New Course Offering
Design for Teaching & Learning in a Social Virtual Reality (MARA 284)


Published: July 29, 2020 by McKenna Wulker

Are you still looking for fall courses? Check out this new 1-unit MARA offering!

Dr. Marie Vans is a 2016 MLIS graduate returning to teach a 1-unit course on social virtual reality. Virtual reality (VR) has been a growing technology in recent years and is gaining traction in all fields. Read further to learn more about Dr. Vans, VR, and this upcoming course. 

Tell me about your background and how you got interested in VR.

I am a research scientist at HP, Inc. I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Colorado State University and more recently went back to school for a second Master’s in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University’s iSchool. I graduated in spring 2016.  During my MLIS, I took a couple of courses completely in a 3D virtual world and immediately saw the potential for education and training. Since HP also makes VR headsets, I saw that much of what is being done in 3D virtual worlds for education, could be applied to VR worlds. I have been involved as a student, an intern, and a volunteer with VCARA (Virtual Center for Archives & Records Administration) starting in 2015. As part of that collaboration, I am working with Dr. Franks and other students and alumni on bridging the gap between Virtual 3D Worlds and Social VR platforms. We believe we can bring our experience to bear on educational experiences in virtual reality.

How is VR being used in the RIM field? 

VR is still an emerging technology and, other than in gaming, mostly used by early technology adopters. However, there has been an exponential interest in using VR in just about every field where people can meet using technology as a direct consequence of COVID-19. Companies, schools, and universities have suddenly discovered that VR as a potential meeting platform. Headset hardware companies have a difficult time filling orders. Social VR platforms can’t keep up with the requests for their product.  While some institutions may be looking at VR as a way to virtually experience a physical space, for example, the National Archives, VR can also be used in virtual spaces to meet, create and attend virtual events (like conferences), teach, and collaborate on projects. Over the next couple of years I expect to see the use of VR in every field, including RIM.

How do you think VR is shaping our field for a new generation?

I think VR will be the way people meet and interact remotely. During our unprecedented situation with COVID, people have started to take a keen interest in VR. In fact, since April, it is almost impossible to buy a good VR headset of any kind and most manufacturers are having a tough time keeping up with demand. It’s not only because of supply chain problems, but because people suddenly realized that you can experience VR with other people and not have to be in the same physical location. Schools and companies are starting to realize that distributive immersive technologies (like VR, but also other virtual worlds that can be experienced on the desktop) will allow for people to collaborate in more natural ways than our current zoom-like systems support, even when they are physically half a world away from each other. While VR is a nascent technology that still needs a lot of improvement (for example the form factor of the headset is still too clunky) these issues will be resolved soon and lead to world where VR is as ubiquitous as smart phones are today.

Are VR and AI closely related?

AI is a tool that will help make VR experiences a lot more like the real world. Whether it is interacting with bots (software robots) in-world, learning user preferences, or personalizing experiences, AI will be a critical component for these systems. In general, wherever you encounter AI in the real world, any experience modeled on it will also likely include an AI algorithm in the VR experience.

Will your class take place in a normal Canvas environment?

The class will take place on Canvas for discussions and in various social virtual world environments for assignments and meetups. I will have a time scheduled every Friday and Saturday morning during the course where I will log into one of the VR virtual worlds and be available for students to ask questions. These sessions are not required, but it helps for quicker ramp up on the environment and a way to get to know each other. 

How do you think students will benefit from learning in a VR environment?

The biggest benefit will be the realization that this is a medium that has the potential to become the way people will interact, especially if they are geographically dispersed. As a team leader, I think about building the best possible team I can. If geography is not an issue, I can recruit anyone from anywhere in the world and collaborate with them without any one of us having to leave our homes. I know of a few collaborative VR companies that have no physical office but do all team meetings and events on their own platform in VR. For any job that relies only on technology, VR is as close to being physically present in the same room as is possible with technology. For some types of learning, VR may be orders of magnitude cheaper than physical classrooms and simulations. Here I’m thinking of things like engineering, flight and first responder training, and even astrophysics. Being able to manipulate 3D objects rather than physical objects and visit places we couldn’t without specialized equipment (Mars, burning buildings) takes out a large chuck of the costs for learning because most of the cost is software. 

What kind of content will you be covering in class?

I will be giving students a set of criteria that helps in designing a learning/training experience in VR. I cover all the design elements needed as well as some learning theory. The students will take what they have learned from lectures and visiting these world to design their own learning/training experience. We won’t have time to actually implement the experience in VR, but they should be able to do that if they want once the course is over.

What do you hope students will take away from your class?

I hope my students will go on to design their own VR experiences and add to the knowledge of how we make learning and collaboration more engaging and productive in these environments. Some may want to create training for RIM and others may want to use VR to create collaborative spaces for RIM professionals. In either case, both are very important.

Dr. Vans class will run this fall and will count for 1-unit credit. If you are interested in signing up, the course is under MARA 284 – 12 and the class number is 49919. We hope to see you in Canvas! 


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