Producing Academic Outcomes With Virtual Reality Labs
by Fabio Montella
In spring 2018, the Eastern Campus Library of Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) began piloting a virtual reality (VR) lab. VR’s rising interest among U.S. adults1 coupled with a growing pool of research highlighting the benefits and possibilities of VR within education2 became the impetus for our endeavor. Seeing it as more than a piece of lending technology, librarians at SCCC helped facilitate VR services by developing an appropriate collection of VR applications and establishing collaborative efforts with faculty members.
|The success of the VR lab was not solely contingent upon the awareness of its existence, but also upon the education and subsequent persuasion of its intended audience.
Through two semesters of this program (spring and fall 2018), SCCC has seen varying results. Some of these results laid the groundwork for future advancements, while others exposed needed modifications for success and sustainability. The need for such alterations—both physical and conceptual—has led us to the understanding that VR is still a relatively nascent technology, requiring both an informed audience and thoroughly planned implementations.3, 4 Rather than viewing this lab as a final product, we see it as an instrument that can be transformed by the needs and desires of our students and faculty members.
Equipment and Space
The VR lab is located on the second floor of the Montaukett Learning Resource Center. This space was originally a distance education room that was repurposed as a VR space. Its size and layout made it an ideal choice for VR use. The library allotted a portion of its budget to purchase the lab’s initial equipment, which included eight Spectra VR goggles and a VIVE VR System from HTC. The Spectra VR goggles can be lent out or used in-house, while the VIVE is permanently affixed in the lab. The library would later purchase a second VIVE VR System and an Oculus Go, the latter of which has the ability to bring a portion of the VR experience out of the lab and into potential classrooms. The additional VR equipment has enabled faculty members to incorporate multiple students into the VR experience during class instruction and has allowed for greater opportunities involving collaborative or group projects.
In order to obtain a full VR experience, a PC was required. The library ultimately selected a Dell Precision 5820, which provided an upgrade in processing speed and cooling, allowing us to run a variety of VR apps without difficulty. An upgraded graphics card was included in this purchase. An integral and final step in the coalescence of the VR lab was the addition of a television monitor to mirror the VR headset experiences. This configuration has enabled VR users to share their VR experiences in real time with an audience. In doing so, it has made VR more of a shared experience among classmates and faculty, fostering collaborative learning.5 Some of the ancillary products purchased for the VR lab include the Freestep VR cable management system—a retractable ceiling suspension system that keeps VR cables off the ground—and sanitation masks for the VR headsets.
Starting With Fun
During the spring 2018 semester, in honor of STEM Month, the Montaukett Learning Resource Center participated in a campus-wide STEM Share-O-Thon. This event proved to be a viable platform to present and promote our VR lab to the college community. The shared and celebratory environment of the STEM Share-O-Thon highlighted the concept of VR in both an academic and social context. Many students, faculty members, and administrators were introduced to VR for the first time and were visibly astonished by its ability to stimulate our senses. “The VR experience was a simulated experience that made me ‘feel’ and ‘think,’” says Edward Martinez, assistant dean of student services/director of counseling. “It was a wonderful sensory overload opportunity that I hope more people can become familiar with.”
Through the digital distribution platform STEAM,6 the VR lab collected a robust library of VR applications for our STEM Share-O-Thon participants. These apps were subject-specific, interdisciplinary, or general. The diversity of the applications illustrated the multitude of possibilities in which VR can be embedded into academic instruction and provided an abundance of sensory stimulations for an eager audience.
One application, Epic Roller Coasters,7 became emblematic of the immersive VR experience. The energy, excitement, and realistic experience of riding a virtual roller coaster worked effectively on two levels: It highlighted the potential of VR to provide lifelike contexts/scenarios for instructional content, and it presented the potential of VR as a means to effectively engage audiences within a classroom. Several members of our college community—students, faculty members, and administrators—participated in riding a virtual roller, while others viewed those rides on the VR lab’s mirrored screen. The overall positive response signified that VR was garnering interest.
Marketing and Ideas
The initial presentation of the VR lab during the STEM Share-O-Thon was a promising start to the promotion of the lab’s services. With approximately 27,000 students college-wide, 477 full-time faculty members, and 1,505 adjunct faculty members, the potential to use and expand the VR lab was—and is—evident. The success of the VR lab was not solely contingent upon the awareness of its existence, but also upon the education and subsequent persuasion of its intended audience. The implementation of VR, or any emerging technology, will be met with a certain degree of resistance stemming from several factors.8 These factors include the need for professional development among faculty members, a changing of the status quo, and the arduous task of fitting VR content into a time-constrained semester.
Despite the possibility of resistance to VR implementation, the SCCC library began an outreach approach to build on the initial success of the STEM Share-O-Thon presentation. Select department chairs were provided with a brief synopsis of the VR lab and the opportunities afforded to educators through its implementation. They were asked to share this information with their department faculty members. Some of them were also contacted individually with information pertaining to specific VR applications that were deemed suitable for their instructional content. One-shot library instructions proved to be another great opportunity to promote the VR lab. These librarian-led sessions provided direct contact with a number of professors from a variety of disciplines. Preliminary discussions included a succinct overview of VR services and a more tailored presentation of the various applications that suited their needs.
The initial and perhaps most pivotal voice in advocating for VR at SCCC was library director Dana Antonucci-Durgan. Her foresight into the value and potential of a VR lab within the SCCC library became a driving force for its emergence and development. In sharing her vision with SCCC librarians, staffers, and administrators, Antonucci-Durgan opened the channels of communication among the various departments, laid the groundwork for a cooperative approach, and informed our college community of future possibilities.
She describes it this way: “Virtual reality environments accessed through technology such as Oculus Go and the HTC VIVE hardware present students with a unique learning environment. The virtual environment is free of the constraints of the classroom, the laws of physics, and other perimeters of reality. Students can scale a mountain to analyze rock layer deposits, experiment with virtual chemical preparations in a safe space, and stand in the Colosseum.”
Antonucci-Durgan goes on to say, “The virtual worlds engage students through multiple sensory experiences as a form of ‘embodied cognition’9 and create memories of the interaction that are three dimensional. Libraries, through their close collaborations and relationships with academic departments, are well positioned to scale the offering of this immersive technology to various disciplines to support learning through embodied cognition. While the specific hardware and technology will evolve over time, I see the potential for virtual and mixed reality and immersive educational experiences growing in sophistication and applicability in her higher education.”
She continues to show a strong commitment to the growth of SCCC’s VR lab and will be instrumental in its future success.
Faculty Member and Student Responses
Faculty members’ responses to VR varied from the lab’s inception. Some of them worked closely with librarians to implement VR into their respective courses, while others chose to defer the decision to use VR to a later date. Some simply decided not to use it.
However, a portion of our faculty was ambivalent about VR instruction and elected to assess first. Both time and effort were taken into account, as was the practicality of altering course content in a stringent time-framed semester. These considerations led this portion of our faculty members to opt for a more student-led approach to VR use. In this scenario, students were given the choice to use VR for their course and extra credit assignments, much like they would use the library’s other resources. This approach, which I viewed as a litmus test for our student VR services, produced substantial feedback from our student body. As one student stated, “In VR you can examine and feel almost all elements of the 5 senses. The sounds and interactiveness make it so much more personal.”
The library has since arranged a significant amount of student VR sessions, such as virtual meditation and virtual exploration of the human anatomy. Some of the apps more commonly used by students are as follows:
- Speech Trainer10 is a virtual auditorium app that provides a virtual audience for speeches and/or presentations. This app was frequently used by communications and public speaking students.
- Google Earth VR11 is a VR perspective of Google Earth that was frequently used by students in a variety of disciplines.
- Night Cafe: A VR Tribute to Vincent Van Gogh12 is a VR app that allows you to enter an environment created in the likeness of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting, The Night Cafe. The beauty and serenity of this app proved to be popular among our students for its relaxing and meditative qualities.
Visual Arts Instruction
As previously mentioned, select faculty members collaborated closely with SCCC librarians to implement VR into their course content. One faculty member in particular, Meredith Starr, a very innovative and passionate professor of visual arts, produced remarkable success. Starr researched current trends pertaining to the use of VR in visual arts and proceeded to create tailored instruction that guided her students to meet their learning objectives. Select VR apps were used for her 2D Design and Drawing I students, respectively.
Starr’s 2D Design students used the HTC VIVE and Spectra VR Goggles to view Ali Eslami’s “DeathTolls Experience”13 and Rachel Rosin’s “Man Mask,”14 respectively. These powerful social commentary pieces by prominent VR artists provided examples and influences for her students’ own social commentary artworks. “Having access to and the opportunity to work in Virtual Reality where we can expose students to artists who have created socially engaged artworks in this new media can be a transformative learning experience,” Starr explains.
Her Drawing I students used VIVE to access Google’s Tilt Brush,15 a VR app for painting in a surrounding 3D space. This experience transformed into a collaborative class project that merged the creativity of each individual into one representative design.
“In the visual arts curriculum,” Starr says, “students learn traditional fine arts techniques, but expand on their idea of how they can create and convey ideas when they have access to use virtual reality. Using programs such as Google Tilt Brush let students draw in three dimensions as well as collaboratively. They’re merging their foundation skills with cutting-edge technology, which is building their potential as artists and designers.” Starr’s collaboration with the VR lab is continual and dynamic and has benefited all parties involved.
Through two semesters of piloting, the VR lab at SCCC is beginning to produce concrete results and a more defined trajectory. Faculty-librarian collaborations have proven to be the most effective means of using VR as a learning tool, and future collaborations may come as a result of continual resource publicity. Student use, both individually and in a group capacity, has also shown great promise and indications of growth. By continuing to expand on the VR lab’s initial successes and developing new and effective means of VR use, the library will look to make VR a prominent resource.
The potential for growth must also be accompanied by professional development training and the purchase of current hardware and software. All future professional development trainings will target librarians and interested faculty members; they will be provided in-house and at various external programs/workshops. The expansion of our current VR application collection will ensure that the library meets the needs of our inclusive learning environment, and the purchase of updated VR headsets and accompanying equipment will ensure our relevancy in educational VR. Budgetary restructuring is a viable option to meet all of these demands, although a more effective means may be through grant applications. These questions and decisions will continue to be addressed by all those involved in the SCCC VR lab, and the development of a VR presence within the SCCC community will continue to grow.