University of Tennessee College of Commerce uses VR headsets in the classroom

The pandemic has ushered in the tricky world of virtual education, which has had mixed success. Some professors have returned to the classroom full-time, but others aren’t ready to stop exploring new possibilities online.

A University of Tennessee professor at Haslam College of Business in Knoxville is taking things to another level. He experiments with how the world of virtual reality – not just on-screen class time but full immersion in a shared setting – could be the future of learning.

Students can take Mark Collins’ marketing course through virtual reality, listening to their lectures at home while “exploring” their auditorium located in the middle of a virtual desert.

It looks like something out of a video game. Legless, human-like custom characters float around the desert-themed auditorium, one of the many surreal meeting spaces available on the virtual reality meeting platform Spatial. It’s their amphitheater for the semester.

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But instead of distracting students, Collins thinks the experience is more engaging than sitting in a classroom.

“Honestly, it’s topped anything I’ve ever seen in an online meeting space,” Collins told Knox News. “Some days it was better than a face-to-face discussion in class, which I never thought would happen. It was a really surprising result.”

Students explore the virtual reality space using Oculus headsets during Mark Collins' marketing class.

Each student in the class received an Oculus Quest 2 headset to use in class (and for their own virtual reality enjoyment). After a few in-person classes to get the students comfortable with each other, Collins began teaching the course using the headsets midway through the semester.

They spent the first day learning how to operate the equipment with first-year MBA student Alex Weber. His company EVRLASTING makes VR recordings of weddings and other events.

Then the lesson begins. Students were physically in their apartments or dorms with the Oculus headset turned on, listening to the lecture in virtual space from the comfort of their sofa or desk.

But unlike the video calls we’ve all been using during the pandemic, students and Collins move around as if they’re in the same room. They could walk towards each other, switch seats and ask Collins questions from the front of the conference room.

For many students, there wasn’t much of a learning curve in using the device. Some people tend to get dizzy, but Collins said all 30 students felt fine.

“It was really special to be part of this groundbreaking virtual reality class,” said Bridgette Liederbach, a student in Collins’ class. “I loved being able to learn in a new environment and interact with my teacher and classmates in a unique way.”

Students try out Oculus headsets during Mark Collins' marketing class.

The future of learning

For Collins, this marketing course is just the beginning of what he thinks virtual reality has to offer in education.

“You can actually see a very steep curve in the number of platforms and apps being developed now that the price (of the headset) is so low,” Collins said. “It attracted a lot of software developers. … And over time more and more of it could be focused on higher education, and I’m sure K-12 too.”

After creating a teaching plan with colleagues and defining what the classroom would look like, the business college secured funding from Collins to purchase 35 Oculus Quest 2 headsets, which cost less than $300 each.

Virtual reality is already used in the academic field, but typically in medical applications. In August, Fisk University established a VR human cadaver lab for its pre-medical and biology-related majors.

But Collins knows firsthand that the VR space can be used by students of all majors, including her business students. His dream is to create a virtual reality supply chain experience. Students could visit different phases of the supply chain, meeting suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and ultimately consumers.

“We certainly have the expertise to do that,” Collins said. “It’s just about finding a way to make the technology match that.”

Collins directs the University of Commerce’s Office of Technology-Enhanced Education and has been interested in teaching experiences outside of the classroom since he was a student at UT in the early 1980s. Cable television made its way to campus, and soon professors began teaching what Collins calls “megaclasses,” broadcasting lectures live on television.

Now, Collins is transforming teaching for her students at UT. The Office of Technology-Enhanced Education continued these live and recorded classes, which provide flexibility for students with busy schedules.

Virtual reality is just one more tool in the college toolbox. Until its dream of a supply chain teaching simulator comes true, students and staff at Haslam College of Business are using the VR headsets for academic guidance when not in use in the classroom .

Even though holding classes in the virtual world has been an overall positive experience, Collins can’t imagine a semester-long all-virtual course — the technology just isn’t there to make it hitch-free.

“As they continue to develop the technology, I think we’ll get there,” Collins said. “And and I think it will really become a way to have online courses that are really, really robust.”

Norma A. Roth