Cross Reality (XR) refers to a group of emerging technologies that include virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual worlds (VWs) that use 3D models/simulations across physical, virtual, and immersive platforms. Each of these defined forms of technology provides opportunities for active learning through virtual experiences. Use of these XR tools has the potential to help higher education faculty and students transcend the boundaries of the classroom by providing access to learning experiences in virtual environments that can engage students, even during a crisis, such as recovering from a pandemic.
XR holds promise not only for enhancing instruction during course work, but also for improving the campus cultural climate. Higher education institutions seek ways to increase the retention of underrepresented students and faculty who may be struggling to overcome discrimination, micro-aggressions, and implicit bias, as they interact with campus environments, both virtually and in-person. Creating a culture that is conducive to the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is critical to the success and persistence of minority students. Studies that examine the deeply immersive nature of some forms of XR have found evidence that certain activities can have a positive impact on reducing implicit racial bias, increasing empathy, and promoting perspective-taking.
The use of training opportunities that include empathy-focused games, simulations, and virtual experiences have produced evidence of the potential to positively impact perspective taking, while decreasing racial bias. For example, in an effort to study ways to improve the social climate of academic medical institutions, Roswell and colleagues (2020) piloted a VR racism workshop as a component of professional development for medical school and health system leaders, faculty, and staff, that included a VR module developed at Columbia and Stanford Universities called “1000 Cut Journey” (https://vhil.stanford.edu.1000cut). In conjunction with participation in a 60-minute training on micro-aggressions, participants experienced racism as a Black male named Michael Sterling in a simulation environment, and were exposed to negative interactions at three different points in his life. Key to this training opportunity was the inclusion of follow up discussions that allowed participants to reflect on and share their views about their experiences. Results from a post-workshop survey indicated that 85.5% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the VR experience increased their own empathy towards minorities (Roswell, et al, pg. 1884).
To address implicit racial bias, Gutierrez, Kaatz, & Chou (2014) studied the impact of the videogame “Fair Play,” in which players assume the role of a Black graduate student named Jamal Davis and experience subtle racial bias while completing “quests” to obtain a science degree. Findings revealed that engagement with the game has the potential to reduce implicit bias, possibly because of the game’s ability to foster empathy through active perspective taking. Similarly, a study conducted by Peck, Good, & Seitz (2013), found decreased negative implicit associations toward black individuals after subjects with light skin experienced seeing themselves as a dark-skinned avatar.
Bachen, Hernandez-Ramos, & Raphael (2012) studied the promotion of global empathy among high school students using the simulation game REAL LIVES. Findings revealed that, compared to a control group, students who played the simulation game as part of their curriculum expressed more global empathy and greater interest in learning about other countries.
While there are many benefits to harnessing the technological affordances of XR, challenges exist in implementing virtual experiences on a large scale, such as the high cost of head mounted displays, cybersickness, and a lack of expertise in the development of instructional materials using XR. Though authoring 3D content has become easier, it is not yet easy enough for fast production by most faculty. Many do not have the resources to invest in XR-focused experiential labs like Dreamscape Learn, at Arizona State University.
One option gaining popularity is the use of social platforms that can be accessed with or without a headset. During the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions of all sizes used platforms such as AltspaceVR, Engage, and VirBELA to replicate what were commonly used only for meetings and game spaces. In 2020-2021, the power of these platforms was leveraged to conduct virtual global conferences, such as the Immersive Learning Research Network Conference, the IEEE VR Conference, and the Educators in VR Conferences. These events engaged thousands of students, educators, researchers, and industry practitioners from around the world in virtual convenings that demonstrated how XR resources can be used for sharing knowledge and professional networking, when traditional conference formats are impossible. The benefits of cost savings and convenience make this option attractive for future academic symposiums. However, optimizing the use of XR will require the investment and collaboration of an interdisciplinary community of committed professionals from education, government, and industry, who will work together with researchers to develop practical solutions and overcome the challenges that limit wide-spread adoption of XR in higher education.
This article is dedicated to Dr. Barbara Truman, who passed way in July of 2021. Dr. Truman co-authored the chapter Cross Reality (XR): Challenges and Opportunities Across the Spectrum, in Innovative Learning Environments in STEM Higher Education: Opportunities, Challenges, and Looking Forward (2021), available for free download here.
Cindy Ziker, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a STEM Education Research Fellow at California State University Monterey Bay and the founder and Executive Director of Ziker Research, a division of Ziker Enterprises LLC.