Topline: The model for higher education is failing learners and it is inaccessible to others. Fortunately, new innovations are beginning to break down the barriers to learning by making it personalized, real-world, and experiential. Between Arizona State University, which just announced an application of virtual reality, to DataCamp, which just released a set of interactive and hands-on curricula, the future is bright.

There is a general recognition that higher education is not currently serving the needs of learners and the workforce alike.

For example, employers routinely complain about a skills gap, particularly in new fields like cybersecurity, which has been backed up by comprehensive data from Burning Glass and Emsi alike. Moreover, learners complain about growing tuition costs and student debt without commensurate employment outcomes.

Indeed, my research shows that the returns to a bachelor’s degree has flattened in most occupations, primarily those that are less digitally-intensive, suggesting that the traditional approach isn’t working well.

Applications Of Artificial Intelligence In Higher Ed

Higher education is at a crossroads. Either higher education will drive itself into irrelevance, or it will embrace the application of technology and modernize its processes so that learners become the center.

Fortunately, there are some universities that are leading the charge. For example, Arizona State University, just launched a new partnership, Dreamscape Learn, that fuses fully immersive virtual reality (VR) learning systems with the storytelling and imagination inherent in Hollywood. The combination of these two worlds will transform the way that learners ingest and process content, reducing barriers and increasing the resonance of content.

Consider, for instance, the first VR adventure that they’re piloting, Alien Zoo, which will place learners into an orbiting wildlife sanctuary for endangered life-forms. Created by Walter Parkes, CEO of Dreamscape, the goal is to provide learners with the opportunity to “explore, observe and collect digital specimens and solve problems that reflect the key concepts taught in introductory biology.” In this sense, learners will acquire all the knowledge that’s typically imparted in an introductory biology class, but here it will be much more exploratory and experiential.

These powerful applications of VR build on an existing infrastructure of virtual field trips that ASU began piloting around the start of the pandemic. Imagine learning about space while you’re actually in a simulated outer space environment! Through the Center for Education Through eXploration, students are put in a position to learn from experience and to associate knowledge with vivid imagery so that it is easier to remember and subsequently deploy in practice.

Unstructured And Real-world Learning from DataCamp

We all know “guided projects” where learners follow step-by-step tasks to solve data science problems… although we can probably think of some platforms and educators that do it better than others. (Indeed, some guided projects lack actual guidance and others are not realistic enough to resonate with the learner!)

But, taking a step beyond these guided projects, DataCamp just introduced “unguided projects,” which involve open-ended data science problems without step-by-step tasks. If the learner gets stuck, they simply follow the live code-along video to see how DataCamp’s expert instructor finds one of the many possible solutions. The core difference stems from the use of hands-on and interactive video content that allows learners to organically explore, rather than follow a checklist.

There are a number of reasons to suspect that the use of live video content will be more effective, at least for the majority of learners, at driving learning outcomes. Increasing evidence suggests that learners retain information and understand how to put it to practice through video and hands-on experiences, rather than purely written form. That distinction matters: having the knowledge is different than being able to apply it, especially under pressure and uncertainty.

For example, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text—not to mention the fact that visuals are easier to recall, which is one of the reasons why professional memorizers use the “memory palace” technique that consists of imagery. The world is getting increasingly complex, so we need to improve the way we learn if we want to keep up and expand our capabilities. The application of hands-on and in-browser coding allows users to put knowledge to the test in real-time and receive immediate feedback to crystallize concepts.

The underlying model behind these unguided projects relies upon the convergence of four behaviors from the learner: assess, learn, practice, and apply. If any part of the process is missing, it breaks down. For example, failure to apply the skills will leave the user with knowledge, but not actionable know-how, which is the entire purpose of learning the skill in the first place. Similarly, if the right skills are not identified, the user may acquire and put to use skills that do not address the underlying challenge in the organization. All the pieces matter.

Personalized, Real-World, And Experiential Learning Is The Future Of Education

While innovation is happening at a mind-boggling rate, not all of it has made its way into educational services. Fortunately, a number of EdTech organizations, ranging from DataCamp to edX, are injecting competition into the space for educational services. What initially began as a series of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with limited success is beginning to turn into a broader integration of technology in higher education with significant success across fields.

Slowly, but surely, innovations are becoming more ubiquitous in higher education. Whether it’s through the application of virtual reality or the introduction of more real-world and personalized curricula, the experience for learners of all ages is starting to change for the better.

If more institutions of higher learning are willing to change their outlook and modernize their processes by putting the learner at the center of everything they do, we’ll simultaneously solve the student debt and skills gap crises, preparing a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators.



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