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Exploiting Virtual Reality Techniques in Education and Training: Technological Issues

3. Relevance to Higher Education (cont)

3.6 Issues

3.6.1 Quality of Teaching/Learning Delivered?

Will a VR system be better than current approaches - this is perhaps the most crucial question to be asked and one where there are no answers today. Given the cost of the enabling technology few organisations will seriously consider using VR unless the benefits can be quantified in educational terms.

3.6.2 IPR - Ownership

The question that affects all network based services is the protection of the IPR and copyright. In order to run a program on a remote it is necessary to hold an executable piece of software. This piece of software represents the courseware module developed by the education provider. Unless suitable protection is built into the software then there is a danger that it could be copied. This issue is not seen as a major hurdle because there are techniques that can be used and will have to be implemented.

3.6.3 People Issues

Whenever a new technology comes along there is a fear that it will reduce the need to employ people. Since labour costs are usually the highest component in any oganisation IT is often considered as a way of making the organisation more efficient. In certain industries there is an inevitable reduction in the work force. However, the introduction of IT in education will mean that teachers and lecturers will be able to spend more time with the student rather than marking. There will always be a need for new educational material - in fact the need for education is growing. The rapid changes in technology will call for people to regularly update their knowledge. This in turn creates the need for more education provision.

In a sense this will create new jobs and change the nature of existing jobs. A consequence of the economic climate today means that most people have very little choice but to retrain several times in their working lives. There is no doubt that the technological revolution will influence the educational process in a big way. The most immediate impact will come from the increasing use of the world wide web. There are several trials already underway where education is being delivered remotely via the internet. If these trials prove successful then the convenience of accessing educational material remotely will change the face of higher education almost overnight. Many conventional courses will be available on demand to anyone in the world. The traditional geographical barriers will no longer be a problem. It is even feasible that someone could access material from anywhere in the world. This means that many higher education establishments could ultimatey disappear unless they can provide remotely accessible educational material. Obviously there will be many subjects that cannot be taught this way and include courses that have a practial component. However, it is feasible that one day VR based systems will be able to provide the hands-on component of an educational programme. Today, the cost of high performance VR systems is probably outside the range affordable by the majority of education authorities. However, the cost of entry to VR based systems is falling all the time so it will only be a question of time. This view does not imply that all education will be delivered this way. Instead conventional courses will become available over the internet and some of the laboratory based modules will be hosted on a college based VR system. There will always be a requirement for teacher/lecturer contact.

Obviously, if this situation does occur, and it looks likely, there are major organisational changes both at the educational institution level and the course level. Education providers could be swamped by the demand for material to be delivered in this way. The pace of technology changes will also present problems for the organisation to manage. Assuming that technology has its own built in obsolescence it is likely that the technology component will have to be replaced every few years. Unless organisations carefully manage their IT strategy they will quickly spend vast sums of money without every reaching optimum performance. The sting in the tail however is the credibility that students will associate with particular educational establishments. They will be judged not only on their academic standing but also by what provision they make to IT. Some people will take the view that the latest technology is best and so will turn to institutions using the very latest technology.

Whether people will ultimately accept these changes in the educational system remains to be seen. Unfortunately, there may be litle choice as the economic pressures force this type of education system on society.

However, there is one major issue that needs to be resolved and this is the verification that a technological based approach actually works. This represents a considerable challenge since the cost of providing effective education in this way has yet to be proved. The same was true many years ago when the need for airline pilots outstripped the supply. Conventional training methods were to slow and expensive so flight simulation was used to provide basic flying skills to be followed up by real flying experience. Nowdays most airline pilot training is undertaken in flight simulators.

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