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Virtual reality project aims to immerse students in remote classrooms

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A project to set up virtual reality cameras in classrooms so students can remotely view the class using their smartphones won a 2016 Strategic Innovation Award. The project was started by the university’s media specialist Nicholas La Joie.

La Joie said the idea for the project came after experiencing virtual reality through Google Cardboard for the first time. Google Cardboard is a head mount in which users put their smartphone in the back and look through lenses in the front to experience virtual reality.

A year-and-a-half ago, the New York Times put out a free edition of the Google Cardboard for all of their subscribers, and it piqued La Joie’s interest.

“After that experience, I was really fascinated by the idea of 360-degree immersive video,” La Joie said. “Being able to tell stories through that immersive experience was very impactful. It felt very different than watching something on a flat screen.”

La Joie said he’s collaborating with Josh Grebe, a senior maintenance engineer with a background in programming, who will help set up an app that students can use to access a distant classroom.

“(Grebe) said it shouldn’t be too much of an issue to write an app that could be on iOS and Android that could be downloaded by students for free,” La Joie said. “If they have a $10 pair of Google Cardboard, they would be able to access a classroom that has a 360-degree camera and experience the class as though they were there.”

The project is still waiting on a virtual reality camera to arrive from a company named Orah, Grebe said. The camera can livestream 360-degree video in high definition.

“The camera is kind of the all-in-one solution,” Grebe said. “You can put the camera in the middle of the room and then there’s a box that makes the VR image and will live stream that image.”

La Joie said he envisions an experience in which students could be fully immersed in the classroom.

“You could look to the left and see the student next to you and if someone asks a question, you could look at them and think, ‘Oh, I recognize who that was,’” La Joie said. “If you let the users have the freedom to explore the space around them on their own, it makes them feel more implanted and participatory in that space.”

La Joie said as a media specialist he spent a lot of time setting up video conferences, which helped him see the potential in distance learning. Distance learning allows students to learn even if they aren’t physically  in a classroom.

“In my years of doing traditional video conferencing here, I’ve seen how distance can be bridged rather seamlessly,” La Joie said. “If a student needs to talk to someone from a class in Spain, they’ll have an experience where at first they’ll think, ‘Oh, it’s strange that I’m talking to another person on a screen.’ After a few sessions, the wall will break down and it’ll feel like you’re in the same room.”

Distance learning is important because there are a variety of reasons why students might need to miss class, La Joie said.

“Some people work full time or they live really far away and can’t always be here on campus,” he said.

However, setting up a virtual classroom would bring another level of immersion than typical online courses, La Joie said.

“One of the statistics about online classes that’s discouraging is that students that sign up for an online course that isn’t taught face to face have a very low number of students that actually finish the course,” La Joie said. “If you don’t feel like you’re part of the course like you would be in a traditional classroom, it’s a natural human response to disengage. If you can provide an experience that’s as close to being in the classroom as possible, I think that would lead to higher retention.”

There is concern students could abuse the live-streaming aspect of the technology said, a professor of biomedical sciences and member of the University Innovation Council, David Becker. The council is tasked with reviewing the Strategic Innovation Fund proposals and providing feedback.

“As with most technological advances, there’s both good and bad uses of it,” Becker said. “My guess is that students that view this as an alternative to actually attending class won’t benefit as much as if they actually attended class.”

However, using the technology as an alternative to posting videos of lectures online could be useful, Becker said.

“Often times, there’s a need for students to go over the material repeatedly and the more immersive that experience can be, the richer the learning experience,” Becker said. “I think it could be a very useful tool.”

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