Reinventing the Classroom with Virtual Reality Technology

Peggy Hartwick, an instructor at Carleton’s School of Linguistics and Language Studies, earned a national teaching award this May for her innovative use of technology in the classroom. (Justin Tang Photo)

When it comes to teaching, the last thing Peggy Hartwick wants is for her students to be bored.

Through game-based technologies like Carleton Virtual, which allows students to learn in a 3-D virtual campus as avatars, the Carleton School of Linguistics and Language Studies instructor is exploring new ways to keep students engaged.

“At the stage of the term I introduced it, people were starting to get bored or tired – right at the end of the term when you start to wane in terms of your energy level,” says Hartwick, who earned a 2015 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE)/Brightspace Innovation Award this May.

“This just really injected a whole bunch of energy.”

Carleton Virtual was developed by undergraduate and graduate students in the Interactive Multimedia and Design (IMD) program with the help of Associate Prof. Ali Arya. Students log into a 3-D virtual rendering of campus as an avatar – from campus or remotely – to complete assignments in the environment and engage with professors and other students in real-time.

“Language students aren’t apprehensive to use their voice in this context because it’s anonymous,” Hartwick says. “I’ve seen that repeatedly, where students who are very shy in the classroom aren’t shy to speak up in the environment.”

Hartwick integrates Carleton Virtual as a class project in each of her courses, as it’s meant to supplement – not replace – traditional learning.

“It’s dynamic as opposed to static and it provides a much richer learning experience,” Hartwick says.

Unlike the confines of a traditional classroom, the virtual campus allows students to explore different settings and scenarios where they can practice their vocabulary by discussing what they see around them. But the program’s biggest benefit is that it allows distance learners to engage with classmates rather than learn in isolation.

“If you want to learn a language and you are far away, it allows you to come here and go to a simulated environment and see what Ottawa looks like,” says Arya. “Not only do you see the simulated environment, but people who are there can be real people.”

Learning from afar has also helped Associate History Prof. Shawn Graham teach his students about archaeology without bringing them to a real excavation site. Arya and his IMD students designed a version of Carleton Virtual that simulates an archaeological dig so students can explore their findings without damaging any real artifacts.

“When you’re teaching archaeology, you’re learning as you go and information can be destroyed,” Graham says. “One of the attractions of using something like Carleton Virtual is that you can fix your mistakes.”

Graham says it’s important that students feel safe to fail.

Technology like Carleton Virtual has been a way for both Graham and Hartwick to achieve this while engaging students in new ways.

“All of these are buzz words in education right now – collaboration, engagement, experience,” Hartwick says. “So I’m just trying to provide those contexts in as many different ways as I can.

“You can never stop trying to be creative in your teaching.”

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Kirsten Fenn

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