Experiential Reality Opens Classrooms as Far as Imagination Can Take Them

Thinking back on your college experience, you probably remember more than a few lectures that were a bit, well, boring. And you may have thought, “This would be so much better if I could see what the professor is talking about, or, better yet, experience it for myself.” That is exactly what Dr. Harsimran Baweja and others are trying to do via immersive learning.

Immersive learning uses technology to bring things to life in the classroom. This could be virtual reality, which places the student into a situation. It could be augmented reality, which brings a place or thing into the classroom. Or these could be blended together to create an enhanced reality.

Experimental Reality
Dr Bawja uses his cell phone to project a large brain hologram as he lectures about parts of the brain.

Baweja is leading a common interest group of faculty and staff throughout the Cal State system to help bring these new learning modalities to students at several of the Cal State campuses. The Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) group is helping faculty and administrators rethink “how the future learns” and is sponsored by the Chancellor’s Office. This has expanded to include faculty, staff, students and administrators on all 23 Cal State campuses as well as other universities around the country.

At SDSU, Baweja works closely with the InformationmTechnology office to create these special opportunities for classes across all of the colleges on campus, not just within CHHS.

One of the first challenges they tackled was developing a virtual reality model of the phases of the moon for an introductory astronomy class. The model allows students to watch the moon change from earth’s perspective, but also to be standing on the moon and watching earth change.

Baweja uses immersive technology when he lectures kinesiology students about the heart. As he talks, there is a view of a large, 3-D holographic heart on the screen behind him. What makes this different from a film is that he can control the view of the heart by moving his smart phone. As he talks about specific parts of the heart, the view changes so, for example, the camera travels through the valves, or looks up the aorta as Dr. Baweja moves or tilts his phone to show a different view. A student question can be answered by moving to that portion of the heart and illustrating the answer, rather than just describing it. Students can see what happens during arrhythmia or a heart attack. By the end of the lecture, they have a very clear idea of how the heart functions, and have been much more engaged than in a traditional lecture with slides.

Immersive Learning
In addition to brining immersive learning to student, Baweja also seeks to be “the world’s coolest dad”. Here he teaches students in his daughter’s preschool class about how their brains work, using a more conventional prop.

This type of experiential learning also allows for more equitable student experiences, as the technology is often readily available from the internet via smart phone, allowing colleges with small technology budgets to still engage in immersive learning experiences. It can also increase student’s understanding of disability issues as virtual reality can make the experiences of a person with mobility limitations, for example, very vivid to an able-bodied student. Students with disabilities can also participate in a virtual reality setting in ways that might not be possible for them in real life.

A more complex example is being used in the School of Nursing to expose nursing students to situations they might not otherwise get to experience. Use a Microsoft HoloLens and software from Peerson Education, nursing students can step into a virtual reality simulation of an emergency situation. Through this technology, students have a chance to practice their response without endangering an actual patient.

Through the working group that Baweja heads, faculty members across the Cal State system can discuss ideas for new uses, solve problems and share resources, spreading the use of immersive learning much faster than each campus working alone.

Baweja began his quest for immersive learning in his own research lab, where he uses a variety of virtual reality tools to study both neurological and physiological changes in adults with Parkinson’s disease or dementia. This allows him to study people in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situations without actually exposing them to danger. For example, his driving simulation can study driving decision making and response times while driving in an unfamiliar city, when , in fact, the subject is sitting safely in a driving simulator and not on the street at all.

“Experiential reality and immersive learning uses all of the resources available to us – 360 degree photos and videos, holograms, virtual reality, and augmented reality. We are limited only by our imagination and are rethinking how future learners will experience higher education, both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Videos of Dr. Baweja’s lab can be found at https://ens.sdsu.edu/dpt/research/faculty-research-interests/neuromechanics-and-neuroplasticity-lab/