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Penn State University Teacher Uses Virtual Reality to Aid Learning in Agricultural Science Classes during the Pandemic and After

Adrian Barragan, an assistant clinical professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences at Penn State University was in a fix looking for ways to slot in farm trips in the spring course on the ruminant herd health management that he was leading at the moment. However, the plan was not only being disrupted by the imminent logistical challenges but also the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic posed a significant barrier. This left Barraghan ruminating on alternative ways to provide the on-the-farm experience to the students, as it was an integral part of extending students’ understanding of cattle health and related management practices.

The solution came as a chance meeting with a colleague, Jaime García Prudencio, an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences who also supports the Spanish-speaking clientele in the Penn State Extension Program. Prudencio, a self-proclaimed technology geek’ was already known to dabble in virtual learning using VR technology for the students in his undergraduate class. Extending his experiment, he assisted Barragan to create an immersive learning experience for the Ag Sciences students using virtual reality.

Unique teaching method

Prudencio stated that in the current digital age, more institutes and facilities are relying on immersive learning to facilitate a smooth learning experience. He explained immersive learning as a unique teaching method that places students in an interactive environment virtually to gain exposure to a particular subject. It often includes 360-degree technology. Video footage of the subjects from every angle and direction is recorded simultaneously and further, VR is used to simulate realistic scenarios to give hands-on experience of the subject. Although this technology has been available for some time now, it was majorly used in gaming to date. Only recently, educators have started to use this in classrooms.

Standalone headset

Leveraging his previous experience of immersive learning, Prudencio suggested to Barragan that if the students cannot visit the farm in person, the farm can be brought to the classroom. To materialize his vision, Barragan and Prudencio used a GoPro Fusion camera mounted on a standalone headset and recorded a 360-degree video of the animal housing area of Penn State University. Prudencio then edited the videos so that they can be viewed with a VR headset or simply on YouTube.

Huge positive reviews

The videos premiered in Penn State’s Immersive Experience Lab on 26th February 2020. Immediately, it garnered huge positive reviews from students. Barragan stated that students were excited about the new technology. Concurring with the professor, Julia Hamilton, a junior student majoring in veterinary and biomedical Sciences said that immersive learning is the next best thing to hands-on learning.

Great potential

The project also caught the attention of Justin Brown, an assisting teaching professor of the veterinary and biomedical sciences. He reportedly saw great potential in 360-degree technology to impart wildlife education. Planning to create similar videos for his comparative anatomy class, Brown stated that these videos can be easily shared and used for various workshops and classes.

Useful alternative

The educators agree that while immersive learning cannot replace the value of hands-on learning, it surely can be a useful alternative when real-life experiences are not an option. However, using this innovative technology can be a bit challenging for the said faculties. Therefore, they applied for a Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology fellowship to hone their immersive learning skills.

The educators opine that the modifications related to immersive learning were introduced due to the pandemic. But they are going to be beneficial even afterwards, especially in the field of remote learning as well as regular classrooms of the future.

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