How to design classrooms for virtual and augmented reality

Experts: Provide flexible tech and furniture that allow learners to share immersive experiences

Flexibility plays the key role when designing classrooms for virtual reality and augmented reality use—along with all the cutting-edge technology, of course, says James Frazee, chief academic technology officer at San Diego State University.

The technology is advancing rapidly. For instance, VR headsets that used to be tethered to computers by cords are now wireless. So classrooms need wheeled and height-adjustable furniture that can be easily rearranged, as well as large displays that let students and instructors share their virtual environments, says Frazee, who also oversees the university’s Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning initiative.

Frazee offers one caveat: You have to let people know that they’re allowed to move things around. “When somebody enters one of our environments, there’s a big poster on the wall that shows different layouts of furniture,” he says. “One of the spaces on that poster is left blank and says, ‘Use your imagination.’ You have to be explicit.”

At San Diego State, these immersive environments also serve as active learning spaces. Otherwise, VR can be an isolating activity, Frazee says.

Large displays allow others to watch and even provide guidance when one student is wearing the headset and exploring a virtual world. “You can design instruction in such a way that people can be involved with one person who is fully immersed,” he says. “It gets people working together.”

These spaces also allow students and instructors to create immersive content. Along with ample Wi-Fi, power and displays, these rooms have lots of writing surfaces—including mobile whiteboards—for sketching out ideas and producing storyboards.

A San Diego State University instructor wears a back-mounted virtual reality device to share her experience with her class.
A San Diego State University instructor wears a back-mounted virtual reality device to share her experience with her class.

In addition, the university has an adjustable, whiteboard-topped table that, when placed under a ceiling-mounted document camera, allows a student or instructor to share (and save) what they’re writing or drawing.

“You don’t have to turn your back on the people you’re interacting with,” Frazee says.

Sitting in a pinwheel

Shifting VR from a one-person experience to a group teaching and learning experience is the goal at The Pennsylvania State University’s Immersive Experiences Lab.

“We’re engaging students around the act of designing and developing content in an immersive environment, and how to use immersive technology to tell stories and convey ideas,” says Kyle Bowen, Penn State’s director of innovation for Teaching and Learning with Technology.

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Wearing a VR headset can make a student feel a bit vulnerable, as they’re essentially blindfolded. Penn State created a pinwheel configuration of desks that are separated by low, curved dividers.

“When you have a headset on, you don’t have to worry about running into anyone,” says Bowen, a regular presenter at the UB Tech® conference. “And you’re part of a group. You can take the headset off and have discussions because the group is watching the same media, but everyone is seeing something different.”

Currently, the pinwheel configuration of desks has seats for eight users. Bowen wants to expand this design to a class of more than 20 users. “The key thing to think about is how many people can safely be inside of an environment or how many can physically use this type of technology,” he says.

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Bowen’s team also attached two curved displays so students who are designing content together can replicate the field of view in a VR or AR experience.

Bowen’s team works closely with the university’s enterprise network group on security and user authentication to ensure that students and instructors can connect their headsets to Wi-Fi as they move from classroom to classroom across one or multiple campuses.

One challenge is that, unlike tablets and laptops, headsets don’t have keyboards that allow users to enter a password. Bowen’s team has enabled users to register devices so they don’t have to log in over and over again.

“It’s overcoming the challenge of how to get emerging technology and enterprise networks to play well together,” Bowen says.

More from UB: Highlights from the Campus IT track at UB Tech® 2019, including a session on launching an AR/VR/360 pop-up lab

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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