Want VR to work? Make college students the content creators


Virtual reality has attracted a lot of attention recently as a potential learning tool at universities. Yet some professors have pushed back on VR, arguing it’s more of a distraction than an opportunity to add educational value.

The truth is that VR can be incredibly impactful in higher education, but much of the learning comes when students do their own authoring and sharing of VR applications, which is now possible through new technologies.

VR is already seeing strong adoption in corporate settings. The benefits are many — it’s immersive, it’s multi-sensory, it’s memorable and it can transport you to a different time or location. All of those benefits are applicable in a university setting as well.

Students are now equipped to make their own VR projects, with the proliferation of affordable 360-degree cameras, a growing number of students learning design software like Adobe or Autodesk, and web-based VR publishing platforms that don’t require coding. Recent successes, including at the German University in Cairo and Emporia State University in Kansas, illustrate the possibilities of student-authored VR projects.

University students in Egypt utilizes VR in architecture course

Take, for example, the students in Professor Maha El Gewely’s architecture and urban design program at German University in Cairo. A traditional end-of-semester presentation in this field of study would likely involve a PowerPoint slideshow or blueprints. But the students in her class decided to take their presentations to the next level, recording 360-degree image tours of interesting buildings in historic Cairo. They then augmented the immersive tours with hotspot video/image overlays, drawing attention to specific architectural features and using the hotspots to provide educational context for those features. Low-cost Google Cardboard headsets allowed for easy distribution and access to the VR presentation.

The actual viewers of the VR app undoubtedly had an immersive and memorable experience, compared with a standard classroom presentation. But the greatest benefits were awarded to students doing the actual app authoring. The hands-on nature of capturing and editing the 360-degree images, combined with the addition of multi-media hotspot overlays, is a unique and memorable way to present the information they learned during their tours of the buildings.

Students in Kansas elevate local businesses with VR

At Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas, student-generated VR projects are providing educational value to students right now. Professor Joyce Zhou leads marketing students in Emporia State’s business school as they research and develop their capstone projects. Those students are currently building mobile and web VR applications to highlight local businesses such as the Flinthills Mall, an arts nonprofit called Kansas Free for Arts and the Emporia Presbyterian Manor Nursing Home.

Throughout these projects, students utilize a number of different skills as they pitch the businesses on the value of VR, carry out creative 360-degree photography and audio capture, and manage distribution and promotion. As VR becomes a more integral part of businesses overall, these students will be equipped to show future employers their unique skills in this emerging field.

Three things to note when introducing VR in the classroom

If a university has access to VR software and equipment, or can secure funding for it, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when introducing the technology for course projects:

  • Begin with the end in mind. This approach, borrowed from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” a book by Stephen Covey, applies to a lot of classroom activities. But it’s particularly important with VR, where the excitement tied to the new technology can easily overwhelm the learning experience. Don’t have students create VR just for the sake of creating VR. Ask them what their goal is with their finished application. Is it to provide a more complete visualization of Cairo architecture and overlay informative hotspots? Is it to showcase local businesses in an advanced, immersive way that impresses potential donors or residents? As Dr. Anna Catterson, who helped introduce our VR software to Emporia State University, told me, it is essential to work with the professors to tie VR into course outcomes to get them interested in incorporating it into their curriculum.
  • Create your own examples as a professor. Though students will ultimately benefit from authoring their own VR apps, it’s important for professors to create their own apps first, both so they can better provide guidance to students and to offer an example of what a finished project should look like.
  • Have students share their work widely. The easiest way for departments at a university to become enamored with VR is to see the success of the technology in other departments. For instance, at Emporia State University, their first use case was actually in the history department. With that trial application completed, it was much easier to get buy-in from other departments, like forensic science and marketing, and quickly helped VR spread and catch on in different departments.

Andrew Woodberry is the Head of Sales & Marketing at InstaVR, a web-based platform for authoring, publishing and analyzing 360-degree VR content.