UNC students are learning in professor’s new virtual reality classroom during pandemic

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RALEIGH, N.C. — With the coronavirus pandemic forcing university students and faculty off campus, UNC-Chapel Hill professors are taking unique approaches to online and remote teaching, which began last week.

A UNC law professor went viral for sending students a prerecorded lecture he gave to a Pinocchio doll. Others are hosting Zoom calls with more than 100 students and pets tuning in. One mailed virtual reality headsets to his students so they could meet in a virtual classroom he built.

Steven King, an associate professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, made the switch to remote classes into an experiment by creating a virtual reality experience that kept his students in the classroom.

“When you’re faced with a crisis, these are times to step up and figure things up and make new discoveries,” King said. “We don’t need to limit ourselves to the tools we have. We need to develop new tools to move us forward.”

King sent Oculus Go Virtual Reality headsets to his 28 students to use at home. King and the students built their own avatars, and they are all attending class together in a virtual world as robots, panda bears, ducks and other characters. King chose the superhero Ironman as his avatar.

The emerging technologies class was tailor-made for this type of experiment, King said. Students had become familiar with the technology throughout the semester while learning about artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

Instead of recording a lecture, King built a 3D version of their lab that allows students to walk around the classroom, break out into teams and talk to each other at different tables or gathering spaces, without disrupting each other. They can even write on virtual whiteboards.

King is also able to move from group to group and interact with the students, offering tips or ideas about what they’re working on. Then the students can get back together on the virtual couches and listen to a lecture, just as if King is standing in front of them in the classroom on campus.

“This is actually an opportunity where we’re pushing through and pushing the students to step into this new world,” King said. “Anytime you get to be on the frontier and forefront of trying something new, for a lot of people that’s an exciting thing.”

Professors in Chapel Hill and around the country are figuring out ways to deliver their course material and engage students outside the traditional classroom as campuses move to online instruction.

King might be one of the only ones who created a virtual world for his students to make that transition. But he recognizes the limitations and special circumstances that made this possible for his course. He had access to the technology and equipment through his dual appointment with UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Both deans immediately approved his idea, though he did have to purchase a few headsets from Best Buy to ship to students.

His students had also used the technology before and didn’t have any physical restrictions like unreliable internet access or blindness, for example.

“At scale, we’re going to have to think about accessibility issues,” King said. “We had enough headsets to do this group, but this doesn’t take off at a scale until every student has a VR headset and that’s an expensive proposition.”

For now, King plans to use this course as an experiment for improving online and remote education in the future.

Beyond learning the course material, Kings expects his students to develop personal problem-solving skills and benefit from figuring out how to work in this new environment.

He also intentionally planned the room drawing on research that shows retention and memory is tied to physical spaces.

King said when something happens in a physical space or around a particular object, people remember it better. So, he built tables that have a tennis ball, basketball or soccer ball overhead. Students will do certain activities in specific parts of the virtual room to enhance their learning.

“We’re able to do something virtual that we can’t actually do in the real world,” King said. “I’m excited about the idea of being able to collaborate together and figure out the future of higher education and remote higher education, all in this next six weeks.”


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