Are You For Real? Exploring Virtual Reality Within The Academic Setting

Virtual reality is all the rage these days, with options ranging from complete virtual worlds real or imagined, to new programs that allow users to conduct surgery on digital patients. According to Educause, VR “uses visual, auditory, and sometimes other sensory inputs to create an immersive, computer-generated environment. VR headsets fully cover users’ eyes and often ears, immersing the user in the digital experience” (Please see Educause article #1 below).

It’s one thing to think about the technology itself, which mostly comprises of a gaming quality computer equipped with an operating system of Windows 7 or higher, a minimum of 32 gigabytes of memory, a 5 or 7-core processor, and a high-end graphics card such as Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 as well as an accompanying set of peripherals which offer options from the very cheap and low-tech such as Google Cardboard, to some higher-end headsets such as HTC Vive:

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But it’s harder to imagine how we can work with students and faculty in a pedagogical context in order to create a (virtual) learning environment. Here are some ideas:

  • Design: This technology would not only enable the creation of 3D objects and buildings, but would allow artists to jointly design something in a collaborative setting.
  • Gaming: Gamers will now be able to touch and explore the world around them in ways never possible before. Don’t just kill a zombie, become one!
  • Models: Can’t make it to Egypt to see the pyramids with an archaeology class? Now you can explore them both inside and out in a VR world of your choosing.
  • Simulations: As mentioned before, you could simulate anything from open heart surgery to a trip in outer space.

Ok, ok. Some of these applications do require programming knowledge, testing time, and additional software. So what can you do as a first step?

  1. Start small. Can’t afford an HTC Vive headset? Try Google Cardboard instead which comes with pre-made games and applications as a way to start learning about VR and the opportunities it presents. Use what’s already available before branching out into designing something from scratch.
  2. Partner with others on campus. Chances are there are faculty and students who are already experimenting with this technology either because they are interested in it on a personal level, or because they would like to integrate it into their curriculum. Even working with one other person is better than trying to figure everything out by yourself.virtual-reality-1541310__180
  3. Think about how these experiences can enhance learning rather than focusing on the technology itself. In other words, what is it that these tools will enable students to learn that they could not have before or perhaps how might learning differ in this type of environment? Conducting some comparative assessment might yield some interesting results in terms of the quality of learning that occurs in a VR environment versus a “normal” one.
  4. We are still grappling with digital literacy, metaliteracy, and other similar outcomes to measure learning in a virtual environment, but it would be interesting to develop outcomes for virtual reality as a way to quantify not just how but what type of learning takes place. VR framework anyone?

Here are some additional resources:

  1. 7 Things to Know about VR Headsets: https://library.educause.edu/resources/2014/12/7-things-you-should-know-about-vr-headsets
  2. Promise of VR in Higher Education: http://er.educause.edu/articles/2016/3/the-promise-of-virtual-reality-in-higher-education
  3. Stanford Teaching Commons: https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/teaching-talk/virtual-reality-and-education

 

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