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NIU wants to be on the cutting edge of virtual reality's education potential

NIU professor Jason Wahl-Alexander using Meta Quest VR headset
Peter Medlin
NIU professor Zach Wahl-Alexander using Meta Quest VR headset

Northern Illinois University professor Zach Wahl-Alexander pulls a headset over his face, ready to transport to any number of far-flung alien locales, scenic vistas or even a virtual Oval Office.

But, he’s not going there. He’s going to a school gymnasium. Particularly, the gym in Anderson Hall, where he’s an assistant professor in the kinesiology & physical education department. Wahl-Alexander teaches students training to be physical education teachers.

“It's cool to know," he said, "that it’s the first time [VR is] being integrated in physical education across the country, using this technology."

He’s also the first NIU professor experimenting with virtual reality as part of the university’s collaboration with VR education company VictoryXR. Wahl-Alexander just piloted it with a class in the fall and will totally integrate it into his class this spring.

NIU is one of 10 pilot institutions working with VictoryXR. The partnership started this past fall. They built a VR version of NIU’s campus, which I got to toss on a Meta Quest headset and visit with Jason Rhode, Associate Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Digital Education.

It’s not the full campus -- there’s still lots of open cyberspace. But, it includes a virtual version of Altgeld Hall, among a few other campus buildings. You can even go inside of the student center.

The technology isn’t perfect. It’s not photorealistic -- it looks more like high-end Nintendo Wii graphics. And, as I learned myself, a shaky WiFi connection or network error can boot you from a session.

But, Celeste Latham, NIU associate vice president for resources and facilities, says the university is embracing VR’s potential. She says they’re planning to initiate grants for faculty to transform their curricula and VR will be a part of that.

They held a faculty workshop in the fall to let faculty try out the technology, and she says they formed an informal group of interested educators.

Right now, it’s just Wahl-Alexander. and his physical education classes. But why a P.E. teacher prep class as NIU’s first immersive VR course? For one, he already had some experience using VR with students. And he had ideas of how it can help his students prepare for clinical teaching experiences in real, physical gyms. In the class, they have to create lesson plans and teach them to their peers in the REAL Anderson Hall gym.

“Prior to doing that on campus," said Wahl-Alexander, "our students would go into the VR space in that same space that they're gonna teach their peers, lay out the whole lesson, they would record like their interactions that they would get, they record some of the feedback that they might give, and then I would watch it and kind of get some feedback on that."

VictoryXR CEO Steve Grubbs teaches about the Vietnam War in VR
VictoryXR CEO Steve Grubbs teaches about the Vietnam War in VR

For him, it’s all about high-quality practice. It’s hard for each of his students to gain access to a gym where they can run through a lesson plan. So, VR can help provide a space -- with a little extra creativity.

“You can go to this item bank, and then you can just pull items and put them in the space that you're in,” he said. “So, like if I'm in Anderson Hall, I can go to the item bank and put a T-Rex into the gym space, and then manipulate it and flip it upside down. That's an extreme example. I do it with cones and with baseball bats.”

Wahl-Alexander reiterates that nothing beats face-to-face instruction, full stop. But he says VR has been an effective tool for his students who have used it. Initial findings from other universitiessupport that.

And, soon it won’t just be for PE instruction. Jason Rhode says they have an audiology class interested in using VR for a project. Students could explore the anatomy of the inner ear as if they were walking through a massive one.

NIU nursing programs want to use VR to run simulations so students can practice responding to patient situations and then go back and rewatch how they did.

Other educators are already using VictoryXR for classes like science and history. A history teacher and his students can stand on and walk around a virtual map to learn about the Vietnam War, complete with VR replicas of the military weapons used in the battle.

Virtual Reality isn’t necessarily new, but Rhode says they feel like they’re on the cutting edge of its potential for education -- especially with the pandemic already opening people up to virtual tools like Zoom.

“I think everybody wants more flexibility and more engagement with one another," he said. "VR technology just takes it to another level in terms of that sense of engagement."

The headsets are still expensive and not without technical difficulties, let alone nausea for some folks. But people like Jason Rhode at NIU don't think it’s a fad or a gimmick. They think, for students, VR technology can actually be transformative.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.