NIU wants to be at the forefront of VR education capabilities

Northern Illinois University professor Jason Wal Alexander pulls a headset over his face, ready to be transported to any number of remote space locations, scenic vistas, or even the virtual Oval Office.

But he won’t go there. He’s going to a school gym. In particular, the gymnasium at Anderson Hall, where he is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Wal Alexander teaches students and trains them to be physical education teachers.

He said: “It’s great to know this is the first time [VR is] It is being integrated into physical education across the country, using this technology.”

He is also the first NIU professor to experiment with virtual reality as part of the university’s collaboration with the educational VR company Triumph XR. Wahl Alexander trialed it with a class in the fall and will be fully incorporating it into his class this spring.

NIU is one of 10 leading organizations working with VictoryXR. The partnership began last fall. They built a VR version of the NIU campus, which I threw on a Meta Quest headset and visited with Jason Rhode, Associate Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning and Digital Education.

It’s not the full campus – there’s still a lot of open cyber space. But it does include a virtual version of Altgeld Hall, among a few other campus buildings. You can even go inside the Student Center.

Technology is not perfect. It’s not realistic – it’s more like Nintendo Wii’s high-end graphics. And as I taught myself, a shaky WiFi connection or a network error can also lock you out of a session.

But Celeste Latham, associate vice president of resources and facilities at NIU, says the university is embracing the potential of virtual reality. She says they plan to start grants for faculty to change their curricula and virtual reality will be part of that.

They held a faculty workshop in the fall to let faculty experience the technology, and she says they formed an informal group of interested educators.

Now, it’s just him and Alexander’s parents. and physical education lessons. But why is a physical education teacher setting up a classroom as NIU’s first immersive virtual reality course? First, he already had some experience using virtual reality with students. And he had ideas on how to help his students prepare for clinical teaching experiences in real gyms. In class, they have to make lesson plans and teach them to their peers at the REAL Anderson Hall gym.

Wal Alexander said, “Before doing this on campus, our students would go into a virtual reality space in the same space that they would teach their peers in, put on the whole lesson, record their interactions like they would have, record some comments they might make, and then I would watch it and get some comments about it.”


Steve Grubbs, CEO of VictoryXR, talks about the Vietnam War in virtual reality

For him, it’s all about quality practice. It is difficult for each of his students to get to the gym where they can run the lesson plan. So, virtual reality can help free up space — with a little extra creativity.

“You can go into this item bank, and then you can just drag items out and put them where you are,” he said. “So, like I’m in Anderson Hall, I can go to the item bank and put a T-Rex in the gym space, and then tinker with it and turn it upside down. This is an extreme example. I do it with cones and baseball bats.”

Nothing beats direct instruction, Wal Alexander reiterates, full stop. But he says that virtual reality has been an effective tool for his students who have used it. first results from other universities support that.

And soon it will not be limited to PE instructions. Jason Rhode says they have an audiology class that’s interested in using VR for a project. Students can explore the anatomy of the inner ear as if they were walking through a huge one.

NIU’s nursing programs want to use virtual reality to run simulations so students can practice responding to patients’ cases and then go back and re-watch how they did it.

Other teachers are already using VictoryXR in classes like science and history. A history teacher and his students can stand and walk around in a virtual map of Learn about the Vietnam Warcomplete with VR replicas of military weapons used in battle.

Virtual reality isn’t necessarily new, but Rudd says they feel at the forefront of its possibilities for education — especially with a pandemic already opening people up to virtual tools like Zoom.

He said, “I think everyone wants more flexibility and more engagement with each other. Virtual reality technology takes it to another level in terms of that sense of sharing.”

Still, the speakers are expensive and not without technical difficulties, not to mention nauseating for some people. But people like Jason Rhode at NIU don’t think it’s a fad or a gimmick. They think, for students, VR technology can actually be transformative.

Leave a Comment