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Virtual Reality in a Changing World

By Kira Norwood,

In these unprecedented times, many have been forced to adapt or expand their ways of teaching. This period of change can be used to explore areas of teaching that one has never ventured into. The world of virtual reality has become increasingly popular and could serve as an engaging and informative tool to utilize in online courses and remote settings.

Virtual reality allows the users to experience a virtual environment by simply putting on a headset. These environments can replicate the real world or be adjusted to mimic the desired elements and themes. Thomas Jones, Program Assistant at the Center for Teaching Excellence, describes virtual reality as a video game that one can become a part of. “It’s one of those really good platforms that allows you to step into a whole different virtual world,” Jones said.

Virtual reality can be used in a variety of settings and serve different purposes. In an academic setting, students can develop a deeper understanding of their studies by going to different places or viewing things that otherwise would be unattainable. Jones recalls introducing virtual reality in an anthropology class at UofSC. “They were able to get into this virtual doctor’s office and be able to explore a lot of different human body systems that you normally wouldn’t be able to,” Jones said.

Aside from the ability to bring something one might normally see in a textbook to life, virtual reality can also be used to mimic social interactions as well. “I showed one app that looked at the flight of Syrian refugees going into Greece. Those students were able to listen to real stories of the refugees. That was one of those things where it felt like the students were actually there and talking to people despite it being completely animated,” Jones said.

Another benefit of virtual reality is its ability to minimize distractions. “You can take the students into a 360° video and allow them to learn about a place. The students aren’t being distracted by online shopping or someone outside in the hall,” Jones said. This allows professors to mitigate any problems and keep student attention on the lesson at hand.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of many labs, experiments and in-person experiences, teachers can supplement instruction with virtual reality. Students can obtain VR headsets for low costs and become more immersed in their online classroom.

Another option for online teaching incorporates 360° video that would only require a simple cardboard viewer. “You can have students go through and experience the Berlin Wall for example. They can experience that in their own home setting and get a different learning environment that’s not just them staying at home and then saying, ‘I guess I need to go through my slides now,’” Jones said.

CTE strives to share resources that can better a professor’s teaching. In March, CTE held the Virtual Teaching Conference which allowed professors from numerous universities to share their research and experience with education and virtual reality. The CTE office also houses its own VR headsets and holds workshops that introduce guests to the VR world. In addition to the VR headsets, the tether-less Oculus Quest and Garmin VIRB 360° video cameras can be checked out to create personalized content. The “Innovation Station” allows faculty and staff to examine different virtual reality programs that could be of use to them. To accommodate the remote teaching shift, CTE also facilitated a virtual workshop, Mixed Reality in the Online Classroom, detailing how mixed reality can be used in an online classroom.

For those interested in discussing ways to use 360° video, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality into teaching and learning environment, the Virtual Environments Interest Group was created with monthly meetings. A Blackboard organization also allows students, faculty and staff to communicate and collaborate on the advancement of virtual technologies.  For more information on CTE resources for exploring virtual reality, augmented reality, and 360o video, visit the CTE's teaching resource Virtual Environments.

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