Students learning 'together' via their virtual avatars

Beyond Zoom: students immerse themselves in virtual reality classes

24 April 2020
As COVID-19 continues to pause in-person teaching, a psychology class on virtual reality therapies enters a new dimension.
Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall hands students VR headsets, pre-COVID-19 shutdown.

Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall hands students VR headsets, pre-COVID-19 shutdown

Virtual spiders and skyscrapers are among the tools being used to teach University of Sydney students during the COVID-19 shutdown, as a virtual reality laboratory in the School of Psychology has been transformed into a classroom for learning about a range of physical and psychological conditions.

Typically used for research and selective teaching on virtual reality therapies for conditions including phobias, PTSD, pain, and eating disorders, the lab is now being used solely to teach these therapies to undergraduate and postgraduate students.

“Given in-person face-to-face teaching has been suspended, I decided to lend VR headsets to my students so they can continue to 'attend' my seminar series on Virtual Reality Therapy,” Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall said.

 “I thought there would be a bit of interest, but it was great to see all ten students in my class throw themselves into this virtual learning environment.

“This is probably the only 'face to face' teaching largely unaffected by COVID-19.”

What learning in virtual reality looks like

Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall's simulation of his virtual classroom

Associate Professor MacDougall, who directs the University’s Sydney Human Factors Research Group, begins each lesson with a student-led literature discussion. Students then discuss the immersive stimuli that virtually surrounds them.

In a lesson on phobias, for example, students handled virtual spiders and looked down from the roofs of tall buildings. In a lesson on eating disorders, students could adjust the body-mass index for their own avatar (digital character) and track their eye movements to reveal preferences for healthy and unhealthy foods.

“It was amazing seeing the students’ avatars piling in at the appropriate start time. It reminded me not to underestimate students.” he said.

The students, too, enjoyed the unexpected format. “It's more immersive than Zoom – I feel like I know who’s on the left hand side of me and the right hand side of me, even though we’re just headsets,” one said.

“With virtual reality, you can interact, you can shake hands, you can look around your environment. It’s a lot different than just your bedroom or study,” another added.

Associate Professor MacDougall believes the success of his fully virtual classroom could be helpful to other teachers, people, and industries. “Virtual reality provides another way to connect with people. I hope my virtual classroom inspires this,” he said.

This is not the first time the lab has been used as a virtual classroom. Veterinary science students have also used it to collaboratively disassemble, reassemble and label canine anatomy.

Hero image: Virtual Reality Therapy students' avatars, in their virtual setting. Credit: Hamish MacDougall.

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