Exploring the potential of VR in higher education

Dedicated VR labs at universities may become the norm in the near future

Assistant Professor Melba D’Souza used virtual reality to navigate through a bloodstream. (Juan Cabrejo/The Omega)

TRU geography professor Michael Mehta hosted an open event last Monday where attendees could personally interact with various virtual reality programs. For Mehta, the applications of virtual reality could significantly enhance the learning experience in higher education, particularly for Open Learning and distance education. Despite his large ambitions, he is taking a pragmatic approach to the challenges ahead before integrating the technology in classrooms.

“When we introduce any technology into the classroom, even PowerPoint initially, there’s always a learning curve and technological challenges involved,” he said. “In the case of a university, we have really good IT infrastructure in place, but we have to make sure that we don’t introduce anything that can’t be supported, built upon or doesn’t meet the needs of a large number of people including students.”

Concerning budgeting costs, Mehta provides a realistic comparison with current computer labs and suggests the idea of a dedicated VR lab.

“It’s hard to say, the equipment has gone down significantly in price, right now at a retail store you can buy some of the headsets and the equipment for $500,” he said. “When you start to think about it that way and you look at computers in labs that cost considerably more than that, it’s really not that much of an ask.”

Particularly for trades and technology uses, Mehta describes the broad range of training opportunities available for practices including mechanical repairs, heavy machinery and even mining.

“It depends on the discipline if you look at for example, what trades will want to do with this, some universities in Canada are using this in their trades programs to teach people how to do mechanical repairs and how to operate heavy machinery,” he said. “From what I understand some applications are being used in the mining sector.”

Mehta also expressed his enthusiasm for applications relevant to the liberal arts with possibilities of exploring geographical locations, language acquisition or even to relive important moments in history.

“You could even look at disciplines including fine arts, there are sculpting programs that can allow people to create 3D objects that could even be printed with 3D printers,” he said. “In history, politics and other fields, there are lots of applications that allow you to tour museums of the world for instance, from what I understand there’s even one that allows you to see the assassination of JFK.”

The event featured a simulation called The Body VR: Journey Inside a Cell, an educational experience that takes the user inside the human body through the perspective of a red blood cell. Nursing Assistant Professor Melba D’Souza had the opportunity to try the simulation and shared her thoughts on its practicality along with some of the time limitations when programming content for the health sciences.

“I thought that it was amazing for anatomy students, it shows them the anatomy of blood but there were no games or complexity built into it, it was just very basic pedagogy,” she said. “I think the main challenge would be time for faculty [to program applications] because they have teaching and research as their priority; for students, they want to cover the content of the course, so if we use this particular thing, then we have to see how to fit it in the curriculum.”

The event was hosted with the help of the Faculty of Arts and All Around Gamerz provided HTC Vive headset stations.

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