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Monday, September 25, 2023

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Making VR Learning a Reality

SDSU is leading the way for incorporating virtual and augmented reality in classroom instruction.
By Michael Price

“How awesome would it be to float in space and see how the sun’s light illuminates the moon and creates the phases? Things like this are possible today thanks to virtual reality.”

The waxing and waning phases of the moon arise from the three-dimensional interplay between the positions of the sun, moon and Earth. It can be a complex concept for students to get their heads around—but it might become easier thanks to virtual reality programs that allow learners to watch these moon phases play out from a sort of interstellar birds-eye view.

“When we learned about the moon phases, we used foam balls attached to popsicle sticks,” said Harsimran “Sim” Baweja, the San Diego State University Instructional Technology Fellow for immersive learning, as well as director of the Neuromechanics and Neuroplasticity Laboratory in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. “How awesome would it be to float in space and see how the sun’s light illuminates the moon and creates the phases? Things like this are possible today thanks to virtual reality.”

A testbed for the future

Learning about the moon is just one example of how SDSU is blazing a trail for using experiential technology such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to develop new ways to teach educational concepts in classrooms and improve learning outcomes. Baweja is working with the staff of the Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) initiative—a program run by SDSU’s Instructional Technology Services (ITS)—to promote VR and AR in a range of diverse disciplines including astronomy, nursing and art and design.

And these advances won’t be confined to SDSU. Baweja recently received a grant from the California State University (CSU) Chancellor’s Office to lead a monthly workshop with representatives from all 23 CSU campuses to share best practices for implementing VR and AR in the classroom.

“SDSU is a testbed for developing immersive learning technologies,” said ITS director James Frazee. “We’ve had people from the CSUs out here for technology summits in the past, and this is an opportunity to build on that, share our knowledge and find new potential uses for it.”

At a recent ITS showcase, SDSU faculty and students shared their current experiences using VR and AR in the classroom, as well as their hopes and dreams for the technology. Gur Windmiller, an instructor in the SDSU astronomy department, said virtual reality learning is a perfect fit for teaching students about astronomy. Concepts that can be very difficult to grasp when explained verbally suddenly make perfect sense when students experience them visually, he explained.

“It’s a very visual subject,” Windmiller said. “You can create these sandbox worlds where students can just play around with astronomical objects and see what happens.”

Holographic health

Philip Greiner, director of the School of Nursing, described an ongoing education project using “holo-patients:” interactive holograms that teach students about critical medical scenarios. As part of the project—a partnership between the School of Nursing, ITS, Microsoft, Pearson Education and Texas Tech University—nursing students strap on the Microsoft HoloLens “mixed reality” headset, allowing them to see a holographic simulation of a patient.

In the scenario being tested in this pilot project, a young man has just come into the clinic after experiencing a mountain biking injury. He recently had a laceration on his back stitched up and received both antibiotics and pain medicine. Nursing students can walk around the patient, observing him in real-time 3D. About 30 seconds into the scenario, the patient suddenly begins itching and breathing rapidly and hives develop on his skin.

Savvy students will recognize this as the early stages of a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics. If left untreated, the holographic patient eventually goes into full-blown anaphylactic shock. It’s an extremely rare response to such treatment, Greiner said, so it allows nursing students to experience such an event and develop strategies for handling it, should they ever happen to see it in their careers.

Eventually, the project’s organizers hope to develop a wide range of scenarios to give nursing students virtual experience with a broad spectrum of medical conditions. Currently, students can practice these scenarios with high-tech interactive mannequins, but those cost tens of thousands of dollars each and require regular maintenance and upkeep. Working with holographic patients is comparatively affordable and accessible to larger numbers of students. Other students within the School of Nursing are studying the effectiveness of this project compared to more traditional methods.

 “This, to me, is the future of nursing education,” Greiner said.

Overcoming obstacles

For now, there are two major hurdles to widely implementing VR and AR technology in the classroom. One is the length of time it takes to train students to use the devices and programs, said Windmiller, though he’s been able to drastically reduce the length of instruction. Frazee added that younger generations are already becoming more comfortable with VR through video games and other media experiences, so future students might take to immersive learning extremely naturally.

The other hurdle is curriculum development. Even for instructors who want to use VR and AR, there simply aren’t many well-designed programs for many disciplines. That’s where SDSU’s student clubs can step in, said Neha Nene, a third-year computer science student and president of the Virtual Reality Club. The club counts about 50 members and is eager to work with faculty members to program and develop virtual reality environments for use in the classroom.

“The best way for us to learn about this technology is to dive into projects,” she said, “so we’re always looking to collaborate with faculty on projects they’d like to see come into existence.”