World Campus researches effectiveness of VR headsets and video in online classes

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State instructional designers are researching whether using virtual reality and 360-degree video can help students in online classes learn more effectively.

Designers worked with professors in the College of Nursing to incorporate 360-degree video into Nursing 352, a class on Advanced Health Assessment. Students in the class, offered online through Penn State World Campus, were offered free VR headsets to use with their smartphones to create a more immersive experience while watching the video, which shows safety and health hazards in a patient’s home.

Bill Egan, the lead designer for the Penn State World Campus RN to BSN nursing program, said students in the class were surveyed as part of a study approved by the Institutional Review Board and overwhelmingly said that they enjoyed the videos and thought they provided educational value. Eighty percent of the students said they would like to see more immersive content such as 360-degree videos in their online courses, he said.

Nursing instructor Lisa Firestine, the author of the course, said the videos gave students “an opportunity to practice skills in a real-life situation” and could be incorporated into other nursing classes as well.

“It’s more effective than just reading and talking about it,” she said. “We’re letting them actually apply information in this immersive experience. It helps them learn more effectively and efficiently.”

Students in two sections of the course were offered free VR headsets as part of a pilot in the spring 2018 semester. About 85 percent of those students opted to receive the headsets, Egan said.

As part of the course, students learn to assess patients’ home environments for safety, cleanliness and other factors that they need to address with their patients.

One video shows the home of an elderly woman from the viewpoint of a nurse making the home visit. Students can click and drag the cursor to look around the bathroom, living room and kitchen, checking for hazards such as a hairdryer plugged in near the sink, towels on the floor or improperly stored medications.

Students don’t have to use a VR headset to watch the video, but if they do, the experience is much more immersive, “like you’re in the room,” Egan said.

Researchers will continue to collect data and feedback from students in all World Campus courses/programs that use immersive content, he said. If the 360-degree content proves successful, the designers will move toward designing and developing “true VR” content, in which users can interact with their surroundings, Egan said.

Little research has been done on the effectiveness and impact of VR in online education, Egan said.

“Through our research, we hope to help close this gap,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want to know if this kind of immersive content is valuable. As we explore new and emerging technology related to VR, we want to make sure that we are seeing a return on the investment from a learning standpoint.”

Kelly A. Wolgast, assistant dean for online education and outreach in the College of Nursing, praised the strong partnership between the College of Nursing and the World Campus learning design team, which she said “helps us to advance innovations in technology in the online nursing programs to create a better student learning experience."

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Last Updated July 25, 2018