As costs for education continue to increase: human capital costs and real estate costs (and its related costs of energy and maintenance), virtual reality environments may well prove the valve that allows expansion without bankruptcy. Consider these five ideas (and look for a special bonus at the bottom).
Costs. It costs a lot less to build (or rent) a virtual classroom than a physical one. Any institution looking at increases in tuition and other students fees while continuing to justify physical expansion should be questioned hard about the returns on the physical space (and the separation of funds as well). If expansion into new geographies is the answer, then virtual still makes a better play (see the next item.)
Removes constraints of physical locations. If students don’t have to come to a campus in a physical space, then the college’s brand has the ability to increase its reach at a minimal cost. Refashioning experiences is also easier and cheaper than moving walls or upgrading wiring, or fixing plumbing or arguing about temperature. You get the point.
Engagement. My lab partner may be a hot blue person (I will go non-gender specific here, and so may the real avatar) with funky, non-functional wings, that nonetheless, don’t constrain the avatar from flying. Blue, wings and flying don’t happen in the real (human) world. Increasingly though, people don’t live exclusively in the real world, so if you want to engage them, create novel learning experiences and environments for them in virtual spaces.
Access. Access in its broadest definition. Access isn’t an issue because all virtual worlds are accessible. People leave their disabilities at home. The more egalitarian world of physical emulation, however, is more vibrant (again: colors, body types, appendages) than the real world, which means access to things you can’t imagine, and most likely don’t, exist in the real world (at least on this real world). And because the Net can leak into virtual worlds, you have access to all of the Net’s information without switching apps. This opens up access to new ways of sharing information, and access to knew ways of learning.
Entrepreneurialism. People are making money in virtual worlds. If part of education’s promise includes developing skills for a good paying job, then creating environments and accessories for virtual experiences can pay. I heard recently about a college course dedicated to designing and creating virtual items, and then teaching a business model in the class, while the students executed it. The students make money while they learn. Why don’t all colleges have a course like that. And why don’t more courses figure out how to make the skills they teach practical and tangible by getting students paid for learning during the class?
Bonus-safe experimentation. Virtual worlds aren’t the real world, which also means more safety to experiment—and here, I don’t just mean virtual chem labs. I mean virtual disease outbreaks, variable gravity, DNA exchange and commodity shortages, financial collapses or anything else you want to try out without harming the people behind the avatars. Traditional simulation goes only so far, and then you need to see how real people react. In virtual worlds, "people" could actually react—even if they aren’t the people they claim to be. Regardless, you will see real human reactions to the situations in world. The barrier between virtual and actual reality may prove a good way for people to try out some things they shouldn’t try at home (but that are perfectly OK inside a virtual world).