Professor bringing the classroom to life for students learning about virtual reality

Virtual Reality Class

Students learn using Oculus Quest headsets in Professor Dan Cliburn's virtual reality class. 

There’s a new dimension to Professor Dan Cliburn’s virtual reality class this semester at University of the Pacific. 

“I’ve been teaching the course for a while. I’ve never actually taught virtual reality in virtual reality, so ... I thought it might be a really cool opportunity” said Cliburn, chair of computer science at Pacific.

A grant from Pacific’s Technology in Education Committee and funding from the Computer Science Department allowed him to equip each student with an Oculus Quest, which is a virtual reality headset. 

Each student is represented in class by an avatar where they can listen to Cliburn’s lecture, see power point presentations, and even ‘walk’ around the space to gather into smaller work groups. 

“When you put this (virtual reality headset) on, all you can see is that space, so I can look around. I can see other people.  I can walk to other locations in the environment,” explained Cliburn, “It makes you feel like you’re actually in this classroom.”

“I think it definitely adds to the appreciation of virtual reality,” said Cameron Rogero, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student. 

Unlike video conferencing programs, virtual reality also uses spatial audio, something computer science major Michael Guerra ’22 says enhances the feeling of being in a classroom.

“When we get split up into groups, instead of going into breakout rooms we just move to a part of the environment, and then we can only hear each other,” he explained.

Along with the wow factor, Cliburn is finding it gives students a chance to see first-hand some of the challenges that come with the technology. 

“You start realizing things like taking notes is a lot harder,” Cliburn said, laughing. 

When he was looking to bring the unique experience to life, he didn’t have to go far. 

The classroom was designed by alumna Keely Canniff ’20, digital projects manager at Pacific’s library.

“That was a lot of fun because you have to think of how students will be in the space,” she said. 

Since the pandemic, she’s found the technology is being implemented in other ways around campus as well. 

“I have had professors use this for exam prep, so they usually would do something like exam Jeopardy inside a classroom, but Zoom wasn’t delivering that presence, so I showed them this platform and it was a lot of fun to see students actually race up to the screen and say, ‘that’s the answer,’ or ‘this is the answer’ and they felt like they were really involved,” she said.

It’s been a learning experience for faculty, but one they’re embracing to enhance the experience for students at Pacific.