What does Facebook Spaces mean for the future of online learning?

Move over LMS. This online class could be moving to a Facebook Space.

Facebook Spaces, a new virtual reality (VR) social app produced by the tech giant touted in its name, landed on the scene on Tuesday, sparking higher ed’s imagination about whether the future of online learning could be VR based. The first manifestation of Facebook’s acquisition of the VR company Oculus, Facebook Spaces seeks to bring a physical dimension to online interactions by allowing people (or rather, avatars of people) to come together in a shared, virtual, three-dimensional space. And sure, the technology is still rough, and people are criticizing Spaces for its limitations—its starkly individualized experience and lack of a keyboard, to name a couple—and its uncanny resemblance to another VR app. Yet the fact that both the VR space is being flooded with competition, and that among the competition is a juggernaut like Facebook, hints at the fact the VR may be poised for the longevity and mass adoption it has sought since the late 20th century.

While VR technology still has some hills to climb to become more easily consumable—the price and the hardware aren’t quite right for mass adoption yet—the thought of a full-service artificial experience has been seducing us for decades (see Stanley Grauman Weinbaum’s 1935 short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles.) And perhaps the most widely anticipated application of this technology is in the education space.

Though conversations about online education tend to be particularly spirited in higher ed, there’s no denying that both the increasing presence of nontraditional students and the ever-expanding digital engagement of today’s consumer are accelerating online ed’s share of the instructional pie. Yet a key criticism of online education targets its inability to engage students in real-time, face-to-face interactions. The 2015 report Online Education: Values Dilemma in Business and the Search for Empathic Engagement points out that online learning environments simply underperform in creating critical communal bonding moments both in the classroom and in a student’s down time. This report posits that: “[The online platform] can be enhanced but cannot be made equivalent to the face-to-face venue with its intimate relationship with mentors, communal bonding, development of friendships and shared intimacies.”

Those more optimistic about the possibilities for engagement in online education look to technology to fill the gaps in real-time communication. Platforms like Google Hangouts and Skype are often encouraged to create opportunities for distance learners to engage in real-time interaction, while tools like those of Google’s G Suite for instructor/student and team collaboration. And the exciting thing about VR is that it has the potential to bring an immersive, physical dimension to educational experiences, both in and out of the classroom, to those nontraditional students with decreased abilities to attend on-campus classes and events.

While there are no guarantees that virtual reality is here to stay, Facebook Spaces sheds light on some signs that we might be nearing the tipping point for this technology. While the digital environment was notably unprepared to adopt the technology in the 80s and 90s, the level with which technologies are integrated into our daily lives has dramatically increased since then. We’re hard-pressed to find an aspect of modern American life that isn’t augmented in some way by technology. Wearable technologies like Fitbit and Google Watch, the internet of things, and the almighty smartphone are all examples of how virtual reality might be perfect for the market. And while strides might have been slow to begin with, the rapid growth in virtual reality in the past few years is another sign it just might stick this time.

While product launches like Facebook Spaces often create a major buzz amongst businesses, tech journalists, and consumers alike, we must never lose sight of the fact that technology is, and will likely always remain, a tool. Particularly in a space like higher ed. While the potential for the tool is notably exciting in its promise to provide more immersive community-building and learning experiences, Facebook Spaces and other VR technologies will only ever be able to augment an institution’s ability to serve students, not replace it.

Danielle Caldwell

Danielle Caldwell is the Content Marketing Manager at Helix Education. Prior to her work with Helix, Danielle served as a full-time faculty member with Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program in Salt Lake City. Danielle brings nearly a decade of experience in research, communication, and higher education, and she currently still teaches graduate courses in organizational communication and research methods as an adjunct professor at Westminster College.