Texas A&M University–Commerce Libraries: Check Out Our State-of-the-Art Virtual Learning Lab
by Valerie Lutes
Texas A&M University–Commerce Libraries (A&M–Commerce Libraries) has long striven to be the innovative hub of the bustling campus. It is well-known for its pioneering services for students and faculty members. The library prides itself on discovering the cutting edge in educational technology services. Past successful ventures include an iPad-lending program, 3D printing, an audiovisual studio, and its LaptopsAnytime kiosk—the first of its kind in Texas. Well, par for the course, the library has been at it again.
|There is no doubt that 3D and VR technology is increasingly mainstream, and the quicker libraries accept that, the sooner patrons of all backgrounds and situations can have access to this incredible tech ...
Always on the lookout for the best in emerging technologies, in December 2015, the library created the Virtual Learning Lab. It is an interactive area that uses zSpace virtual reality (VR) technology to enhance student learning, but also to provide a new dimension to faculty assignments and course curriculum. As one of the first academic libraries to have a full lab of zSpace units, A&M–Commerce Libraries has learned a few lessons along the way. In this article, I want to share our experience in implementing this new service.
What Is the Virtual Learning Lab?
The Virtual Learning Lab is a dedicated space on the second floor of the James G. Gee Library created for the purpose of housing 10 zSpace 200 units or stations. Up to 20 patrons can be in the Virtual Learning Lab at one time, with the users partnering up and sharing time as the “lead” user. The physical layout of the room is set up similar to a u-shaped computer lab, with 24" HD displays, mice, and keyboards, but that is where such comparisons end.
At each station, there is a pair of zSpace 3D glasses with five white reflectors and a stylus. A pair of companion glasses that do not have reflectors is available for use by a partner. A patron can check out a station and the accompanying accessories for up to 4 hours at a time. Four cameras on the zSpace unit track the reflective surfaces on the glasses and the tips of the stylus, allowing for it to react to the hand and head movement of the user and create a truly immersive 3D environment. The patron can use the stylus to manipulate and dissect a variety of realistic objects (such as plants, animals, molecules, and engines), turning them for different views, taking them apart, and putting them back together again, with all the functionality of a mouse. It is not touchscreen, but uses a pointer, and the object appears as if it is floating in front of the user.
In addition to the 10 units in the Virtual Learning Lab, two portable zSpace 300 all-in-one systems (enabled with the K–12 STEM package) were purchased and made available for checkout to faculty members through A&M–Commerce Libraries’ media services department. These units are ideal for providing instructions in the classroom, when the class cannot visit the library, or for small group and individual use. A&M–Commerce Libraries has access to both the K–12 STEM applications and the Cyber-Anatomy package. While anyone can use the programs, the STEM applications are ideal learning tools for the university’s curriculum and instruction program, and the Cyber-Anatomy package was purchased to supplement the needs of programs such as nursing, biology, and health and human performance. With these applications, patrons can explore and dissect hundreds of models, create presentations and lessons, conduct virtual experiments, create 3D printable designs, and more. The possibilities are endless, as the company welcomes developers to work on their own applications of the technology, and updates occur frequently. The Virtual Learning Lab was created with the needs of an academic library in mind, but given the educational applications of the zSpace K–12 STEM pack—which is perfect for use in public schools—and the popularity of makerspaces and similar creative services across all types of libraries, almost any library could find that a Virtual Learning Lab, or similar endeavor, is applicable to their situation. There is no doubt that 3D and VR technology is increasingly mainstream, and the quicker libraries accept that, the sooner patrons of all backgrounds and situations can have access to this incredible tech that will be impacting the way in which we live on a daily basis, in our schools and in our homes. As any early adopter knows, the price of catching technology as it hits the market is not cheap. But consider the fact that libraries are preparing patrons for the future and introducing them to technologies that they may have no other way of accessing. That impact is priceless.
At the time of the library’s initial purchase in 2015, the cost of the lab and two portable units surpassed $100,000. An individual zSpace 300 all-in-one portable unit cost several thousand dollars. For a library just beginning to invest in VR technology, purchasing an individual unit may be the most practical first step.
Our decision to create the Virtual Learning Lab was made with careful consideration and required the library staff to ascertain in advance that such an innovative technology would have the support of key stakeholders to make the purchase worthwhile. Not only did the cost of the equipment need to be considered, but the cost for renovation of the space as well. It was imperative for us to get the support of the administration very early in the planning stage.
The director of libraries, Gregory Mitchell, facilitated meetings with zSpace representatives in which a demonstration was provided to the administration and to the department heads that would be most impacted by the additional library service. Once it was certain that the interest in the then unnamed Virtual Learning Lab was there, the purchase was finalized.
While the members of the university administration and department heads who were able to attend the early demonstrations were clearly supportive, following the actual purchase and construction of the physical space, there was still an entire university community to alert and excite about the new Virtual Learning Lab.
Marketing and generating buy-in are some of the most important aspects of debuting any new library service, in any library. In our case, generating faculty buy-in proved particularly important, as one of the libraries’ primary goals was to have faculty members encourage students to use the Virtual Learning Lab by incorporating assignments using the technology into their coursework wherever applicable. Marketing to students was also a necessary step, although it required less of a sales pitch. The technology tends to speak for itself when it comes to students. Marketing the new service to the students was less about convincing them to try it out and more about just letting them know that the Virtual Learning Lab existed, where they could find it, and how they could access it.
As students and faculty members became increasingly aware of the new Virtual Learning Lab in the library, the research and instruction services (RIS) department created an instructional plan for the upcoming semester to accommodate interested parties and provide further outreach to faculty. The RIS team currently provides monthly walk-in workshops in the lab that focus on different zSpace applications that cannot be covered in depth during the more general introductory instructions. Faculty members can request individual instruction for themselves or an instruction for the entire class. The portable units make it possible for lessons to occur outside of the library.
The Virtual Learning Lab is often also requested to be included on group tours of the library for university recruiting purposes, as well as on tours for special programs. The Virtual Learning Lab is available for individual use for up to 4 hours at a time. Building on the faculty outreach that occurred in the marketing stage of the lab’s launch (see the sidebar below), the librarians have worked to have the Virtual Learning Lab embedded into course curricula and are collaborating with instructors to develop activities for the upcoming year.
READY TO LAUNCH: Highlights of the Library’s Marketing Strategy
The library’s marketing committee took on the task of creating a multipronged promotional campaign to
announce the opening of the Virtual Learning Lab late in the fall 2015 semester. The campaign recognized that
marketing to faculty members and marketing to students would require vastly different approaches. The committee came up with a marketing campaign that consisted of four targeted events, the first of which was a library-tech demo and was meant to attract both faculty and students.
1. OPEN HOUSE AND TECH DEMO—At the same time that the library was ready to debut the Virtual Learning Lab and zSpace technology, several other innovative
services—such as a new 3D printer, audiovisual lab, and new media items—were in the works. The committee decided to host an open house-style demonstration of all the new offerings, and it served as the first official introduction of zSpace technology to the campus.
Construction of the physical space had not yet been completed, so portable units were used. Two key aspects of the event were hands-on engagement and an informal drop-in atmosphere. The committee recognized that students and faculty members would be less likely to commit to a specific and lengthy appointment at the end of a semester, so keeping the demo as low commitment as possible was important.
One of the new items being showcased was a keyboard, so a music student was there to perform live, and the demonstration was also set up in the busiest part of library, where patrons naturally flow past. They couldn’t miss the party, even if they wanted to. A library staff member was stationed near each new piece of equipment to answer questions and assist anyone who wanted to try it out, doubling as a chance for patrons to see the faces of the library behind the tech.
Social media, student and faculty listservs, and traditional print marketing were used to publicize this event. The library-tech demo was very successful and required relatively little exertion on the part of the committee, because the hands-on nature and “wow” factor of many of the items on display lend themselves to easy marketing, particularly with the students. If only it was so easy to get the students to take the yearly library survey.
The other three events specifically targeted university faculty members and occurred before the physical space of the Virtual Learning Lab was officially open for the rest of the university community.
2. VIP TOURS—The first event was a private zSpace demonstration and tour of the lab given to members of Texas A&M–Commerce’s academic council. The goal of this event was to generate excitement and create buy-in from the council, knowing that it would then filter out to their respective departments. A personal invitation to the event was extended from the director of libraries to the council. The marketing strategy featured face-to-face marketing, library-branded giveaways (aka library swag), refreshments, and the very important—and yet often overlooked—follow-up with handwritten thank you notes.
3. FACULTY RECEPTION—The next event was the official faculty opening of the Virtual Learning Lab. This was a drop-in style reception. Faculty members were given personal tours of the lab and a hands-on opportunity to try the zSpace technology for themselves. Coffee, brochures, example workbooks, and more library swag were available for the taking. Following the event, all
participants were emailed a thank you note that included an invitation to participate in a survey for assessment, in which the results were overwhelmingly positive.
4. HANDS-ON TRAINING—The last of the targeted events was participation in A&M–Commerce’s Professional Development Day. Members of the library marketing committee hosted two interactive sessions in the Virtual Learning Lab that were open to all faculty members and staffers. The session sizes were small, allowing
for intimate one-on-one interaction. Interestingly, all participants were new and had not been to any of the other previous events. Once again, personalized thank you emails were sent as a follow-up.
After the campaign was complete, the committee found that social media and digital marketing were particularly effective with undergraduate students, and personalized invitations and face-to-face interactions worked best for marketing to faculty members. They observed that follow-up is particularly important, and prolonged, multifaceted marketing campaigns have a cyclical nature.