably seven years ago would have seemed out of the ordinary, and now it’s so routine, so it certainly seems plausible that your vision of 2030 might actually come to pass something like the way you were describing it.

0:21:29.5 Colin: Yeah, I think so. And just quickly, if that’s 1.0 and 2.0, I think 3.0 is when VR is not just indistinguishable from reality, but preferable, and that’s where you get into this kind of Ready Player One scenario where more work, more innovation, more collaboration is actually happening in the metaverse or virtually that is happening in reality, that’s the potential disruptive moment for higher Ed when we have to think about our business model of getting people to come and live together, collaborate physically, getting disrupted by VR headsets becoming as ubiquitous as a cell phone, so that’s what my crystal ball would say, but a lot could change over the next 10 or 10 or 15 years.

0:22:15.1 Michael: Amazing. Amazing. So given all of those exciting and sometimes scary things that you just laid out about the future, what advice would you give to leaders of colleges and universities who are looking at this who are intrigued, but are sort of on the fence about what it means as an instructional tool today?

0:22:35.1 Colin: Yeah, good question. I would say three things. One is, as you said about virtual tours, VR is not going to totally replace what you’re currently doing, it will augment it in interesting ways for now, so this is what I would say about pedagogy, this isn’t to totally replace the student learning or classroom experience, but there are ways it can be used strategically where the faculty feel like, hey, this allows me to do something I want to do anyway at lower cost at a greater access or to produce better learning outcomes, and ASU to be clear, is claiming they’re getting better learning outcomes for the kinds of students who are interested in boosting up from this technology, second thing is to make sure you’re tracking user trends here. So VR headsets are getting pretty big. From a consumer market standpoint, there’s 60 million users in the US, North of 170 million worldwide. Again, it’s not cell phones yet, it’s not the PlayStation yet, but it’s getting there quickly, so make sure you’re surveying your students or incoming students to understand, are they already used to these kinds of experiences, or they gonna be looking for them?

0:23:42.0 Colin: And then finally, I’d say, forget we’re even talking about VR and remember that those pedagogical lessons about application, how will I use this, how do I place this inside of a heroic narrative or a storytelling context, how do I provide experiential learning to more students? There’s a lot you could be doing already to improve the classic modes of teaching we’ve had in higher Ed for a millennia, so I think that’s where I’d want people to focus in the near term, so that’s what I’d say, what about you, Michael, with regard to virtual tours, what advice would you give our listeners.

0:24:18.2 Michael: So it’s funny because on the one hand, I would say that virtual tours are pretty much table stakes at this point, so if you don’t have a virtual tour, you really ought to get a virtual tour, ’cause it’s very important for students and families as they explore the possibility of attending your college and university, but beyond that, my takeaways are actually similar to yours in the sense that what I think is most important is the story-telling, the narrative and the strategic intent of your tour, and that could be just as true for an in-person tour as it is for a virtual tour, quite honestly, a virtual tour affords more opportunities to build self-directed engagement, and you can have some really cool interactions and media richness built in there, but most important is figure out what story you want to tell about yourself, how you can bring that story to life, how you can make the student or the family member, the visitor, the protagonist in that story, and then build out your tour starting from there, because we have seen some extraordinary examples of tours that do that. Lewis & Clark College, Yale, if you wanna go look at them, some really cool narrative first tours, and I think that is within the reefs of every college and university, if they portray with the right intent. So that’s the way that I would actually think about.

0:25:41.4 Michael: More broadly, Colin, it’s been really fun to explore this topic with you, I am equal parts excited and daunted by your vision of the future and recent experience suggests that it seems entirely plausible that what you’re discussing is going to come to pass, not just within our lifetimes, but within the relatively near future, there’s a lot more I wanna talk about. But our time is just about up. So I wanna thank you for being here today, and I’m hoping that both of us will get invited back to give an update on what’s going on in the metaverse and who knows, maybe next time we can do it as a virtual immersive session. Maybe we can be on a virtual Beach on a virtual tropical island. The possibilities really are endless.

0:26:26.2 Colin: Well, thank you, Michael, it’s been a great conversation and yeah, I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about in both of these spaces over the next couple of years.

0:26:34.4 Michael: Well, great. Well, until then, thank you all for joining us on Office Hours with EAB, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

0:26:47.5 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our guests explore how and under what circumstances your institution should be partnering with online program managers to increase enrollment. Until then, thank you for your time.

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