Virtual Reality in the Classroom

By Danica Fisher ’05, October 12, 2021
Ithaca College explores different ways to use VR to enhance learning for students.

Virtual reality (VR) on the Ithaca College campus has taken off in the past year, with different areas on campus utilizing this new technology to enhance teaching experiences for both faculty and students. The VR headsets provided by Learning and Innovative Technologies have had an impact on students, whether they are honing their student teaching skills, looking at art across the globe, or studying the inner workings of the brain. 

Becky Lane, associate director for innovative technologies, says that this initiative is being led through the Center for Creative Technology and their office has a team of three students and staff member Jay Williamson who specialize and help faculty and students with the VR technology. 

“We are part of that brainstorm process of ‘How can I use this in my classroom?’ and we wouldn't be able to do it without our students,” said Lane. “Somebody is always here that can put a headset on them and show them the different games we have.” 

“One of the surprises is that this technology is still new to so many people. Seeing people's reaction when they put on the headset for the first time can be really fun, just to see how they react to being in a completely new environment.” 

Becky Lane, associate director for innovative technologies

Wren Andujar ’22 is one of the students working in the VR lab who helps to guide students as they try out the headsets and makes sure that they have an enjoyable experience with the programs that they explore. This semester Andujar has been helping with a Neuroscience class and teaching students how to use a program called 3D Organon VR Anatomy.  

“Each of these experiences has been an incredible learning opportunity that has expanded my knowledge about virtual reality and ways that it can be used outside of game development,” said Andujar. “The best part of my work in the VR lab is getting to see how excited students are when it’s their first time trying out our headsets. They can be nervous sometimes since it’s new technology, but that quickly changes once we help them become more comfortable and teach them about the controls.” 

The office also engages in outreach to let faculty know that they’re here to help brainstorm ways to incorporate this immersive technology into teaching and learning. 

“One of the surprises is that this technology is still new to so many people,” said Lane. “Seeing people's reaction when they put on the headset for the first time can be really fun, just to see how they react to being in a completely new environment.” 

Lenovo and Ithaca College Partnership

Ithaca College uses Lenovo technology to help bring VR to the classroom. IC uses Lenovo VR Classroom 2 solution, which combines hardware, software, and content to deliver a truly immersive learning experience. Lane explains that they use a control panel to activate the headsets, all with the push of a button. 

“I'm hoping that we can build on our relationship with Lenovo,” said Lane. “They have really put an emphasis on education, and an immersive way of learning, so I think that's pretty exciting, they’ve been really supportive.” 

To help kick-start the program, Lenovo assigned two employees with expertise in AR/VR to work with staff and students at Ithaca College, arranging one-on-one meetings to discuss objectives. Outcomes included creating 360-degree videos, creating an AR/VR experience for lessons, and finding new ways to distribute existing content. 

VR in the Classroom

VR tech

VR perspective of the brain during the Neuroscience course. (Photo submitted)

Assistant professors of physical therapy Eber Beck and Sanghee Moon use VR to teach 66 students in their Neuroscience course. They send the students to the VR lab in groups of three to study the brain. 

“We noticed that students have a hard time understanding some internal, curved structures of the brain, usually studied on two-dimensional figures or sections of brain specimen at the Human Anatomy Lab,” said Beck. “Then, we started discussing how we could implement a virtual reality module in our course so that students could see those structures in three dimensions. Additionally, we can just show them specific brain parts by fading surrounding structures.” 

Moon explains how students use the VR to study the brain. 

“The students basically watch the brain inside the virtual reality, and then Beck shows students all these structure inside the brain; and the students can see this, rotate the model, and they can then dissect the model.” 

The students in the course have found it immensely helpful. 

“I thought it was helpful for dissecting away layers and getting to structures deep in the brain,” said Carolyn Langer ’23. 

student using VR technology

Mac Morean ’23 using the VR technology for their Neuroscience course. (Photo submitted)

“The experience makes me more excited for the integration of VR into higher learning,” said Mac Morean ’23. “It was definitely helpful for me, as a visual learner, to finally get to understand some of the structures that you can't really grasp from a textbook or a model.” 

Beck is teaching from Brazil this semester and never imaged that he would be teaching this course overseas. He’s very thankful for how VR has allowed him to adjust his course. 

“Using this innovative technology and trying to figure out new solutions to problems has been great,” he said. “We have noticed students having a greater understanding of neuroanatomy, learning from the 3D models on VR. During one of the VR sessions, I got myself thinking, ‘Wow, I’m teaching students overseas on a virtual environment. This is amazing! I really love what I’m doing here.’” 

Jennifer Jolly, professor of art history, has used VR in her course Latinx Art in the United States, using the technology in conjunction with Google Earth and having students visit places like Los Angeles and San Diego, all from South Hill. 

“While the classroom is a great place to project images and details and really analyze the images themselves, what you don't get in that context is a larger sense of space, a larger sense of how these murals fit into the urban environment and that's such an important theme that we're studying in the class, how do works of art interact with communities,” said Jolly. “VR takes us a step closer to being able to do that.” 

Jolly typically sends her students two at a time for about 20 minutes to get introduced to the technology and sets up with the lab ahead of time a series of three different sites to visit. Students walk around the neighborhoods to look at the murals and then write a reflection about the experience afterwards. 

“The experience was beneficial in better understanding the full impact that murals have on their community,” said Josephine Horchler ’21. “A photograph can only convey so much about the murals’ context. Getting to ‘walk around’ the site of the murals helped me better understand their meaning and connection to the community. I was able to gain a better sense of the murals’ scale, relation to their site, and how people interact with them, which are all things that aren’t easily understood from photographs.” 

“It was fascinating putting the headset on for the first time,” said Jolly. “It really is remarkable to start in one spot, and then you swivel and can see in all these different directions. The experience of looking around is very clunky when you're just using Google Earth without the headset, so when you get to do it with the headset it really changes how you perceive the space.” 

VR in the Future

Lane thinks that VR has a strong future at Ithaca College. 

“I think the best part is being on the ground floor of something new and being part of the discovery process,” she said. “We try and push the boundaries of how VR can be applied. I’m always looking to do something new, and really explore.” 

Jolly also feels like there is a future for VR in her classes. 

“I definitely want to continue to use VR, continue to refine the assignments around it and long term, it would be really great to actually have it in the classroom itself.” 

Beck believes that in the next five to 10 years, physical therapists will be using VR technology to treat patients, since recent studies have shown the successful use of VR to treat neurologic conditions. It is good that students know how to operate the technology now, while at school, so they can use it in the future in the clinic. Beck and Moon also see potential for interdisciplinary learning with the technology. 

“Any student at Ithaca College can use the human anatomy software,” said Beck. “We could collaborate with faculty across schools at Ithaca College if they have projects ideas that we could collaborate with. We also invited faculty in our department to participate in the VR sessions, so that could spark ideas on using this technology in their own courses.” 

“The software we use in this lab can actually provide all the structures of the human body, so we can collaborate with other faculty members in teaching human anatomy,” said Moon. 

Additionally, Beck feels there are some research potentials around the VR technology. 

“VR technology at Ithaca College has also the potential to be used for research. When the pandemic is better controlled, we could think of inviting the Ithaca community to come and participate in research projects led by Ithaca College professors,” said Beck. 

Lane sees the potential through these classes as well. 

“I am really hoping to find a headset that we can use to scale for the health sciences, because I think that there's so much potential there,” said Lane.