UofL and Penn State bring immersion to education 1

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How immersive does education need to be? UofL and Penn State show that is a decision best left to teachers

Quick read

➨ A UofL lecturer, using Vive Focus Plus, the new Vive Sync and video conferencing tool Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, recently delivered an English language class to students whose education had to move online following the outbreak of coronavirus
➨ Theresa Black, a science lecturer at Penn State Scranton, used Media Commons, the university’s teaching and learning with technology service, to incorporate 360° videos into her Earth 111 Water: Science & Society course

The story

The University of Louisville (UofL) and Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) have recently demonstrated the range of options available to schools, colleges and universities that want to deliver immersive education.

A UofL lecturer, using Vive Focus Plus, the new Vive Sync and video conferencing tool Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, recently delivered an English language class to students whose education had to move online following the outbreak of coronavirus (Covid-19).

HTC Vive specifically designed a classroom environment in VR for De John Finch’s class, although Sync also offered multiple locations, such as clouds or the Golden Gate Bridge.

The idea to deliver classes in VR came from PhD candidate and graduate assistant Shannon Putnam, who has spent six years working with the immersive technology and set up a VR elementary classroom in 2017.

Putnam said: “Because of all the closures, multiple UofL students were not able to get that real-life experience of teaching a lesson with students.”

“So, this VR opportunity was a fantastic way for them to be able to teach the lesson, get feedback and gain valuable experience that they would have otherwise been denied.”

Putnam described the level of immersion on offer as “basically like a mini computer on your head”.

She continued: “You can use the controllers to actually interact with your virtual environment conducting different activities such as throwing footballs, waving to friends, playing carnival games, even performing medical procedures.”

Given the differences to traditional education, Finch, who is “now ‘a believer’” and plans to hold more classes in VR, was able to allow one of his students, Morgan Rhule, to take over some of the teaching, which she delivered just like she would have taught it in her own third grade classroom.

Rhule took advantage of one of the primary benefits of VR, allowing users to do things that they can’t do in the real world, and, focusing on the five senses, accompanied her reading of a story about a lion with a 3D, life-like lion that appeared in the virtual space whenever the subject of the book roared.

Putnam said: “For obvious reasons, you could never have a lion cub in a third grade classroom. You could show a picture or video, but it wouldn’t feel real.”

“When Morgan was reading from the story in VR, a correctly-scaled, 3D lion appeared in the room, complete with animations and movements so students could physically see, feel and experience the lion.”

“This helps to create a memory and connection to the material, which we know is critical for sustained learning.”

Putnam believes VR is a “game changer” and plans to continue researching the technology and how immersive learning can benefit students.

She said: “Technology has changed our world, in some cases for the positive, and in other cases for the negative. But if we as educators do not realise the power technology has, we are failing.”

“Instead of trying to change the way our kids learn, we need to change the way we teach, and VR (whether people like it or even believe it) needs to be a critical component of that change.”

Schools, colleges and universities interested in immersive learning—amid and beyond the pandemic—with a little less immersion can look to the lesson of Penn State.

Theresa Black, a science lecturer at Penn State Scranton, used Media Commons, the university’s teaching and learning with technology service, to incorporate 360° videos into her Earth 111 Water: Science & Society course.

Using a 360° camera with a tripod and mounted to her kayak, Black captured a wetland and a variety of locations along the Lehigh River in Eastern Pennsylvania. She then edited her videos into a 10-minute tour of the Lehigh River and a 2.5-minute tour of a wetland.

CAP: In the Penn State Scranton Immersive Lab, Alexis Lewonczyk views the 360-degree tour of the Lehigh River. Credit: Shannon Williams/Penn State Scranton
In the Penn State Scranton Immersive Lab, Alexis Lewonczyk views the 360-degree tour of the Lehigh River. Credit: Shannon Williams/Penn State Scranton

To view these videos, Black’s 30 students worked in pairs and booked 30-minute appointments at the Scranton campus’s Immersive Lab, where they completed short-answer questions after using VR headsets to immerse themselves in the wetland and the Lehigh River.

The videos supplemented their lessons about the differences between flowing water and standing water ecosystems, in addition to the variances that occur as a stream moves from its headwaters to its mouth.

Black said: “With 360° video, you learn different ways to engage your students. Over the last year, I have learned a lot about the various technologies we can use, which has been especially helpful with the campus shut down. I feel comfortable enough to be able to use it again if we end up having a similar situation in the fall.”

One of Black’s students, Scranton senior Maggie Podunajec, welcomed the experience, saying: “Having a live view that you can move through and manipulate adds to the learning experience.” 

“Apart from this course, using this technology provides students with experiences and knowledge that they may not otherwise have access to.”

Black is planning to create a comparative watershed video in the Southwest US once travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic are eased.

She said: “We talk a lot in this class about the differences in areas like ours where we have tons of water, and there is a lot of overland flow, compared to places out west, where there’s very little. I would love to do a different experience where they can compare the two and visually experience them.”

The quote from Putnam, that “instead of trying to change the way our kids learn, we need to change the way we teach”, is striking and perfectly encapsulates the potential of VR as an educational tool.

The decision on the level of immersion brought to lessons, whether it’s true VR from a platform such as Vive Sync or less demanding but just as absorbing 360° videos, is an important one, and should be left to teachers as a result.

But it’s up to institutions, as UofL and Penn State have done here, to give their teachers and students the tools they need to experience immersive technology for themselves.

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Main image: University of Louisville’s VR class

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