While many college programs offer online degrees, engineering and science programs have been slow in catching up with this mode of education delivery. These degrees require, in many cases, laboratory and classroom practices, which require sites and infrastructure. Of course, these laboratories would be hard to produce in the online environment, this is clearly a roadblock for these programs.
Many solutions exist that circumvent this obstacle, some are technological solutions, and others are more conventional. For example, some colleges contract external services with locations close to those students that need the practice. Some technological solutions are available, for example immersive technologies.
Immersive technologies have been around for many years, at different points in time they caught the attention of researchers and entrepreneurs. Eventually, many drop off the subject but a few professionals stayed in the field, until new discoveries or developments bring back the attention of the public.
The technologies for virtual reality (another term for immersion technologies) evolved in time to produce more portable devices such as the Oculus, which has been commercially available for some years. Sensors made significant advances during this time, they have reduced in size and price. The software needed to run immersion technologies is more complex thanks in part to the availability of more powerful and portable computers.
Not all immersion technologies require expensive equipment. For example, Minecraft can be played in an IPad or a PC, it requires no more than an Internet connection. Of course, gaming consoles offer now full simulation experiences thanks to the availability of games through cloud systems.
Movies for years portrayed systems where users could interact kinesthetically with applications, usually desktops with novel displays, the character would move their limbs and applications would become active. This became a reality when the Nintendo Wii game system came to the market, others followed Nintendo and developed similar systems. Now vendors offer similar technologies for education.
The most recent trend is to create simulated environments using these technologies. Due to the decrease in cost of devices and software, the use of virtual tools has seen an increase. Now schools and colleges can afford immersion technologies to make virtual laboratories or environments where students could practice what they are learning.
But how are immersion technologies helping education? It found a use in K-12 education but no studies have found a conclusive correlation between the improvement of learning and the use of the technology. Many vendors claim these applications make the classroom a better place to learn, and their promotional videos may try to support this claim, the research has not found solid evidence of this.
What about higher education? Some fields of engineering have matured enough to serve as models for other fields. For example, computer programming and robotics seem to be making strides in the use of virtual technologies to advance education. An example of this is the robotics and programming courses offered in MOOCs such as eDX and Coursera.
Social interaction between multiple users seems to encourage learning among participants, this is an important affordance of the technology. These programs in higher education are taking advantage of this consequence of the virtual environment. This has been proven by many gaming systems; that use the dynamics of teams of players to advance in the game. It seems virtual environments where many players interact fosters collaboration and sharing of knowledge.
It may be argued that the success of immersion technologies lies on the lack of structure, those environments do not define clearly a problem. An instructor in the classroom could develop case studies for students to work on, or students could solve team-based projects in class. The solution to those problems or projects will have a structure already worked out by the instructor, who guides the students towards a conclusion.
Problems have no structure in virtual environments, and participants can solve them with little information, they can arrive at nonconventional solutions. Another side effect relates to communication and social interaction that would not happen in the classroom, students tend to feel more compelled to offer their ideas than in a classroom setting.
If more programs using immersion technologies keep reporting successful results in literature and media, it will be a matter of time before they are used extensively in other programs. It will include social collaboration and the freedom to work on problems that are not conventional and for which little information is available to the participants.
Whether this technology affects the brain in a positive way, it is up for debate. Research has produced no data to support or deny this. The running argument against virtual reality relates to evolution, the brain took millions of years to evolve, these technologies have been around for a few decades only, it would be unreasonable to expect any changes in the brain in short an amount of time, especially since these technologies seem to evolve rapidly, whereas our brains take a long time to change.
Changes in the internal wiring of the brain are happening while we use these devices in those virtual environments. Learning is a change in behavior, and it is visible (for example, when you learn physics, you can be tested and learning would be apparent), but immersion technologies have yet to prove they achieve the same results. Many studies have not reached a positive outcome, at best they showed neutral results, the jury is still out there.