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Faculty Explores World of Virtual Reality at Institute

Educators spend three days immersed in innovative teaching methods

From left are Keith Zdrojowy from the School of Communication, Media & the Arts, keynote speaker Maya Georgieva and Annie Suffredini from the Center for Career & Professional Development.

Sacred Heart University faculty, staff and graduate students immersed themselves in the world of augmented, virtual and mixed reality (AR/VR/MR) at the University’s recent three-day faculty institute.

The institute focused on transforming education with the use of AR/VR/MR to provide better educational experiences for students. Twenty-six participants heard from guest speakers, learned about devices and presented their own unique ideas and projects at the institute’s conclusion.

“Our hope for the institute was to launch a campus-wide discussion focused on augmented, virtual and mixed reality in teaching, learning and research,” said Kristin Rainville, associate professor and director of the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching at SHU. She co-organized the institute with Shanshan Wang, assistant professor at the School of Communication, Media & the Arts. “The institute provided faculty with the time, space and support to explore AR/VR/MR and its potential in the classroom. Individuals and groups had the opportunity to work alongside industry experts, who coached teams as they explored the technology and developed their projects.”

On the first day, groups of participants gathered around tables in the Forum at the Frank and Marisa Martire Center for the Liberal Arts to learn about Google Cardboard—glasses constructed of cardboard that bring the viewer into a VR world when a smartphone is mounted inside.

While Jill Manit, clinical assistant professor of social work, explored Google Carboard, she said she thought the institute’s focus was beneficial and she was looking forward to learning how she could implement her ideas. “We have a really robust social work online program, and this could be a great way to engage our distance-learning students,” she said.

The institute also aligns with the provost’s vision and commitment regarding implementing innovative and immersive learning, according to Wang and Rainville. They said the institute is part of a larger vision of creating an “immersive technologies ecosystem” on campus that includes an AR/VR/MR lab, an artificial intelligence lab, a makerspace and more. The University’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching will work with leaders in these spaces to support ongoing faculty development in emerging technologies, Rainville said.

Using AR/VR/MR in the classroom is a new way to communicate, Wang said. For example, nursing students can get a feel for health-care settings without ever leaving the classroom, she said. “We’re really excited for this opportunity. It shows our dedication to learning and providing our students with the necessary tools to be successful.”

The institute’s first guest speaker was Maya Georgieva, director of digital learning and the X Reality Center at the New School in New York City. She has been working with AR/VR/MR in higher education for years.

“We are creating a new visual language,” she said. “One that allows for complete immersion.”

Georgieva introduced the group to the many successful AR/VR/MR projects that are in universities and museums across the country. She discussed the “I Am A Man” project, which takes individuals through Civil Rights marches; “The Berlin Wall: A Virtual Reality Experience,” which allows people to participate in breaking down the wall that divided Germany; and “Becoming Human,” an experience of homelessness.

After Georgieva’s talk, she instructed participants to work in groups and discuss an educational idea that could lend itself to AR/VR/MR. One group, which included social work professors, discussed how they would introduce students to poverty through VR. They developed a scenario in which VR would enable a student to take on the role of someone struggling with poverty and all the day-to-day challenges it brings. Another group wanted to use VR to demonstrate to potential graduate students how to pick a major and what they can expect from a program at SHU.

Jessica Ochoa Hendrix, CEO of Killer Snails, which creates game-based science learning experiences, spoke about content creation and scientific exploration, and Glimpse Group, a VR/AR company, presented VR/AR applications.

On the last day, faculty shared their progress and vision for their ideas through poster projects. Tolga Kaya, an engineering associate professor, envisioned using AR to develop hands-on circuit labs. Jon Walker and Mary Treschitta, art and design professors, demonstrated ways to use AR in exhibits and showcased some of the AR works their department has developed already. Rachel Bowman, a psychology professor, used VR to measure spatial memory and navigation.

“We had a wave of great projects during these three days,” Wang said. “The integration of VR/AR/MR is sure to transform research and learning in any academic environment. We will continue our efforts to promote a culture of innovation and immersive education.”

Feedback from the institute was “overwhelmingly positive,” said Wang and Rainville.

“The institute was well-planned and organized,” said Jason Ostrander, assistant professor of social work and master of social work program director. “The guest presenters encouraged me to reflect and critically think about how I can reimagine a course module or an entire online or on-ground class. Equally as important, the institute allowed me to connect with peers in other colleges, struggle together and develop interdisciplinary ideas for our individual projects.”