Bridging the rift between classroom and online learning

By Katie Jacobs
June 15, 2015

The group of engineering students is getting rowdy.

Gathered in the Design Analysis Technology Advancement (DATA) Laboratory at Penn State University Park, they joke and laugh as they prepare their virtual reality demo, teasing and poking fun at each other. A nearby microwave sports a sign reading, “For Food Only,” hinting at the type of mischief the room has seen.

But the students are definitely serious about their studies. When it comes to the project — funded by a Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) Research Initiation Grant (RIG) — they’re working on with assistant professor of engineering design and industrial engineering Conrad Tucker, they’re all business.

The students have been working with Tucker all semester to experiment with such immersive virtual reality (IVR) systems as the Oculus Rift and how these systems may enhance student learning — both on campus and online. Tucker hopes IVR technology can eventually give students taking online courses a way to become more engaged in their coursework.

“Online learning gives us huge opportunities in higher education. You can connect with more diverse people across greater distances, for example,” said Tucker. “But online courses also limit you in some ways — there’s little immersive or tactile interaction, and sometimes it’s hard for students to engage with the material. IVR systems are a potential solution to that problem.”

The students have finished setting up their demo. Owen Shartle, an engineering student, straps the IVR headset over his eyes and slips a haptic glove — a device that allows a user to interact with the virtual world — over his hand, making his extremity look Transformer-esque.

The headset transports him into an immersive, 3-D world — today, it’s a traditional classroom with chairs, tables and a blackboard. The glove, still in its prototype phase, will enable him to pick up the pieces of a coffee maker scattered across the virtual table and assemble them in a much more natural way than using a joystick or keyboard controls.

With the exception of the IVR headset, everything is student made. The group designed the simulations — the coffee pot exercise, as well as a giant game of Jenga — with the software Unity3D. They also designed and built the haptic glove, which has gone through at least two versions, from scratch.

Bryan Dickens, a senior majoring in computer engineering, watches his classmate maneuver through the virtual world. He describes wearing and using the IVR device as similar to lucid dreaming.

“You know that you’re not really in this new place, but in some ways you are,” he said. “You can look around and see things that seem real. You’re moving yourself through a different world, and that’s what the virtual reality device is aiming for.”

The technology isn’t just cool, though. It’s doing what Tucker hoped it would do: It helps students learn.

Tucker recently completed a study that found the device significantly improves a student’s performance completing a task when compared to doing the same activity in a non-immersive computer program — just playing the simulation on a flat screen and with traditional controls like a keyboard.

Tucker used the coffee pot simulation to time and compare how long it took 54 undergraduate engineering students to assemble the pot. The students were randomly split into two groups: one group completed the task using the IVR headset, and the other used a non-immersive computer program.

The median time it took the Oculus Rift group was 23.21 seconds, while the median time of the second group clocked in at 49.04 seconds — more than double. (The paper will be published in the upcoming ASME 2015 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference [IDETC/CIE 2015].)

Tucker said there could be many reasons for the difference.

“Immersive virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift have many benefits,” he said. “But one of the major ones is that when compared to the non-immersive system, IVR systems give you a much more natural experience. It’s like you’re actually there.”

In an online class, where a student may be isolated from the instructor and other students, Tucker said this ability to be virtually immersed in another environment could be invaluable. Instead of just staring at a flat computer screen, students could be transported to a more traditional classroom environment or to another continent.

“Moving forward, we’d love to work with students in other countries,” Tucker said. “Oculus Rift and other similar technologies allow you to sync your devices with others regardless of location and work on the same project. You can always Skype with people around the world, but you don’t get the same experience. This technology would allow you to collaborate with others all over the world.”

Tucker said students could even be teleported back in time just by strapping on their IVR headset.

Dickens, who graduated in May before moving on to a program manager position at Microsoft, said his research experience with Tucker was essential to his education and success.

"With research, you’re building something that will last and be built upon," said Dickens. "If the world's knowledge of a subject is a circle, when you research with a cutting-edge technology like the Oculus Rift, you are working at the edge of the circle — pushing it further to expand its size. This kind of inventive work has helped my education more than any class could have.”

And in Tucker’s project, expanding that circle has also expanded Tucker’s original expectations. He said that while he was always hopeful, he was also a bit skeptical going into the project. But after seeing how positively Dickens and the other students reacted to the technology, that has since changed.

“When you see how student performance improves while using the device, it shows you how much potential it has to enhance online learning,” said Tucker. “And now, Penn State has a real opportunity to be a leader in this space. It’s very exciting.”

Faculty members interested in collaborating with Tucker on his immersive technology research can contact him at

Students involved in the project include Daniel Ahrweiler, Bryan Dickens, Gabe Harms, Kevin Lesniak, Matthew Myers, Basil Odulukwe, Steven Sellers and Owen Shartle.

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  • Students involved in Oculus Rift study

    The Oculus Rift team. From left to right: Kevin Lesniak, Matthew Myers, Daniel Ahrweiler, Bryan Dickens, Conrad Tucker, Gabe Harms, Steven Sellers and Owen Shartle (who is wearing the Oculus Rift headset and glove).

    IMAGE: Tom Flach
  • Student uses Oculus Rift

    Shartle uses the Oculus Rift headset and haptic glove to interact with a virtual simulation.

    IMAGE: Tom Flach
  • Student uses Oculus Rift

    Shartle uses the technology to play a giant digital game of Jenga.

    IMAGE: Tom Flach
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Last Updated July 28, 2017