VR ... Penn State

Steve Sampsell
January 10, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When John Beale addresses Penn State undergraduates about using a smartphone, he knows they’re familiar with the device. He’s also certain many students have barely tapped the full functionality of the ubiquitous technology they have in their pockets.

Most 18- to early 20-somethings use a smartphone an average of three hours a day, or 86 hours a month. 

Beale, a balding, 50-something assistant teaching professor in the Department of Journalism with an award-winning photojournalism background who remembers the days of rotary phones and party lines in residential homes, holds the keys to unlocking the potential of those smartphones.

An award-winning teacher, Beale is determined and quite talented at helping students realize both their potential, and the potential of the technology they hold in their hands. 

He’s not alone.

From campus classrooms to Capitol Hill, faculty members in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications are tapping technology to help students strengthen their storytelling skills or helping provide perspective for what communications-related technology means for society. 

They’re also conducting research to help better understand how technology is impacting people and processes in a largely media-driven communications landscape. Several Bellisario College faculty members are go-to experts about technology-related issues for government officials and the media.

Distinguished Professor S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Laboratory housed in the Bellisario College of Communications and editor of “The Handbook of the Psychology of Communication Technology,” focuses his research on the medium involved in communications.  He wants to know what happens when certain aspects of the technology itself are altered.

He started the Media Effects Lab when he arrived at the University nearly two decades ago and it has grown, thanks to a core group of communications faculty and collaborators across Penn State, into one of the leading facilities of its kind in higher education. Support for research in the lab has come from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the MacArthur Foundation, and Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Services, among others.

Sundar enjoys the process of working with a lab group, formulating a hypothesis and testing to confirm.

“It’s normal science. It’s not random or just intuition, and that opportunity to test hypotheses and create knowledge or formulate a better understanding of something is exciting,” Sundar said. “We’re in a great position at Penn State, with willing collaborators across campus in a variety of disciplines. Plus, our Ph.D. program and the support within our college is strong. There’s certainly a value placed on what we do.”

Sundar and a colleague from the College of Information Sciences and Technology recently earned a $300,000 NSF grant to train machines to help detect fake news. Officially titled “Training Computers and Humans to Detect Misinformation by Combining Computational and Theoretical Analysis,” the proposed research by Sundar and IST associate professor Dongwon Lee grew from a seed grant provided by the Penn State Institute for CyberScience to study fake news.

Sundar’s active research agenda, bolstered by the lab group he leads in the Bellisario College, recently produced findings about the use of virtual reality in journalism. Again, focusing on the technology itself, they found a correlation between the use of virtual reality and credibility with their results that were reported in the Journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

“What really makes people trust VR more is that it creates a greater sense of realism compared to text, and that creates the trustworthiness,” said Sundar, who holds appointments in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations and the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies. “But, if it doesn’t give that sense of realism, it can affect credibility. If developers try to gamify it or make it more fantasy-like, for example, people may begin to wonder about the credibility of what they’re seeing.”

Not surprisingly, with the Bellisario College’s long-valued grounding in ethics as well as its tradition of strong teaching across majors, faculty members have made maintaining credibility and utilizing technology a point of emphasis in the classroom.

Will Yurman, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Journalism, has been exploring ways to bring virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) to the classroom. He’ll teach the Bellisario College’s first course exclusively focused on those topics next fall.

Like Beale, his background is in photojournalism, and he knows how to tell a good story. He also knows the changing media landscape means the next generation of storytellers need a comfort level and proficiency with different approaches.

“We’re always challenging students and providing opportunities. A couple of years ago it was GoPro cameras. We’re trying VR and AR, and we’ve been working with podcasting, drones and data visualization,” Yurman said. “It does provide a challenge for faculty to stay up to speed, and that’s a good opportunity for us to keep our skills sharp or adapt them to different technologies.”

Different approaches do not mean the faculty members need to be experts on every device or every piece of software. Helping students appreciate the potential of approaches and devices ­­— and continually stressing the core importance of good storytelling — remains vital.

“We’re teaching them to use tools in a meaningful manner. It’s all connected,” Yurman said. “Because we’re not teaching them to be technicians. What they do with a device is complemented by thoughtful preparation and proven skills.”

Alumni play a vital role in that process as well. In recent years, a Short Doc Workshop has brought together alumni and students majoring in advertising/public relations, film-video, journalism and telecommunications for an intense three-day session on campus. Yurman helped create the event when alumni return to campus and volunteer their time to work side-by-side with students to put together short documentaries during the workshop. The high quality of work that emerges is a result of talented people tapping state-of-the-art technology. Often, that technology can be something that’s familiar to workshop participants — such as a smartphone.

That’s why Beale believes the emphasis on smartphones is vital. He conducts weeklong “inserts” in each section of the 400-level reporting methods course every semester. He also teaches a freshmen seminar titled “Introduction to Multimedia with a Smartphone.”

Through those interactions, he hopes to help students realize they have an effective storytelling tool in their hands as a means to build approaches and improve the quality of their work on the way to a career in any communications-related field.

“Opportunities with only one skill set are diminished. You have to have two skills, and one of those has to be visual,” Beale said.

So, Beale compares images from a smartphone with those taken by a higher-end digital single lens reflex camera. He also works on traditional photojournalism rules, focusing on composition and lighting, for example, and stresses the flexibility a smartphone offers to shoot audio and video as well.

“There are some things a smartphone cannot do well, but there’s a lot it can do,” Beale said. “A strong communicator can find a variety of ways to tap that potential. When you see the light go on for a student, when they understand what they have at their fingertips, that’s a good feeling.”

Beale is also a FCC-certified drone pilot. The Bellisario College owns two drones, and he believes that’s another area of opportunity — a way to give Penn State students an edge when it’s time to compete for jobs against students from other colleges and universities.

“We’re seeing job opportunities where a familiarity with 360 video or drones is part of the posting,” Beale said. “And it’s in every field. Whenever and wherever you’re telling a story, the more tools you can use, the more you can implement technology in an effective manner, the more likely you are to make an impact.”

Yurman led an innovative online photojournalism course during the fall semester that enabled students to rent equipment from Penn State or complete their coursework with their own cameras. Half of the class used the rented equipment and half had their own cameras. While there were some challenges with the online approach, Yurman was pleased with the results.

Students, many of whom were adult learners, were a mix of people trying to complement their skillset to bolster their career and others interested in photojournalism who found the class a good fit for their schedules. Yurman was happy with the approach, which provided another testament to the Bellisario College’s determination to serve students in the best way possible.

That includes the recent creation of another World Campus offering — a degree in digital multimedia design, available through the World Campus as part of a partnership with the College of Arts and Architecture, and the College of Information Sciences and Technology. 

For students on the University Park campus, a digital media trends and analytics minor was launched in the fall semester. Lee Ahern, an associate professor in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations, helped create that program. The minor is designed to provide students with a valuable understanding of practices and trends in advertising, digital media, marketing and public relations. Completion of the minor will help prepare students to pass a number of leading industry certification tests related to analytics, digital media sales, marketing, media sales, search engine marketing, and social media.

As people in a variety of fields and industries create content, Bellisario College faculty members also possess the expertise to contextualize how the information gets to media consumers. They’re helping drive discussion about the capabilities of communications-related technologies and serving as regular resources for government and the media regarding those topics.

Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications, and Rob Frieden, the Pioneers Chair and professor of telecommunications and law, rank as two of the nation’s foremost experts on net neutrality. As the Federal Communications Commission moved this fall to roll back rules that would prevent internet service providers from blocking or slowing content online, Meinrath and Frieden were regularly asked to offer their insights.

Additionally, Meinrath, who has been named to the Time Magazine “Tech 40” as one of the most influential figures in technology, offered a bold technology agenda for the White House. He also serves as director of the Washington, D.C.-based X-Lab, an innovative think tank focusing on the intersection of vanguard technologies and public policy. Along with its work in the nation’s capital, the X-Lab (and Meinrath) has been integral in the creation of a TV White Space effort involving Schlow Centre Region Library in State College.

Like Sundar, Meinrath has found ample opportunity for collaboration in the Bellisario College and at Penn State. Especially in regard to tech-related topics, he believes many challenges and opportunities will present themselves in the near future.

“What we do now will impact what’s going to happen three or five years down the road. The digital divide is actually growing, and in terms of policymaking we have a gulf of ignorance in Washington, D.C. Policymakers are far behind the media reality, and that’s a huge problem,” Meinrath said. “Laws are not keeping up and the technology is just getting more complex.”

Last Updated January 29, 2018