Virtual Reality

UT students explore their new ‘classroom,’ a virtual reality setting that looks like a desert

The pandemic ushered in the tricky world of virtual education, which is a tale of mixed success. Some professors have gone back into the classroom full-time, but others aren’t ready to stop exploring new online possibilities.

A professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business is taking things to another level all together. He’s experimenting with how the world of virtual reality — not just onscreen class time but full immersion into a shared setting — might be the future of learning.

Students are able to take Mark Collins’ marketing capstone course through virtual reality, listening to their lectures at home while “exploring” their auditorium set in the middle of a virtual desert.

It looks like something out of a video game. Human-like, customized figures without legs float around the desert-themed auditorium, one of the several surreal meeting spaces available on the virtual reality meeting platform Spatial. It’s their lecture hall for the semester.

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But instead of distracting students, Collins believes the experience is more engaging than sitting in a classroom.

“Honestly, it exceeded anything I’ve ever seen on an online meeting space,” Collins told Knox News. “On some days, it was better than face-to-face discussion in class, which I never thought would happen. It was a really surprising outcome.”

Every student in the class was given an Oculus Quest 2 headset to use in class (and for their own virtual reality enjoyment). After some in-person classes to get students comfortable with each other, Collins started teaching the course using the headsets halfway through the semester.

They spent the first day learning how to operate the equipment from Alex Weber, a first-year MBA student. His business EVRLASTING makes VR recordings of weddings and other events.

Then, the class starts. Students were physically at their apartments or dorm rooms with the Oculus headset on, listening to the lecture in the virtual space from the comfort of their couches or desks.

But unlike the video calls that we all used during the pandemic, the students and Collins move like they’re in the same room. They could walk up to one another, change seats and ask Collins questions from the front of the lecture hall.

For many students, there wasn’t much of a learning curve in using the device. Some people tend to experience vertigo, but Collins said all 30 of his students felt fine.

“It was really special to be a part of this groundbreaking virtual reality class,” said Bridgette Liederbach, a student in Collins’ class. “I loved being able to learn in a new environment and interact with my professor and classmates in a unique way.”

The future of learning

For Collins, this marketing class is just the beginning of what he thinks virtual reality has to offer in education.

“You can actually see a really steep curve of the number of platforms and apps that are being developed now that the (headset’s) price point is so low,” Collins said. “It’s attracted a lot of software developers. … And as time goes on, more and more of that could be focused towards higher ed, and I’m sure K-12, too.”

After creating a teaching plan with colleagues and mapping out what the class would look like, the business college got Collins funding to purchase 35 Oculus Quest 2 headsets, which retail for under $300 each.

Virtual reality is already used in the academic field, but typically in medical applications. In August, Fisk University created a VR human cadaver lab for its pre-med and biology-related majors.

But Collins knows first-hand that the virtual reality space can be utilized by students across majors, including his business students. His dream is to create a virtual reality supply chain experience. Students would be able to visit different phases of the supply chain, meeting suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and ultimately the consumers.

“We certainly have the expertise to do it,” Collins said. “It’s just finding a way to have the technology be able to match that.”

Collins directs the business college’s Office of Technology-Enhanced Education, and he’s been interested in outside-the-classroom teaching experiences since he was a student at UT in the early ’80s. Cable television made its way to campus, and soon professors started teaching what Collins calls “mega classes,” airing lectures live on TV.

Now, Collins is transforming teaching for his students at UT. The Office of Technology-Enhanced Education has continued with those live and recorded courses, which provide flexibility for students with busy schedules.

Virtual reality is just another tool in the college’s toolkit. Until his dream of a supply chain teaching simulator can become a reality, students and staff in the Haslam College of Business are using the VR headsets for academic advising when they aren’t being used in class.

Even though holding class in the virtual world has been an overall positive experience, Collins can’t imagine an all-virtual semester-long class — the technology just isn’t quite there to make it hiccup-free.

“As they continue to develop the technology, I think we’ll get there,” Collins said. “And and I think it really will become a way to have online classes that are really, really robust.”


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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