Extended Reality (XR) Series (2/4): Exploring the Impact of VR in Higher Education with Francesca Albrezzi

Written by Megan Reusche

As part two of four in our XR series, this article focuses on the use of virtual reality (VR) in higher education. Insights and commentary regarding VR  implementation in higher education and at UCLA is provided by Francesca Albrezzi, Digital Research Consultant in the UCLA Institute for Digital Research and Education, and Lecturer in Digital Humanities at UCLA.

For Francesca, immersive technology like VR is important because it provides an opportunity to be transformative on a multisensory level. The more that we engage in the senses, the more we can impact a greater number of people. Learning through experience also engages all of our senses at once and helps with the formation of memory and, in turn, learning.

Continue reading to learn more about the successes and limitations of this technology and how you can incorporate VR into your research projects and lesson plans.

Current VR Projects at UCLA

As a Ph.D. student in the department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA, Francesca’s thesis focused on immersive experiences in museums and cultural heritage. For her work, she used 360 degree cameras to document still images of exhibition spaces and to capture performances in cultural spaces.

This technique provided an opportunity to grow and document the archive by contextualizing how we preserve exhibitions and performances. As of right now, curators create physical or digital design notebooks and place them in vaults for storage. These records are not always accessible to researchers.

We now have the technology to meet students where they’re at and provide more engaging activities. We can take students on a trip to a museum and teleport them into a space without actually leaving the classroom.

Top Tools to Create a VR Experience in the Classroom

If you’re new to creating VR, the Samsung Gear 360 camera is a great introductory camera to film videos. It is typically used for journalism and is reasonably priced.

Francesca recommends using Google Tour Creator to upload your videos and create immersive, 3D tours from your computer. You can use 360 degree photos, highlight points of interest, overlay images, and easily share the video on a desktop, mobile phone, or Google Cardboard.

Professors and college students can also use ThingLink to create interactive maps, infographics, virtual tours, or other visual learning materials for lesson plans or class presentations. This user-friendly program allows you to upload Google Street View images and attach tags, captions, and more photos to the 360-degree map. Viewers can rotate the map and fully visualize the space while learning more about the past and present of the location through the tags you attach to the different landmarks. This interactive map allows students to become fully immersed in a digital storytelling experience that may soon overtake the PowerPoint-based narratives we’ve become so familiar with.

If you’re interested in open source software, Pano2VR allows you to turn your panoramic images into a virtual tour. You can add enhancements like directional sound and video, and also improve your image quality. The only downside to this software is that it is not as easy to share your files with others.

UCLA offers multiple spaces for group projects and assistance with digital projects on campus, including the Technology Sandbox, Scholarly Innovation Lab (SIL), and Lux Lab. As partners in UCLA’s Digital Research Consortium, these support centers collaborate and share both equipment and expertise, and are open to helping with new tools and technologies you may want to explore. If you want to submit a proposal or request, use the contact information listed on their websites, and know that they will work together to help further your idea.

Challenges and Constraints with VR Equipment

When documenting an exhibition, Francesca notes that she has encountered difficulty with natural lighting and space. If you don’t capture your photos fast enough, the natural lighting will shift and result in photos with different light levels. When piecing these images together, it makes your virtual tour look inconsistent.

Storage space is also very important to consider when dealing with the high resolution files and videos. Sometimes it takes five hours or longer to render the videos, so it’s important to give yourself enough time and storage space.

When using VR for the classroom, one of the biggest drawbacks is garnering support. Some educators wonder how many hours it will take to learn to create VR resources for class, and question if it will take away from class time. This is a valid point, especially because you typically create the VR in one application and then develop it in a second one.

Ethical, Physical, and Monetary Concerns Surrounding VR

Accessibility, usability, and inclusion are three of the main concerns when it comes to VR technology. The sensory data we use in VR needs to be adjustable for individuals lacking mobility or those with physical disabilities.

When thinking about who can access VR, Francesca notes that it is important to create policies and have responsible user testing.

“We need to make a good effort and engage with these communities and meet their needs. By establishing policies, we create a pathway to know what to do when we come across circumstances that we have never dealt with before.”

The cost of VR is also very important to consider, but there are ways to make it more affordable. There are different UCLA library lending services that offer 360 degree cameras and galaxy phones to create videos and tours with.

VR in Higher Education

Adoption of VR/AR is happening at universities across the country. However, Francesca realizes that one of the issues we have with its implementation is that researchers haven’t conducted enough experiments to measure its success in academia.

“Although people enjoy their VR/AR experiences, we need to understand the process through deeper teaching and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) methods. In doing so, we will be able to better understand how this technology is changing the way we learn and how it can be developed longterm for better classroom use.

“Here at UCLA, I would love to see a dedicated space that allows us to come together around tech and across various disciplines. We can solve problems more efficiently by bringing everyone to the table to exchange best practices, or even by making an implementation checklist so everyone knows how to navigate the software. We aren’t quite at the place where everyone knows how to use VR effectively, but we are trying to ensure this by collating and aggregating information that provides technical support and best practices.”

VR is a new technology that allows instructors and researchers to capture and display information to break down into pedagogy and preservation efforts. While not everyone is able to use this technology based on the lack of instructional material and research on its success, researchers aim to create a way to standardize a list of best practices and implementation strategies for how to navigate the software.

In the next installment of the series, we will be taking a deeper look into VSim, a VR software created by UCLA’s Lisa Snyder that encourages the educational use of interactive, three-dimensional computer models.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash