Last summer, Stephan Caspar’s students gathered safely, sans masks yet without fear of contracting COVID-19. They played basketball and launched fireworks into the sky before proceeding to a boardroom overlooking a city skyline. The digital avatars each student inhabited stood around a conference table as Caspar presented.
This session of Caspar’s "Multicultural Pittsburgh: Exploring Language and Culture Through Digital Storytelling" class occurred entirely in virtual reality (VR) and is indicative of the kind of immersive experience typically found in the Askwith Kenner Global Languages and Cultures Room at Carnegie Mellon University.
When COVID-19 emerged and forced in-person classes to transition to remote learning, Caspar, an assistant teaching professor in media creation and multicultural studies, literally went the extra mile - driving to drop off VR headsets to students who didn’t have access to the technology. He now teaches his classes remotely, emphasizing the impact VR can have as a storytelling tool.
"We’re used to learning languages in an immersive way. So, you might go to a country and absorb the language, just by living and studying there," Caspar said. "We’re wondering whether those affordances, that quality of immersion, can actually happen here at CMU."
As most of higher education transitioned to remote learning in response to the global pandemic, CMU’s Stephan Caspar took things one step further and experimented with teaching a class in virtual reality.
The Global Languages & Cultures Room, in its third year of operation, brings immersive technologies to help students learn about language and culture. Caspar’s classes draw students from every discipline across the university. While heavily based on the technology available in the room, transitioning online this past spring was made possible with smartphone apps for augmented and virtual reality.
"There are lots of courses across CMU doing deep dives into the technology. What we’re interested in doing is using technology in a way that allows students to tell stories about who they are, and what is their cultural heritage," Caspar said. "We’re getting into a golden age of VR. Now it’s accessible enough for students to make their own projects without a huge amount of technical knowledge."
Jake Kim, a student in Caspar’s class during the outbreak of COVID-19, majored in psychology and biology and graduated last May.
"Honestly, I was blown away by how much tech there is in the Room. It’s really impressive," Kim said.
Once the class transitioned online, Kim and his fellow students experimented with VR as a medium for documentaries and film, via cell phone apps and Google Cardboard.
"Professor Caspar really opened my eyes to the potential [of VR] being used as a storytelling medium, especially in documentaries. It really feels like you’re on the ground with these people," Kim said. "It makes you feel empathy for whatever subject matter is being shown to you because it’s so immersive."
Another student, Valeria Cordova Mulvany, a sophomore studying information systems , took the class remotely over the summer. Her study into the technologies of storytelling led to an animated final project detailing her experience with culture clash exacerbated by generational gap.
"Some stories can be enhanced by technology. In those cases, technology is just the medium," Cordova Mulvany said. "But VR is enabling rather than just the medium. It’s so immersive and detailed. No matter what we do to try and describe something, we would never be able to create that physical space in someone’s mind the way that making a 3D animation of it would be."
Nancy Zuo, a sophomore studying cognitive science with a minor in human-computer interaction , already owned a VR headset when she started Caspar’s class. She enjoyed the chance to shoot basketballs and fireworks and interact with her classmates virtually.
"I appreciated the difference from teleconferencing. We could see people’s gestures and move around. I hope that more classes that are discussion-based could find a way to integrate VR," Zuo said. "We’re all getting used to virtual learning and new methods. Zoom was new. If we start to become more used to VR, maybe it can be the next Zoom."