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How It's Done: VR Meets Higher Ed - Did You Bring Enough for the Whole Class?

VR has been entertaining and educating students for years, and the industry is only getting more advanced and user-enticing. What’s better than offering a VR headset for a student to borrow? A whole class full, according to the University of Utah. 

We chat with Thomas Ferrill (aka T.J.), Head of Creative Spaces with Creativity & Innovation Services at the J. Willard Marriott Library, about the tech’s popularity. 

Who: J. Willard Library, University of Utah 

Where: Salt Lake City, UT 

What: Using VR Tech to Teach Entire Classes 

We began investigating the inclusion of VR and AR equipment into our service profile in 2016. Originally, the focus was an exploration of new and emerging technology. Many departments were already working with VR, as University of Utah has a rich computing history, including playing a role in the first VR head-mounted displays. High demand from students, faculty, and researchers soon prompted quick growth so we decided to expand the program and build an entire VR Classroom. 

A campus wide survey went out to assess interests and needs of campus collaborators. We explored several options on how best to implement the program. Supporting VR equipment requires additional IT skills, as the peripherals are more central and more personal than many others. Considerations included devising a system for equipment checkout, availability of open lab space (and anticipating the popularity of the tech, schedule-able lab space) and the creation of project support teams to provide maintenance and assistance in the use of the tech.

Thomas Ferrill, Head of Creative Spaces with Creativity & Innovation Services at the J. Willard Marriott Library

Thomas Ferrill, Head of Creative Spaces with Creativity & Innovation Services at the J. Willard Marriott Library (Image credit: University of Utah)

Positive Results

(Image credit: University of Utah)

The tech has been embraced by a number of programs since its launch. Several semester length courses use the VR lab to visualize complex scientific datasets, Game development students use the resources to facilitate their creation of VR games and simulations, and computer science students use our equipment to facilitate learning and experimentation with human computer interactions. Student demand built quickly, as it is an expensive yet engaging technology.

Biggest Challenge

Virtual Reality equipment in the classroom

(Image credit: University of Utah)

Checkout kits have a lot of components. We solved this issue with clear signage, extra training, offering workshops outside of class time in the use of the tech, and iteration. There were also practical concerns that had to be managed. Having users wear VR headsets in public spaces requires careful space planning to avoid collisions and noise distractions for other users.

Finding Funding

(Image credit: University of Utah)

We sourced several avenues for funding the project. Internal development/discretionary funds were requested from library administration. Student computing fund sources (for checkout of equipment) were requested and granted through a campus-wide initiative. Private donations fund individual project development.

Pro Tips

  • Encourage users to play and experiment.
  • Plan for staff who will be able to facilitate the equipment.
  • Find out who on campus is already working with VR equipment, and what their needs might be.
  • Encourage internal development of skills related to simulation building. Someone on the team should be familiar with Unity/Unreal.

Tech Tools

  • Oculus Rift, Rift S, and Quest
  • HTC Vive and Vive Pro
  • Microsoft Hololens
  • Valve Index
  • Windows Mixed Reality
  • Magic Leap