Enhancing learning through an alternative (and immersive) classroom

February 22, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Nicole MillsNicole Mills, Senior Preceptor in Romance Languages and Literatures, helps students grasp the French language and experience the culture through “alternative classroom contexts.” Specifically, students participate in virtual reality (VR) experiences alongside the curriculum. During the first week of the semester, students immerse themselves in the daily lives of four different Parisians from the same quarter through a series of 360 VR videos that were self-recorded by the Parisians themselves. They then partner to challenge stereotypes of Parisian culture and compare observations and findings. For remote learning, Mills added both amateur and professional VR films showcasing Parisian life with accompanying tasks. These VR experiences are mediated by one-on-one 30-minute discussions with Parisians designed to both develop interactional competence and encourage the discovery of cultural phenomena. VR can transport students to culturally immersive experiences that are otherwise impossible given COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The benefits: This experience strengthens students’ commitment to learning the language in new ways. “We can discuss culture by presenting photos or video clips, but there is something about a VR experience where you feel like you are present in that cultural moment—where language, place, and community unite.” Research by Mills, Courtney, Dede, Dressen & Gant (2020) suggests that this deep immersion allows students to envision and experience diverse facets of culture, and more vividly imagine their future role as participants in those communities, in ways that more traditional forms of learning do not.

“With the appropriate pedagogical framing, I think that VR can get students to shift toward a more nuanced and multifaceted understanding of culture. We saw that shift.”

The challenges: Mills notes the challenges depend on the magnitude of the project and the level of customization. For example, the present lack of access to 360 editing software at Harvard makes it challenging to develop specialized VR experiences that align with curricula. Mills emphasizes that support is widely available through various offices, staff, and resources on Harvard’s campus to collaborate with instructors on creative strategies for incorporating VR in your courses.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Ensure the technology meets all students’ needs and accommodations. Mills notes there are workarounds to make VR flexible and compatible with students’ needs. For instance, visually impaired students who have taken her class experience the sounds of a given VR clip while a partner they are paired with describes what they see. Mills also ensures a 2D version is available for those who might experience headaches or motion sickness. VR is a powerful experience, and so instructors should be mindful of “the content of videos and what impact they may have on students.”
  • Use existing resources. Technology improvements have made VR incorporation into the classroom both easier and more cost-effective. “Now, the cell phone screen resolution is actually quite good,” Mills notes, so you can easily leverage materials students already have. Students could purchase a VR headset to be used with a cell phone for roughly $30 but Mills says it is not required for the experience if students prefer not to purchase the accessory. When on campus, the Cabot Library lends headsets to students and faculty interested in using VR in their classes.
  • Clearly link the technology with your course goals. “Similar to other forms of media, your pedagogical approach has to be thought through very carefully,” Mills underscores. This is why she developed phases to scaffold a VR experience: 1) a preview phase where students make hypotheses based on images; 2) an immersive viewing phase in which students are given the autonomy to independently discover and explore the VR experience; 3) a focused viewing phase in which they collect “data” about targeted observations; and finally 4) a discussion/analysis phase in which they are prompted to think critically about their observations. All these components help students learn in ways that are authentic, experiential, and inquiry-based, while facilitating collaboration and social interaction.

Bottom line: Virtual reality can be used as a powerful tool to deepen students’ understanding through experiential learning and help them engage with the material in ways that traditional approaches cannot. If you are interested in incorporating VR into your course, you may want to begin with content that already exists; Mills particularly recommends using footage from the NY Times’ Daily 360, the BBC’s VR experiences, and the wide variety of independent VR short films available for free online.