Where VR is Headed at the University?

Some of the best learning opportunities occur in one-off encounters while attending conferences and expos. Such was the case at a recent expo. I was attending an exhibit hall session being led by two virtual reality CEOs in Las Vegas.

I arrived at the makeshift theater early; sitting two seats to my left was Dr. Augie Grant from the University of Southern Carolina, a professor of journalism. A technology futurist with a strong emphasis in media convergence, Dr. Grant also serves as the director for the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence, which offers workshops on teaching techniques with technology and communicates the latest pedagogical trends to the USC faculty.

Dr. August Grant, University of Southern CarolinaIn many of my past articles, I have underscored the importance of a growing trend in education: the emergence of student-created VR content. Over the last several years I have noticed educators in significant numbers trolling the booths at numerous expositions, evidencing interest in having student use such VR equipment to produce educational content. In my past DD article, Educational VR: Prosumers versus Consumers, I underlined this trend within the K-12 sphere. Within minutes of engaging in some pre-session conversation with Dr. Grant, I was convinced that his recent efforts serve as a living example of this same trend, although in the higher education space.

Dr. Grant’s efforts at USC easily demonstrate what’s really happening with immersive technologies in all across the land in higher education these days. First, peering back into 2017, the university laid the groundwork for their work in immersive technologies by applying for and implementing a Boeing grant. In this initial effort, student teams created a VR application to help with the repair and maintenance of aircraft. This activity whetted their appetites and enabled them to build initial momentum in the virtual space.

Second and a year later, the Center for Teaching Excellence undertook their first “virtual environments bootcamp.” Building a foundation of student expertise to support university faculty, this bootcamp permitted students at USC to “learn the basics for using the latest virtual environments technologies as well as how to teach using these tools.”

Third, the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) raised the ante by pushing innovation out to the university through skunkworks grants. According to the CTE, the purpose of these grants was to invest in faculty who creatively integrate virtual environments (VE) technologies into courses through innovative pedagogical methods—taking student engagement and learning to a new level.” The overall objective they had in mind for these grants was both quantifiable and expeditious: “to integrate 360 video, augmented reality and/or immersive virtual reality technologies into an existing course to be taught either face-to-face or online at least once between fall 2018 and fall 2019.”

Dr. Grant’s efforts in the virtual reality learning space are clearly indicative of what we see happening in higher education nowadays: students engaged in creating VR content, building student expertise and faculty capacity, with an eye towards nothing short of integrating this technology into the daily teaching of the university.—Len Scrogan