Virtual Worlds, Real Education

Written by Garrett Christensen

EOU Expanding Virtual Reality Access to students 

Photo by: Garrett Christensen

In recent years, virtual reality has evolved from an expensive, experimental novelty to a technology on the brink of practical application and mass consumer adoption. Of all the places in Oregon where one could give the burgeoning platform a try, humble La Grande may not seem like a prime choice. However, Eastern Oregon University’s Library not only has access to several VR setups but has them freely available for students and staff alike.   

The EOU library purchased the VR rigs last summer as part of a grant from the American Rescue Plan Act and administered through the State Library of Oregon. The goal was to create an accessibleVR setup for both academic use by classes and also recreational use by students. In an interview with The Voice, Associate Professor of Library Sarah Ralston explained, 

“I’m partnering with specific instructors and specific classes to provide virtual reality experiences or assignments that they can use in their classes… The other purpose is just to have it available for students to be able to make appointments and come in and use VR either for education purposes or just to kind of de-stress and blow off some steam.”  

Students will have no shortage of ways to de-stress in VR. Currently, the Library has access to 11 different VR programs ranging from rhythm and shooter games, speech coaching programs, documentaries all the way to professional level medical simulation tools. While some programs were specifically selected for classes, others were chosen by recommendation. The full list includes:  

  1. Sharecare You. 
  2. I am a Man. 
  3. Mondly VR.  
  4. Guided meditation VR. 
  5. Meditation VR. 
  6. Google earth. 
  7. Speech Trainer.  
  8. Fallout 4. 
  9. Beat Saber. 
  10. Ecosphere.  
  11. Traveling While Black. 

Students may register for an appointment online through the EOU library page or by contacting Professor Ralston at sralston@eou.edu. Appointments are reserved in two-hour blocks with library staff providing instructions and demonstrations to first-time VR users. Currently, the Library has access to six VR rigs, one standalone Oculus Quest and five other rigs requiring an Alienware laptop. The library has a dedicated VR studio on the ground floor and three open study rooms that can also support VR. These rooms include display screens so groups can watch along with the VR user. The overall setup is designed to both totally immersive and completely accessible to the average student, with Ralston telling The Voice, 

“I’ve had students comment that it’s a really good way to de-stress. You’re not seeing anything else; you’re not thinking about anything else; you can’t be disrupted by your phone or anything. It’s such an immersive experience. We’ve really tried to make it as accessible as possible for students.”  

Despite the draw of the new technology, only around 60 students have given VR a try and most of those instances were for classes. A VR-destress event in the residence halls using the Oculus Quest only had a turnout of six students. However, plans are still being made to expand the project with additional programs and further campus outreach, with possible collaboration with the 1-up gaming club being discussed. On the subject of new de-stress programs, Ralston told The Voice, 

“Anything that can be connected to stress relief or fitness I think would be great. Beat Saber is great in that way. Even though it’s a game it’s very physical. They list it as an accidental fitness app just because you moved around so much when you’re doing it. It’s not all educational, part of it is just giving students another way to de-stress or decompress during stressful times.” 

Of course, this being a university project, the educational side of VR is going strong. Some professors have expressed interest in expanding into student content creation via 360 cameras while others have shown interest using VR for simulated lab and hands-on training sessions. Ralston has reached out to the history, communications and various science departments for possible collaboration. However, Professor of Biology Shaun Cain’s Health and Human Performance class has demonstrated the greatest potential for VR education on campus with the Sharecare You program. 

Sharecare You, as described by Ralston, is an “application that allows students to view organs and systems of the human body in VR.” The program is far from just a VR tour of the body with some extra effects though, as H & P student Alyssa Luna further explained in an interview, “you can literally be inside the brain and see the aorta pumping’ and I tried it and I was like ‘oh my gosh!’ You can put in a disease and see how it affects the neurons and how it affects the brain tissue… It just made it more exciting to be like ‘ok, what’s next?’”  

According to Luna, the Sharecare You program not only allows for real time demonstration of human body systems and illnesses but created a newfound interest among H & P students in actively learning about the body and viewing the components in person far beyond the potential value of typical lecturing and slideshow demonstrations.  

Overall, the public application of the technology may still be in its infancy, but the potential is there, and is sitting in the library at student’s fingertips. As Ralston described, the platform is still niche, but the sheer bewilderment of students who have tried it speaks for itself, whether for educational or recreational purposes. As best put by Luna,  

“I think adapting to new technology can be super beneficial for us college students. Personally, during finals week and being in a small town like La Grande it’s nice to be able to come to the library knowing there is that stress reliever. Like, Beat Saber you get into it, and you tell yourself you’re only going to play for an hour, and you catch yourself here for three or four hours and your like ‘wow my body really needed that.’” 

For additional information on the VR grant, individual VR programs or to schedule an appointment, visit the EOU VR Library page at: https://guides.library.eou.edu/vr 

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