Navigating the XR Educational Landscape: Privacy, Safety, and Ethical Guidelines

XR Adoption in Higher Education

This section provides an overview of the state of XR integration in higher education by highlighting recent adoption trends for instructional purposes, current approaches to managing XR labs and equipment, common instructional scenarios and immersive applications relevant to teaching and learning, and some of the work of active interest groups in this space.

Higher education is in a process of digital transformation. As we continue to embrace technology as a way to empower our institutions' operations, teaching, and research, leadership teams are increasingly recognizing the capacity of emerging technologies to transform learning. Over the last five years, development and distribution of XR experiences for teaching and learning has increased significantly. Institutions ranging from community colleges and vocational schools to R1 research institutions are experimenting with XR technologies and are looking to further these efforts more broadly.

Meanwhile, as institutions across the world have begun introducing the use of XR applications in curricular and extracurricular activities, organizations like EDUCAUSE, the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN), and others have created venues for these conversations to take place. For example, in 2018, an initiative supported by the HP/EDUCAUSE Campus of the Future project brought together 17 institutions over multiple meetings and events to share knowledge and practices.1 Then, in summer 2020, a group of over 150 institutions from 25 countries formed the Champions in Higher Education for XR (CHEX), under the umbrella of iLRN, to share ideas and knowledge about how to start XR programs and deploy technology throughout their institutions.

Key XR Terms

For those new to this subject, we offer a brief primer on some of the key terms we reference, and we recommend The XRSI Taxonomy of XR for those interested in exploring a larger glossary of XR terms.

Virtual Reality (VR) was coined in 1987 by Jaron Lanier, who experimented with head-mounted displays (HMD). Once users put on the VR headset they are fully immersed in a digital environment. VR environments are created in 3D engines, like Unity and Unreal. They enable six degrees of freedom with tracking for both digital objects and the position of the user in relation to them. In addition, controls or other haptic devices allow users to interact with objects within the environment. Compelling VR experiences evoke a deep sense of presence, agency, and embodiment.

In Augmented Reality (AR), digital assets are layered on top of the physical world. Today AR is most often experienced using mobile devices. While a variety of augmented reality glasses have been developed, most serve as prototypes or target specific use cases in the industry. While no mass-market devices currently exist, Meta (Facebook), Apple, and other companies are working on ubiquitous devices to be released soon. In summer 2021, Meta released the Ray-Ban Stories glasses to begin to explore the functionality and acceptance of AR glasses by consumers. The automotive industry continues to push forward on AR for head-up displays in vehicles.

Mixed Reality (MR) builds on the concept of augmented reality through see-through glasses or a visor that allows users to view digital assets and holographic content within the physical world. Powered by sensors and cameras, digital assets become aware and respect the context of their environment, such as walls and other physical boundaries of the world. Microsoft popularized the term with the release of its Hololens headset, which provides a more immersive experience than AR glasses offer.

360 Video is a format that allows viewers to see or experience a recording in 360 degrees, rather than simply seeing a frame as in traditional video. Unlike VR, it offers only three degrees of freedom, tracking users' head movements. However, it can be displayed on a wider range of devices (including desktops and smartphones) and on less expensive VR headsets. 360 videos have been adopted in documentary filmmaking, journalism, and art projects.

XR emerged in 2018 as an umbrella term that includes VR, AR, and MR. As AR, VR, and MR devices continue to evolve, XR has become a useful descriptor when referring to various developments that impact each of these related technologies.

An Avatar is a figure or character that represents a person in a digital environment. Avatars in XR environments can often be selected from predesigned options or built using various options for physical features provided in application menus. In other cases, more life-like avatars can be created with software designed to capture the likeness of the user based on user-provided photographs or through in-app scanning methods that employ cameras on the user's device.

Metaversities are "digital twin" campuses (digital replicas or close representations of existing campuses), where students can move about, socialize, learn, and participate in activities, as well as live classes that students can access remotely.

How Institutions Are Integrating XR in Teaching and Learning Environments

Below, we describe several instructional scenarios and hardware deployment examples that have been used at various institutions. This will help provide a context on how we should consider the security, privacy, safety, and ethical challenges presented in the delivery of educational experiences in higher education.

Overview of Onsite and Online Approaches

Synchronous. XR technologies enable faculty and students to meet in social virtual worlds. Students participate by wearing headsets and using hand controllers. Virtual worlds provide for a variety of immersive settings and are able to support some of the activities that we use to engage with students in physical classrooms; they also offer a new set of affordances that come with immersive technologies. While students can meet or participate in a specific platform, a broad implementation of this idea is entering a digital twin campus or metaversity in which courses are synchronous, meaning that students can interact live with others and with their professors. A digital twin campus or metaversity is a virtual representation of a university or college campus. It enables users to access educational resources, engage in learning activities, and interact with educators and peers in a virtual space that mirrors the physical campus, transcending geographical and physical limitations. Some examples of synchronous activities include the following:

  • Lectures and class presentations: Students can virtually attend short presentations by faculty and guest speakers or deliver their own presentations. The University of Michigan and The New School offer courses on XR application design, in which students create immersive VR experiences and present their final designs in VR.
  • Collaborative and project-based studios: Students can participate in the discussion and can break out into groups in virtual spaces. A number of unique activities can be designed to take advantage of the affordances in immersive worlds. As part of the Immersive Storytelling minor offered by Parsons School of Design at The New School, in the signature Immersive Storytelling course 100 students meet on social virtual platforms as part of the regular course activities. Students create interactive narratives and game experiences. They embody avatars, share their 3D projects, receive feedback, and go on virtual trips as part of some of the curricular activities in the class.
  • Assessment: Virtual worlds present an opportunity for students to access fully immersive simulations and hands-on activities and receive immediate feedback on their performance. The use of VR for improving student learning outcomes is a central part of the Big Ten Practice-Ready Nursing Initiative, a grant funded by the American Nurses Foundation. Over the semester, senior-level nursing students will complete a series of five VR scenarios in which they will care for increasing numbers of patients. In each scenario, the students receive feedback at the end of their performance. This includes areas in which they performed well and areas in which they may have missed key assessments and interventions. This feedback is used in debriefing the experience and in allowing the students to reflect and improve in the next experience.
  • Virtual labs: In the science and medical fields, virtual science labs offer students the ability to see and interact with scientific phenomena and processes. For example, at the University of Michigan, nursing students are using the HoloLens 2 to participate in training sessions and develop skills. In the engineering field, students can receive training for complex tools virtually. For example, the School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech has been developing Dynamics 365 Guides to help students learn how to safely use equipment, including in maker spaces such as the student-run Invention Studio.

Asynchronous. In addition to participating in social and collaborative worlds, students can access virtual labs and experiences at their own time and pace.

  • Asynchronous group work/projects: Students can collaborate and design in virtual worlds. Across studio and elective courses, students in the Parsons School of Design are using immersive design applications and platforms to develop virtual worlds, games, product designs, constructed environments, and digital fashion.
  • Virtual environments and labs: Using VR and interactive 360 video, students can explore cultural, historic, and science spaces with the objective to learn through immersive and authentic experiences.
  • On-demand VR and AR: Students enter and view immersive experiences or develop and master a specific skill set, as in competency learning. This can be done through interactive, avatar-based simulations around soft skills. Simulations geared toward interviewing skills are also leveraging conversational AI models like ChatGPT to create more realistic scenarios.
  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Participants engage in specific and guided learning activities through interactive 360 video, virtual experiences, and/or mobile device AR experiences to enhance the learning goals of a course. For example, the University of Michigan launched three XR-enhanced courses over Coursera in January 2023.

On-Campus XR Labs and Equipment Management

A challenge to implementing XR technologies is the cost of the equipment used to experience immersive content. While VR headsets are becoming more affordable, many still require a computer with a high-powered graphics processing unit (GPU) and the software required to build and run the applications. Higher education institutions are well-positioned to become early adopters. With a long history of procuring and managing educational technologies to provide access to students, and often the general public, college and university campuses are critical in encouraging more equitable access to XR technologies. Any XR device implementation program should pay special attention to potential cybersickness and physical safety of students. Indeed, many institutions have already created XR or VR labs that provide access to these devices in a centralized location. But as institutions develop new facilities and XR labs, additional implementation and management challenges begin to emerge, including in the areas of acquisition of new devices, platforms, and applications; device management for personal and community use; and loaner programs and check-out practices.

At the core, XR headsets represent a new class of endpoints that have to be integrated into the institution's overall approach to enterprise endpoint management and security. For example, at a large institution, managing a VR lab with 25 or more headsets and workstations takes a dedicated staff to maintain the hardware and software updates required to make the experience successful for students and faculty. There would need to be regular discussions about which VR headsets should be made available and how often to update drivers and tools like SteamVR and Oculus Virtual Desktop. Proper administrative controls should also be in place to prevent malicious software from being installed but still allow these XR applications to update regularly.

It is important to consider a schedule and, when appropriate, have an XR office to review which devices will be supported and how often they will be refreshed with newer versions. Additionally, when initiatives begin to scale up, an XR office should be responsible for reviewing a core set of software applications that will be supported on any lab computers to access XR content. The applications should be reviewed to ensure privacy and security of user data and to determine what type of intellectual property rights are being agreed to when creating content on those platforms.

As standalone wireless devices become more prevalent, institutions will need to have a device management system and user profile process for updates and security. For example, products like ArborXR, Microsoft Intune, and VMware Workspace ONE can be used to manage devices across the institution, such as by managing updates, content titles, and access to administrative functions on devices. At the University of Michigan, the XR Initiative team manages over 100 VR headsets that can be checked out for students, faculty, and staff. Inventory management and checkout systems, similar to those found in libraries, should be used in device loaner or checkout systems. Additionally, proper cleaning and disinfection protocols should be implemented on checkout and return. And finally, system managers will need to decide on the types of controller batteries that will be included and whether students should be held responsible for any damage or loss of accessories.

Immersive Applications and Software Development Relevant to Teaching and Learning

XR technologies enable new instructional capabilities that can encourage more authentic, social, data-driven, and student-centered learning. The following are some examples of the types of applications, experiences, and tools that are already fostering instructional innovation: 

  • Social and Collaborative Applications
    • Applications (e.g., Mozilla Hubs, Spatial) that provide the ability to host virtual sessions and gatherings in social worlds
  • Simulations
    • Virtual simulation of science, medical, and other lab environments (e.g., Labster)
    • Industry-specific applications supporting group interaction (e.g., AnatomyX, Arvizio)
    • Adventure applications (e.g., Dreamscape Learn) that allow students to embark on immersive exploration that enhance learning
    • Metaversity projects and partnerships for creating a digital twin campus experience (e.g., Morehouse University, Harvard University, and the University of Iowa)
    • Faculty-developed applications (e.g., Under the Skin and XR Nuclear Reactor Laboratory at the University of Michigan)
  • Productivity, Skill Development, and Creative Tools
    • Design tools (e.g., Tilt Brush, Gravity Sketch) that enable students to develop and interact with 3D digital assets and create within virtual worlds
    • Mixed reality remote assistance applications (e.g., Dynamics 365)
    • Mixed reality skill development with physical labs and AR headsets (HoloLens 2, Dynamics 365 Guides)
    • Institution-led implementations with external partners to address specific skills or competencies (e.g., the Dynamics 365 Guides mentioned earlier for the Invention Studio at Georgia Tech)


  1. A summary of key findings and access to project reports is available from EDUCAUSE.