Introducing virtual reality learning opportunities for students at Nipissing University
The discussion of virtual reality software at Nipissing University in North Bay began with a consideration of its possibilities for research. Discussions between Tom Church, Instructional Designer in the Centre for Flexible Teaching and Learning, and senior management quickly established the potential for learning as well. The software was demonstrated to faculty in Spring 2013, and projects are now underway to explore the educational opportunities opened up through access to a virtual world for learning.
As one of the first initiatives with simulation software, a 3D version of the Nipissing University campus was created to provide a home for virtual students. A portion of the “real” campus is depicted, including the Harris Learning Library, as well as an outdoor amphitheatre, breakout rooms for meetings, a pond with resident geese, and a campfire for gatherings. Nipissing works with 3D Virtual Crafting, which licenses the software and builds the virtual environments according to the university’s specifications and hosts all learning sessions.
The Harris Learning Library in Nipissing 3D Engage
Nipissing 3D Engage, as the virtual campus is called, adds a new layer of interactivity to online learning. Students install software on their computers, customize avatars, attend class remotely, and collaborate with instructors and other students. They can be assigned tasks and utilize breakout areas to work on assignments either alone or in groups, and then come back to the larger classroom to present their findings. Students and instructors share content using virtual screens, PowerPoint presentations, apps, YouTube videos, and other e-resources. As well as controlling their avatars, participants can display themselves through their webcams while the instructor’s and students’ desktops can be shared.
Nipissing has a number of projects underway to explore the potential of virtual reality in teaching and learning.
Math Drop-In Centre: The virtual drop-in centre is open on Saturday morning and is facilitated by a math tutor whom the students see as an avatar in the virtual classroom. The students, represented as avatars, are also in the virtual classroom. They are able to communicate through audio. The math tutor conducts each session using web resources and applications.
Office of Aboriginal Initiatives (OAI): Outreach to Aboriginal students is core to the mandate of the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, and virtual reality offers an easily accessible technology for interaction. Through 3D Engage, the OAI is piloting the Aboriginal Teaching Initiative, with faculty offering virtual training to teachers enrolled in a degree program. Through use of this software, the teachers can remain in their communities to learn, develop new skills, and immediately apply them in their classrooms. The software has also been used for virtual meetings of Aboriginal leaders, thus facilitating the sharing of ideas over distance.
A second initiative involves Nipissing’s Biidaaban Community-Service-Learning (BCSL) program. One of the goals of the program is to work with First Nations communities to provide math support to students in the Aboriginal Advantage Program. Through this unique experiential program involving partnerships with faculty and community organizations, students learn to apply classroom-based theory to real world experiences. In particular, the students are creating a virtual tutoring environment in which teaching assistants interact with students so that they do not have to travel to campus for assistance.
Outcomes and Benefits
Students at a distance are able to take part in a classroom atmosphere with interaction and engagement facilitated by avatars. Teachers have noticed that students who may be unlikely to participate in other online situations are more active and engaged in the virtual environment.
The breakout rooms ensure privacy for students, as only those in the room area can hear the discussions. This privacy expands the usefulness of the software as students can practice skills, such as interviewing and client counselling, and build capacity and confidence in a safe environments.
The virtual reality software is very easy to use; students take between 10 and 30 minutes to go through the training.
Many of the learning applications are inexpensive to implement since they are based on real-time conversations, such as practice interviews and verbal interventions.
Challenges and Enhancements
Virtual reality is not an environment that is best suited to delivering lectures; instead it demands a pedagogy that is more engaging and interactive. As described by Lorraine Carter, Academic Director of the Centre for Flexible Teaching and Learning, “The use of this and other technologies has forced us to think about how we teach.” Nipissing is evaluating new instructional strategies that, in the words of Instructional Designer Tom Church, “are grounded in inquiry-based and learner-centred approaches.”
The Centre for Flexible Teaching and Learning is investigating the integration of iPads into the instructional experience by linking the iPad screen to the instructor’s desktop. This strategy enables more flexible responses to student queries in mathematics tutorials and labs. Google docs is also being integrated as a collaborative tool so that students can work together on documents.
New avatars are being developed for specific professional learning situations. Avatars such as doctors and nurses would be valuable in health education contexts.
Nipissing plans to develop various virtual scenarios and host sessions rather than use an outside contractor, as the university’s capacity and use of the software expand.
Numerous other applications are being discussed and planned, particularly, for students at a distance. Some of these activities include:
- Studies in human behaviour conducted by the Psychology Department.
- Practice sessions in motivational interviewing so that students in health programs learn how to influence client choices related to activity levels, nutrition, and lifestyle habits. This application could be useful for nursing and physical education students in full- and part-time programs, as well as health professionals taking continuing education courses.
- Techniques for, and practice in, classroom management techniques for student teachers.
Research is also key to successful implementation and assessment. Specific focus will be on the role of virtual reality in facilitating student engagement and interaction.
For Further Information
Centre for Flexible Teaching and Learning
School of Nursing
Centre for Flexible Teaching and Learning
School of Nursing