Community and collaboration are key to scaling up extended reality in tertiary education

Three members from the ALT/Jisc XR community discuss the opportunities and challenges of extending XR across their institutions.

Group of students using VR headsets

As institutions explore new ways to enhance learning and teaching, many are already using extended reality (XR) technologies such as augmented, mixed, and virtual reality (AR, MR and VR).

A key resource for Jisc members looking to expand or enhance their XR programmes is the ALT/Jisc XR community of practice where one of the most frequently asked questions is, "How can we successfully scale up our use of immersive technologies?".

Here, three members share their experiences of centralising resources and equipment and encouraging collaboration across departments/ faculties as well as with learners as a way to achieve this goal.

Coleg Gwent

Glyn Rogers, digital teaching leader, says:

“Deploying VR headsets in portable charging cases to each of Coleg Gwent’s five campus libraries means that all teaching staff can give their learners access to virtual experiences whenever they want.

“Learning Resources Officers (LROs) at each campus library are responsible for updating and charging the headsets in the 'VR lending library,’ ensuring they are always ready for use. This innovative model ensures that the equipment is used more frequently, empowering any teacher to integrate VR into their provision if they want to.

“To borrow the VR headsets, staff must first earn their ‘VR driving licence;’ an hour-long training session where staff learn how to operate the technology safely and with confidence.

"This session, provided by the digital learning team, includes a discussion on effective ways to use VR to achieve learning outcomes.

“We have now rolled out the VR driving licence to professional services staff at the college, including employability progression officers who plan to use the Bodyswaps VR app to enhance learners' soft skills college-wide.

“Coleg Gwent’s learner digital futures and wellbeing ambassadors have also earned their VR driving licences and use them to support events such as open evenings as well as hosting ‘Mindful Monday’ and ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ drop-in sessions using a VR meditation app.

“In the next academic year, the LROs will be able to offer VR driving licence training, making it more convenient for all staff to participate. The digital lending library has now expanded to include podcasting, vlogging, 360-degree camera equipment and more, enabling staff to create a wider range of engaging resources and provide learners with greater choice in the modality of their assessments.”

University of Leeds

Senior learning technologist, Dr Gabriel Jones, says:

“The University of Leeds is home to a wide variety of XR research, design, teaching and evaluation led by a range of internal communities. These communities are made up of students, teaching staff and professional services, members of the Digital Education Service, and researchers from the University’s Centre for Immersive Technologies.

“To support these communities, we created the HELIX innovation hub, a centre for XR practice which opened in late 2023 as part of the University’s ongoing commitment to the cutting-edge use of immersive technologies in teaching.

“HELIX provides many easily accessible VR headsets, designated spaces for large-group XR activities, and high-performance computers. It also has its own dedicated technicians and XR specialists on hand to support staff and students in getting to grips with the XR opportunities on offer at Leeds.

“Challenges remain, however, in engaging staff and overcoming barriers to acceptance and use of XR in teaching and learning, as highlighted by the findings of the Jisc XR report.

“As part of a project funded by the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, the University surveyed staff to better understand what determines acceptance of immersive technologies across different faculties and schools at the institution.

“Focusing on the role of social influence, effort expectancy, performance expectancy and familiarity with the technology, among other variables, the findings offer a nuanced overview of attitudes towards the use of XR at the University, including the perspective of faculties that may have had little engagement with XR in teaching until now.

“The next steps involve using this information to develop tailored training and support at faculty and school levels, helping staff and students to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the University’s growing XR infrastructure.”

South Staffordshire College

Steve Wileman, head of digital learning, says:

“In a traditional classroom setting educators can struggle to bring abstract concepts to life, making it difficult for students to grasp complex topics.

“At South Staffordshire College we’ve found using AR and VR allows us to enter a new era of accessibility and inclusivity. These technologies are more accessible to diverse learners, accommodating many learning styles that can benefit different learning needs and preferences.

“XR tools create immersive and engaging learning experiences, allowing students to step into the inner workings of a car, understand the complexities of a heart, or learn how to climb tall buildings safely. The use of XR technology turns these abstract ideas into tangible experiences.

“Our students have been using VR to virtually attend events such as exhibitions, grand opening ceremonies and military parades across the globe, providing them with an in-person perspective and the ability to critique their own performances.

“By collaborating with industry partners the use of VR also prepares learners for the future world of work.

“We found that by using XR tools students are less distracted and more engaged. Gamification elements in AR and VR can also make learning more enjoyable and motivating.

“The impact of XR technology on our learners has been immense. Since the start of this programme of learning the college has seen improvements in pass rates and received positive feedback from learners benefiting from more immersive activities.”

Next steps

Kathryn Woodhead, subject specialist and XR community manager at Jisc, says:

“The examples above illustrate how collaboration between staff, students and industry partners has helped institutions effectively scale up their use of XR technologies.

“Jisc's recent XR in learning and teaching report, which shares insight from more than 110 institutions across the UK further and higher education (FE and HE) sectors, provides a snapshot of the current state of XR adoption, highlighting exciting opportunities as well as significant challenges faced by staff and students as they look to increase their use of XR.

“One of the key recommendations in our report is for institutions to continue sharing knowledge and best practices with each other, as this can help address challenges around limited resources, skill gaps, and the ability to create accessible XR experiences.

“To join the conversation around XR in tertiary education, sign up to our ALT/Jisc XR community of practice. Our next event will be held in-person at the University of Manchester on 28th June, offering a day of community learning and collaboration.”