By Tully Privett

A new year has begun and, curious about what trends 2018 may have for online education, I did some digging. As one might expect there was no shortage of articles predicting 2018’s upcoming online education trends. Many of these trends appeared consistently across articles and included:

  • Gamification
  • Social Learning
  • Micro Learning
  • Open Educational Resources
  • xAPI’s

However, the most consistent theme across all articles was virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR). The trends articles touched only briefly on how VR and AR will continue to grow in online education, with associated costs dropping and improvements in the technology continuing. Having become tired reading about the same trends article after article I switched and focused my research solely on the improvements being made in VR and AR.

As I found with the 2018 trend articles there was no shortage of articles discussing how VR and AR are going to disrupt education and provide new opportunities for students to gain experiential learning online. While I agree that this disruption will take place, I doubt that 2018 will be when the floodgates open. For one, the costs have not yet come down to a point where the majority of post-secondary schools in Ontario are able to take advantage yet. Labster comes to mind as an early provider of VR experiences and has developed their science lab simulations in conjunction with various schools under a cost-sharing model. Labster launched their software in 2013 and to date, has around 65 simulations for students to experience in a virtual lab, but even with a cost-sharing model the price is out of reach for many institutions.

While at a conference in London, England last year, I spoke with the programmers of several companies creating similar experiences to Labster. Having a backround in private industry with regards to programming and design I was curious to know what programs, languages and expertise these companies were using to create their VR/AR experiences. I assumed that because these companies were part of such a large conference and privately owned that they would be using modelling programs like 3DS Max or Maya combined with expensive real time game engines and C# or similar for programming.

I was surprised to learn that many of the VR/AR companies at that conference were, at least in part, using free software to create their experiences. Some had changed from using expensive modelling software (such as 3DS max) to open source modelling programs like Blender which has become quite robust and even includes its own built-in game engine. There are many other players coming to the open source modelling software market such as Wings 3D, Equinox 3D or Daz Studio; it seems this is an area where open source software will continue to improve.

There are many game engines out there to choose from and many provide free trials or a free light package. Unity 3D is one popular game engine that has been used to create many popular games but also includes a free beginner package. Other free options include Unreal Engine, and Cryengine, which used to be quite expensive it recently changed its pay structure to “pay what you want” bringing the cost down to be in range of small developers. Finally, Amazon has also been making waves in the web world and VR/AR is no exception. Amazon recently released their own game engine called Lumberyard and it is based on a previous version of Cryengine, but Amazon has included some useful tweaks. More 3D game engines are likely to come out soon.

For programming, there are many open source options to allow programmers the freedom to develop with a wide assortment of tools. Companies are no longer forced to develop in expensive and stagnant integrated development environments (IDEs) such as Dreamweaver. A little research on open source IDEs delivers an overwhelming number of options such as Sublime Text 3, Visual Studio Community, Notepad++, Eclipse and more.

I left the conference feeling very optimistic about the future of VR/AR with such a wide range of free and open source options for anyone looking to develop applications. The issue then became one of time — although a single individual may have all the skills necessary to create these experiences it is not an efficient use of this individual’s time within an organization to complete a project of this size solo. The time issue therefore becomes an issue of team size. To reduce development time, many of the companies had large teams of specialized individuals who focused only on a small portion of the project. The software cost savings hadn’t been removed from the equation but rather moved to the production side and given to the additional staff needed to produce a product in a time-efficient manner. For institutions that have large teams and could spare the additional staff to focus on these projects, the reduction in software cost may help, but for others this shift in cost would still prevent them from entering the market.

There were some announcements late in 2017, however, that lead me to hope that the VR/AR world will soon be within reach of the majority of institutions. One point is that video editing software is now able to accomplish 3D editing. What this means is that if your VR experience is using 360 video, the editors already in use are now capable of editing 3D video and these include Adobe Premiere Pro, Corel Video Studio, and Apple Final Cut Pro. In fact, Apple made the announcement at the end of October last year that Final Cut Pro would have support for VR video and that edits could be made while a headset is being used, allowing the developer a first- hand experience of the end user’s experience.

The second point is one I am particularly excited about — the release of a singular program capable of combining all the elements I discussed above into one easy- to-use program for AR/VR experiences. This dream program would allow instructional designers the ability to create immersive AR/VR experiences without requiring any specialized experience in programming or 3D graphics, similar to what Adobe Captivate and Articulate Storyline have done for 2D animation. It appears my wait may be coming to an end with an announcement by Amazon introducing Sumerian. Sumerian lets a user with little to no programming experience create immersive interactive scenes that run on popular hardware such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and iOS devices (Android hopefully by the final release). Depending on the price point set by Amazon this program could bring the costs of developing AR/VR down to where most institutions could provide their clients with these experiences. If you are interested in learning more about Sumerian or signing up for the preview you can do so at,

So here’s to hoping that 2018 is the dawn of a new AR/VR era where instructional designers add another powerful learning tool to their repertoire.

Photo by NeONBRAND” on Unsplash