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B.C. professor uses virtual reality in the classroom to immerse students

Thompson Rivers University professor Dr. Michael Mehta is taking online learning to the next level. He's using virtual reality headsets to immerse students in course material

One professor at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) is taking online learning to the next level.

Dr. Michael Mehta, a professor of geography and environmental studies at TRU, is using virtual reality headsets to immerse students in course material.

“For example, let's say we wanted to teach students about recycling and waste disposal, I can take them to a dump site in real time, right there with the VR headsets, and we can go and explore the issues, we can talk about those things,” Mehta said.

He said VR can provide experiences not possible in a normal classroom.

“We don't have a lot of flexibility in the university class to take people on field trips or field schools. So this is a really powerful tool for being able to do that,” he said.

Mehta is using these head sets in his fourth year environmental sustainability course as part of the department of geography environmental studies, but says the same tech could enhance a number of university programs.

“What’s really a game changer, is the ability in certain fields like medicine, nursing, engineering, electronics, you name it in the sciences, more generally, to actually do virtual labs as well,” he said.

“So there's a huge advantage there in terms of cost savings, but also terms of breaking down some of the barriers that smaller universities have.

"For example, at TRU we really can't do something like a cadaver lab, but with virtual reality experiences, we could have that available to our biology students, where they can do those kinds of things — real world things.”

Since the pandemic started, online learning has become a common experience — one that many students and educators have found to be a drag. But, according to Mehta, virtual reality could revolutionize the experience.

“Zoom is useful, but it's also horrible and fatiguing, and it's not necessarily the best way to get across information,” Mehta said.

“It's fine for conveying certain kinds of things like, like facts, but it's not really good for discussion, it's not really good for creative endeavours.”

Virtual reality gives students an opportunity to interact with each other more closely to how they would in a physical classroom.

"With virtual reality, we're able to move out of that Hollywood Squares kind of environment of Zoom into an environment where actually we are together in a somewhat real kind of way,” he said.

“Because every individual is represented by a 3D moving realistic avatar, and of course we're able to communicate, do small group work and do a lot of things that you could do in a traditional classroom, but you can ramp it up times 10, if you want.”