During the Winter 2019 semester, LSA Technology Services partnered with Professor Lisa Nakamura to explore how virtual reality can be used for teaching and learning. Professor Nakamura wanted to integrate virtual reality assignments in her American Culture 358 Course, “Special Topics in Digital Studies: Virtual Reality and Empathy.”

Professor Nakamura’s virtual reality (VR) assignment exemplifies the effort and teamwork necessary for a successful project. The objective of the course, is “to allow instructors and students to pursue core questions about identity, technology, and empathy in a new way: through the study and use of virtual reality.” Her research question was, “Can virtual reality make us more empathetic and tolerant of people unlike us?”  She wanted students to experience a wide array of virtual reality titles (games) of different lengths and on different VR platforms. She also wanted to know if a particular VR technology helped students feel more immersed in the experience. Finally, she wanted to include a maker experience, where students built a 360-degree photo collage to further enable them to think critically about virtual reality and its ability to increase empathy.

Professor Nakamura’s course presented us with a challenging opportunity: What is the support model for a class incorporating a significant amount of time in virtual reality? The project team included several members from LSA Technology Services including the manager of emerging technologies, BlueCorps support staff, a learning consultant, a research consultant, and instructional computing staff. Patron Services developed circulation procedures for VR equipment, including usage documentation, recharging, and safety procedures. Associate Professor Chris Quintana of the School of Education observed the classes as part of a research project on the use of VR in an instructional setting, and LSA’s Capital Project Manager Susan Monroe was also able to observe a class to inform future planning for LSA immersive technology spaces.

Because this class was the first of its kind at U-M, the accommodation of Professor Nakamura and her students was invaluable to LSA Technology Services. Our team gained important insights from the experience. For example, we need further evaluation about the amount of equipment we need to have and how to make the equipment available to students in an equitable and timely way. Virtual reality is often seen as a solitary activity, but students needed help in the beginning with getting head-mounted displays on, configuring individual settings, and adjusting equipment. What we first thought was technology support became a partnership for the students. And while students are experiencing a virtual world behind the goggles, they actually become vulnerable in the real world. Their senses are somewhat cut off; they can’t see or hear someone approaching, or have awareness of obstacles in their path. For this reason, students worked in pairs and took turns spotting one another. It is really interesting that within the context of a course about developing empathy, students geninley developed empathy as they looked after each other's well being.

LSA Technology Services is examining our current service offering for digital scholarship in teaching and research, and this extents to much more than VR. It all starts with a conversation among faculty, LSA Technology Services, and our support partners. For LSA instructors who are interested in support for a digital humanities project, contact our teaching and learning consultants at lsa-iss-ltc@umich.edu or 734.615.0099