IT Forum Perspectives

Bring VR / AR technology to your campus without breaking the bank

by Shaun Devlin

As more Teaching and Learning heads start to talk about virtual and augmented reality (VR / AR), have you been left scratching your head? If so, you’re not alone. VR / AR are exciting emerging technologies that leave many wondering, “Is this technology worth the investment on my campus?”

To help our members answer questions like this, the IT Forum recently hosted a panel on augmented and virtual reality. Dave Pfaff of Washington & Lee University, Maya Georgieva of the New School, and Tom Lynch and Walter Johnson of Suffolk University shared their experiences adopting VR / AR technologies and answered questions from the audience.

The greatest insight from our panelists: Though VR / AR technology has a reputation for being costly, it is possible to pioneer virtual and augmented reality on your campus without breaking the bank.

Start small: Acquire VR / AR tools incrementally to maximize ROI

At first glance, virtual and augmented reality technologies have hefty price tags. But it is possible to start small.

To ensure high ROI, our panelists suggest beginning with a modest investment in either low-cost tools like Google Cardboard or a small number of more costly VR headsets. If your campus constituents show interest and student outcomes start to soar, then slowly acquire more expensive VR / AR technology, carefully gauging student and faculty engagement prior to each purchase.

Google Cardboard can act as litmus test to guide future VR / AR purchases. Panelist Dave Pfaff commented, “At Washington & Lee, we started off with Google Cardboard because it was cheaper, but the technology was so impressive that we eventually acquired a true VR headset. The results were so dramatic that we soon bought several more.”

Expanding VR / AR technology into new disciplines may also drive incremental acquisition. Suffolk’s Walter Johnson explained: “In our conversations with Suffolk faculty outside of the Physics department, we realized we could use the [Microsoft] HoloLens to support students’ thesis projects in the School of Art and Design. I went back to Tom, our CIO, and told him that we needed to order two more.”

The bottom line? “It was an incremental decision,” emphasized Johnson. “We didn’t spend $50,000 upfront on several pieces of technology that we weren’t sure how to use.”

No additional FTEs required: Instead, leverage students to contain costs

Heads of Teaching and Learning also acknowledge staffing as a chief concern when deciding whether to bring AR / VR to campus. However, our panelists suggested that FTE staffing does not actually need to increase as VR / AR technology gains popularity on your campus.

Why not? Because students often learn to use VR / AR tools independently, and their enthusiasm and expertise can then be leveraged to provide tech support to their peers – as well as faculty – who are interested in experimenting with this new technology.

Panelist Maya Georgieva provided an example of this strategy at the New School: “We support courses that use VR / AR technology by assigning them student research assistants, who work side-by-side with students and faculty multiple times over the course of a semester.”

Sometimes these students are university employees (e.g., through work study) but others are simply VR / AR enthusiasts, eager to share their knowledge. “We have no FTEs dedicated to VR / AR support at Suffolk, only students. Some are paid through work study, but others work for free because they enjoy experimenting with VR / AR technology,” Walter said.

When you first bring virtual and augmented reality to campus, be sure to keep an eye out for early student adopters who can later augment your support team.


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