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Virtual reality: the future of education

The UITS Advanced Visualization Lab provides support for visual technology to advance research, education, creative activity and community outreach

By Bailey Briscoe

(This article originally appeared in the Feb. 22, 2017, edition of Inside IU Bloomington: http://go.iu.edu/1tFR

IU faculty member Andrew Koke is a self-proclaimed “geek by nature, computer hobbyist and gamer,” so virtual reality first caught his eye by way of his hobbies. But as soon as he took the headset off, he realized how it could impact his day job -- education. 

In his role with the Student Academic Center, a division of the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Koke designs programs to increase student success in courses that have proven to be notoriously difficult. Koke believes virtual reality is one of the emerging tools that will help struggling students succeed in higher education. “The truth is, I think virtual reality is going to change everything, from how we shop to how we watch concerts,” he said. “But I’m looking at how it’s going to impact the educational experience.”

While Koke sees the direct impact virtual reality will have on his day job, most of his endeavors are happening in his free time and in partnership with IU Pervasive Technology Institute’s Advanced Visualization Lab, a unit of University Information Technology Services Research Technologies. 

The future of education

The concept of virtual reality is not new, but the industry saw radical growth in 2016. And Koke said it’s only going to grow from here. He estimates that in the span of four years, the virtual reality industry will increase from $1 billion to $20 billion. Koke attributes much of the recent success to the introduction of feasible virtual reality headsets, like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, that are offered at lower prices than ever before. Now the average consumer can take part in the experience.

When showing virtual reality equipment to professors and educators, Koke said there’s almost a unanimous agreement that students could benefit from this type of experience in the curriculum.

“When they put the headset on, they start to dream a little bit about where they could take their students and the experiences they could show them,” he said.

As a historian, Koke sees the potential to take classes of students back in time to a particular war or time period. In fact, he recently produced a history class for a high school in Seattle, where students “traveled” to the setting of the Boston Massacre and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

Koke said other professors in multiple disciplines see the possibilities as well. Music professors think about showing students a live concert, where can see up close and personal the musician’s experiences and practices; journalism professors see it as a compelling medium for storytelling; foreign language professors get excited about taking their students on a virtual trip to a native-speaking country; and online educators dream of a way for their students to interact in a space that transcends geographical barriers.

“Virtual reality is transformative,” Koke said. “It changes plans, dreams and trajectories. It allows for new experiences that could not have been possible otherwise.”

IU at the forefront

While the demand for virtual reality is growing, IU has been on the leading edge for decades.

The Advanced Visualization Lab provides support for visual technology that can be used to advance research, education, creative activity and community outreach for faculty, staff and students. The lab has been a part of IU’s campus for nearly 20 years, and housed within the Lab is a virtual reality team that develops workflows and offers its expertise on how to use the technology to improve education and research. 

Recently, the Advanced Visualization Lab, the Learning Technologies division of UITS and The Media School partnered to create a virtual reality classroom, dubbed the "Reality Lab," in Franklin Hall. The space is already being used by five media classes and is available for faculty members to reserve for modules when those classes aren’t in session. The space is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and can be booked through the Ad Astra system. Students are also able to use the lab when it's not booked. As with all UITS Student Technology Centers, a network ID is all that is necessary for students to access the hardware and a variety of VR software.

The next step? Koke hopes to make virtual reality equipment available to all IU students on campus.

UITS is already planning for additional Reality Lab facilities in the Fine Arts building and the Wells Library in Bloomington, as well as for several locations at IUPUI. Just like students can check out books at the library, Koke envisions a system in which student will be able to “check in” to a virtual reality headset and experience the technology at the library and at other Reality Lab locations across campus. Courses in Informatics and Fine Arts, as well as workshops offered by UITS, are available for students looking to develop their own virtual reality content or interfaces.

“Students can use this technology for info gathering and education, but also for entertainment,” he said. “It allows them to learn and know more about themselves, so they can begin to dream and imagine.”