The 1960s animated sitcom “The Jetsons” predicted many technologies that eventually came to fruition. Robotic vacuums, smart watches and video calls are all a part of life as we know it today.
Now, with the use of virtual reality technology, some UofL classes are mirroring the Jetsons’ futuristic world even more and helping students learn in a more engaging environment.
Through UofL’s Teaching Innovation Learning Lab (TILL) within the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning, instructors have piloted VR activities for an array of course subjects such as German and chemistry to promote active learning with their students.
Danielle Franco, associate professor of chemistry, was one of the first instructors to try out the technology with her class in fall 2022.
“When I used the VR system for the first time, I was really impressed with the possibilities. Students can poke their head inside a molecule so they can actually see the layers where electrons are located, which is better than just having them imagine these things,” Franco said. “With virtual reality, I can show students exactly what I’m describing using 3D models, and everybody has a better understanding. Students engage more in class because they comprehend what they are learning, rather than just memorize it.”
The Delphi Center has capabilities to support extended reality (XR), which is the umbrella term for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). To use the technology, students place a VR headset over their eyes and use two handheld controls that allow them to manipulate formula elements, experience the other side of the world and more.
In Franco’s chemistry class, students were able to go beyond reviewing formulas on paper by virtually manipulating life-size molecules. Blake Orr, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, was one of the students who used VR in Franco’s Chemistry 201 course. Orr noted that despite the early trial stage of using the technology in class, it provided a helpful and fun learning experience.
“The VR helped me visualize different structures in our chemistry class such as the shapes that different molecules come to form, as well as electron orbital shapes,” Orr said. “It challenged me in new ways like learning how to operate in a virtual space. I would like to see VR used more in classes.”
Jurdyne Skaggs, a senior pre-law major who experienced using VR in her German 121 and 122 courses, also would like to see the technology used more widely in her classes.
“This could be really cool to use in a courtroom so law students could experience a real trial and be right next to a judge to see what that’s like,” Skaggs said.
The technology opens the door for students to experience scenarios and places they might not be able to without VR and takes students outside the box of traditional learning. Skaggs’ German professor, Jordan Gabbard, said VR offers many capabilities to help his students learn the foreign language.
“There’s this really exciting ability to take students and put them in the middle of a 360-degree VR video of all these German and Austrian cities for different tours,” Gabbard said. “And it’s a completely different experience from what we can typically offer them in our traditional classrooms.”
VR technology provides real-world opportunities such as walking the streets of Germany or experiencing a bustling café in Berlin that would be difficult or impossible to recreate in the typical classroom environment. This activity helps break barriers for students who may not be able to attend an overseas education trip for financial reasons, family responsibilities or other factors.
“The greatest potential VR offers us as instructors is the ability to immerse our students in new environments,” Gabbard said. “For world language teachers – especially coming out of the COVID years, when all of our study abroad programs were shut down for an extended period of time and are just starting to come back to where they were before – now, this is the best way for us to put our students into those native speaking environments.”
CHOOSING YOUR AVATAR
When students join a VR session, they can create their avatar, or the electronic image that represents them within the virtual reality realm.
“It’s kind of like a bunch of ‘Sims’ characters,” Skaggs said, referring to the early 2000s simulation video game.
Lucian Rothe, assistant professor of German and a native German speaker, said this VR feature helps students learn by allowing them to be creative in how they present themselves virtually.
“An added benefit that I see, in addition to the immersion students get, is that students can play with their avatars and play with their appearance,” Rothe said.
Students can choose their clothing and appearance, and some have even chosen a crown to wear. One of Rothe’s classroom activities involves students talking with each other to describe their avatars and what they are wearing. The freedom of expression VR offers helps make activities like this more enjoyable.
“We could have talked about that in a regular classroom too, but probably nobody would wear a crown in a regular classroom,” Rothe said with a grin. “So, you get a deeper sense of learning and discussion.”
Skaggs believes the VR has helped her become more confident and excited to participate in her German classes.
“The VR tech has helped me be more expressive,” Skaggs said. “When you go into your VR set, it’s easy to be like, ‘Ich bin Jurdyne!’ And it makes me want to speak more, because it takes away the pressure of reacting or participating in class.”
THE FUTURE OF VR CLASSROOMS
Professors Gabbard, Rothe and Franco are expanding their use of VR technology in their classes with each semester and are dedicated to learning more about the best ways it can be used to help students succeed. While Franco first used VR as a tool to simply get students more engaged, she said it is helping to even the playing field for students who have a difficult time learning traditionally.
“Some students have difficulties imagining how to see an orbital, for example,” Franco said. “We can tell them why they need to know that, why they need to understand, but this allows them to be part of the simulation so they can fully immerse in what they are learning.”
Rothe and Gabbard are focusing on implementing their own VR videos to have more control over what their students see within the VR headsets, as well as adding in text what students see. The German professors were chosen as 2023 TILL Teaching Innovation Award winners and are studying the proven benefits of using VR scenarios with students to reach learning outcomes compared with those in a regular classroom. They hope to discover more ways to use VR as an effective tool to help students reach their potential and to encourage other professors to use the technology.
For Skaggs, VR opened her eyes to places she might never have seen and gave her a new and exciting way to learn.
“Germany has some of the most beautiful sights. The mountains and little villages within the mountains are so gorgeous. It was really cool to see all of that with my own eyes, even if it was technically virtual,” Skaggs said. “VR changed the way I learn and see things because it lets me see them from my own perspective instead of someone else’s.”
Brooke Whitaker contributed to this story.