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VR Technology can Prepare Students for Real World Success

By Jennifer Sparrow, Ed.D., Associate Vice President for Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State Information Technology

Jennifer Sparrow, Ed.D., Associate Vice President for Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State Information Technology

A little over a year ago, I was having a discussion with a higher education reporter about virtual reality, augmented reality, and 360-degree video and their roles in improving teaching and learning. He was intrigued to learn about the resources available to Penn State students, yet there was a prevailing question he couldn’t shake; “How do we show that this is more than just ‘Disneyland’ for college students?”

It’s a fair question because the narrative around this technology for a long time has been primarily consumer-driven. The equipment allows gamers to virtually strap themselves into the cockpit of a high-performance race car and test its limits on exotic tracks. It can give sports fans an in-arena experience from the comfort of home. It allows mobile phone users to interact with advertisements in innovative ways. It enables filmgoers to immerse themselves in the characters’ world.

As educators, researchers, and innovators, however, it is imperative to dig deeper into the technology and uncover its capabilities around improving how teaching and learning happen at our institutions. Research by Barnes and Nobel College has uncovered that 89% of students from Generation Z (typically defined as born between 1995 and 2015) believe in the value of higher education, and they rate career preparation as the top factor in choosing a college.

At the same time, Forbes reports that Walmart is using virtual reality (VR) to train tens of thousands of employees on skills such as compliance and customer service; and the US Army is incorporating augmented reality (AR) into soldier training to monitor heart and breathing rates, and to research its usefulness in mission planning.

Now we’ve arrived at a place where VR and AR use is evolving beyond delivering entertainment, major employers are incorporating the technology in critical initiatives, and a burgeoning student population is valuing higher education more than any generation before it. Universities and colleges find themselves at these crossroads and are tasked with implementing pedagogically sound methods of using VR, AR, and other immersive technology.

"Collaboratively and without regard to disciplines, we can unlock the potential for immersive technology to greatly enhance the ways that teaching and learning take place"

At Penn State, we often talk about creating digitally fluent students; we believe it’s an essential component to prepare students for a professional life that will present them with a steady stream of new positions, new technologies, and a need to develop new skills. In the context of VR and AR, digitally fluent graduates would be prepared to take on roles developing immersive experiences, editing 360-degree video, or developing a training program utilizing immersive technology.

In our efforts to build a community around the idea of digital fluency, some facts became abundantly clear. First, faculty must have access to the technology. The headsets, controllers, apps, and computers that make VR and AR work possible are important, but the idea of access extends beyond hardware and software. Access includes the infrastructure to conduct research with the technology, research the technology itself, instructional designers to support the pedagogical inclusion of the technology, and IT support where it is needed.

When faculty is provided that type of access, it establishes an environment where instructors can innovate and be creative with course content in a way that benefits students. That brings to light the second clear fact related to VR, AR, and digital fluency in higher education; improving student outcomes is the ultimate goal. Two prime examples from Penn State show how this is possible.

Alex Klippel, professor of geography and Gosnell Senior Faculty Scholar at Penn State has done extensive work with VR and other immersive technology. Among that work is creating a virtual field trip and studying how students perform in the virtual setting opposed to the real-life trip to a rock outcropping. He has recently published research on virtual field trips and there are early indications that students are performing better in the virtual environment.

During her senior year, Spenta Bamji created an internship around researching VR apps that had the strongest potential to enhance anatomy and physiology education. After making her determination, Bamji spent her final semester showcasing the apps to faculty, staff, and students. The internship exposed her to technology she had only previously read about and now she continues to work with the technology as a graduate student.

These examples showcase why Penn State continues to undertake initiatives that will increase access to immersive technologies. We believe it is important to create a hub of activity where collaborative and cross-discipline work with VR, AR, and 360-degree video can take place. This hub would be home to research, hands-on demonstrations for novice users, coursework, workshops, and more.

Within our own institutions, and across higher education, it is imperative that we take the same approach. Collaboratively and without regard to disciplines, we can unlock the potential for immersive technology to greatly enhance the ways that teaching and learning take place.

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