Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality in the Classroom: NDNU’s New STEAM 3D Virtual Learning Lab

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Professor Barry (right) demonstrating the Microsoft HoloLens to Palo Alto elementary school teacher Katelyn Black.

Robot surgeons, driverless cars, the Internet of Things, holographic computing, cyber and drone warfare, nanotechnology, and the initial preparations for human habitation of the moon and Mars: these are no longer science fiction. The future is here. Students now must learn to be effective, ethical and responsible stewards in the new reality of digitally mediated worlds.

Toward this end, Notre Dame de Namur University (NDNU) has created one of the most technologically advanced immersive learning labs in the U.S.A. for a university of our size. The STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) 3D Virtual Learning Lab, housed in the university’s high-spirited Student Success Center, features some the world’s most advanced learning technologies. These include virtual reality headsets and hands by Oculus Rift and VIVE, mixed reality using zSpace specialized computers, holographic computing with the Microsoft HoloLens, and Double Robotics and Swivl telepresence robots. NDNU students now have access to a world-class level of technology. They can study the anatomy of the human heart in three dimensions, inside and out, for example, while actually seeing and feeling the heartbeat at rest and during exercise in real time.

In a screen age defined by artificial intelligence, the nature of work is continually changing. Whatever technology a campus provides, the truth is that no university can directly train students for many of the jobs of the future because these positions currently do not exist. What universities can do, however, is to educate students to be resilient, caring, ethical, creative thinkers and problems solvers. The goal is for our students to be willing to learn new knowledge, skills, and ways to perceive the world. The STEAM 3D Virtual Learning Lab offers NDNU students the unique opportunity to interact with cutting-edge and emerging technologies to improve short- and long-term memory retention and enrich the depth and breadth of learning and knowledge application in fields ranging from physics to art.

ZSpace AnatomyWe are pioneers at NDNU in using mixed reality, a combination of virtual and augmented reality, in our support of pedagogy and assessment of student learning. Students of innovative NDNU instructors are using mixed reality to create a holistic understanding of the human body, showing students in three-dimensions how the muscles of the arm help move the bones of the hand, for instance.

Many other NDNU classes can make use of the technology in the STEAM Lab. In a course I created and teach, The Philosophy of Emerging Technologies, students are working in the Lab to explore and assess virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) and holographic technology to seek pragmatic solutions to the ethical challenges of living in a digitally mediated world. Students in history courses can now place themselves virtually in historical eras and events, such as in the trenches in World War I, to develop understandings that resonate more deeply. Art students can draw, paint, and sculpt in virtual environments that expand creativity and innovation. Students in graduate clinical psychology and the PhD program in art therapy can explore the potential of using VR/AR and holographic computing in working with clients.

The use of mixed reality to improve pedagogy and learning has profound implications for how and what we teach students to be successful in the 21st century. In keeping with our location in Silicon Valley, NDNU is emerging as a leading innovator of digitally mediated learning support. We hope to add to the latest technology the depth and experience offered by the university’s enduring hallmark values.

Professor William Barry is an assistant professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University.

For information on applying to Notre Dame de Namur University, please visit the Admissions page.

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