IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

What Does It Really Cost for Colleges to Adopt VR?

The movement to create online virtual campuses, or “metaversities,” continues even as slowly dropping costs have yet to make it widely accessible. The professional development required is another hurdle.

Four students sitting in a row at desks in a classroom, all wearing virtual reality headsets. A teacher is standing behind the student closest to the camera and adjusting their headset.
As AR/VR technologies continue to improve for education applications, some higher ed leaders are increasingly confident in their efforts to create digital “metaversities,” an idea popularized last year to use VR to build online virtual campuses and immersive classes. But adoption costs in many cases remain prohibitive, varying widely based on the particulars of the project as well as the cost of hardware, shipping and professional development.

In the past year, several U.S. universities worked to establish their own metaversities, or “digital twin” campuses where students can participate in VR courses using tools such as Meta Quest 2 headsets, as part of a partnership announced last summer with VictoryXR and Meta. These universities initially included Morehouse College in Georgia, which was among the first institutions to experiment with VR tools at scale, as well as the University of Kansas School of Nursing, New Mexico State University, South Dakota State University, Florida A&M University, West Virginia University, Southwestern Oregon Community College, California State University, Alabama A&M University and University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).

VictoryXR also announced metaversity partnerships in March with Loyola Marymount University in California, Cal State Northridge in California, Indiana Wesleyan University in Indiana, Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado, Florida A&M University in Florida, Lorain County Community College in Ohio, Jackson State University in Mississippi, North Carolina A&T State University in North Carolina and Northern Virginia Community College.

According to VictoryXR CEO Steve Grubbs, momentum for the metaversity initiative has continued to build since the spring, with the addition of schools such as the University of California, Irvine, which launched its metaversity program this week. He said the costs for adopting VR in higher education varies between academic programs and schools, but VR applications in general have become less expensive in the past few years.

“There’s a lot of money out there for this type of learning, but the reality is that it’s not built into the standard university budget yet and because of that, it might be funded through grants or other special funding that’s being requested. But it’s not very expensive on the scale of what universities spend for programming,” he said. “For full access, it’s $92 per semester for the license, and if they have an on-campus lab, then multiple students might need one license. But if the students are remote then [that cost] would be per student. … For a [full] metaversity on average, it costs $50,000 for building out the digital twin campus. Sometimes, they just want one facility and lab built, so it might be $15,000 for others. Sometimes, we do much larger projects that are closer to $100,000, but on average most universities are at that $50,000 range.”

Grubbs said the need to provide professional development training for faculty to use VR tools effectively as part of their instruction is another cost to consider, aside from the cost of the technology itself.

“When embarking on something like this, logistically, you have to get your professors trained,” he said. “You really need to make sure that you start with professors who are motivated, because if you are in the mode of doing the same thing you’ve done every other year, (VR) may not be your thing. But if you are interested in figuring out new and better ways to deliver learning and content, then this is definitely your thing.”

Daniel Mintz, chair of the information technology department at UMGC, said the online university is still experimenting with VR tools for instruction in a limited number of courses to gauge exactly how the use of headsets and online AR/VR tools without headsets impact student performance, as well as graduation and retention rates.

While it has demonstrated promise thus far, Mintz said, he estimated it will likely be another two to three years before expanding the use of VR headsets and technology at scale is cost-effective. Like Grubbs, Mintz said professional development for educators is an important consideration to take into account with VR adoption costs, adding that it will play a key role in making sure the benefits and potential of AR/VR adoption at scale are fully realized.

Mintz said shipping fees are another cost to consider for universities adopting VR tools for online learners, among other logistical considerations.

“In our case, we don’t have a campus, so we have to ship them the headsets and then they have to ship them back to us, and that is a logistical challenge. … We’re [also] trying to create knowledgeable faculty that have experience with VR,” he said. “I think it’s going to have a very significant and positive impact on the delivery of education, but you have to experiment and see what the impact is.”

The story is much the same at New Mexico State University, where VR is not yet being used in a live classroom setting, according to Andrew Sedillo, the university’s director of microcredential instructional design. Like Mintz and Grubbs, Sedillo said that preparing teachers to integrate VR into their lessons effectively is an important part of the equation when it comes to VR adoption and instructional design.

Though he was unable to share specific costs for New Mexico State’s metaversity program thus far, he said, tech support for students and teachers can generally be another challenge and potential expenditure to keep in mind.

“As instructors are interested in utilizing VR in their classrooms, what we do is we send out these headsets to these remote students. From there, we set up their headset remotely and work with them on that, and then we work with instructors on how to integrate it into their virtual classroom,” he said. “I look at their courses, and then we work together to create actual activities using VR. It’s kind of a learning process of just getting them comfortable with using it. ... But since we work with students remotely, [shipping and remote setup] can also be a challenge, because when they’re setting up a VR headset, you don’t necessarily know what they see unless they’re streaming it.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.