Higher Education

ASU Online Is Giving VR Headsets to Biology Students

By Cait Etherington
October 18, 2018

If you’re looking for an innovative university with great free swag, look no further than Arizona State University (ASU). Last year, ASU made headlines when its Computer Science and Engineering Program decided to hand out free Echo Dots to students living in Tooker House, a residence set aside for engineering majors. Now, ASU Online is also offering a very intriguing bonus–they are loaning virtual realty (VR) headsets to students enrolled in an undergraduate online biology course.

The Scope of ASU Online’s VR Headset Experiment

As part of a new experiment, thirty students enrolled in an online general biology course will be using VR headsets to complete their lab requirements. They do have to give the VR headsets back at the end of the course, but for the course of this semester, the VR headsets are their own. The initiative is part of an experiment that involves ASU Online, Google, and Labster.

The introduction of VR headsets is designed to help online students in life sciences courses complete lab work. In an article posted on the ASU website in late August, Amy Pate, manager of instructional design for the School of Life Sciences, explains, “We always talk about it in terms of the online classroom, but even some of the labs we do on campus have a limited number of seats or only run once a year. The virtual side of things can get more people into the lab.” Over the summer, Pate worked closely with a team from Labster to test out the technology and address its glitches in various different simulations.

How the VR Headsets Can Support Lab Work

With the VR headsets and earbuds, students will be able to use a hand-held remote to maneuver 360 degrees in the animated lab, which is on Google’s Daydream VR operating system. The content will be accessed via students’ Google accounts, and students will click to open a locker, put on a lab coat and gloves, and get down to work. The scenario-based lessons will also include multiple-choice questions to ensure students are covering all the required material. For example, in a lab on cell respiration, students will take blood samples from two athletes and determine their blood glucose levels. Later in the lab, students are tested on their knowledge of the Krebs cycle.

So far, the verdict is out on whether VR headsets can replace actual lab work. Victoria Quintana was among the ASU students asked to test run the new VR headsets for ASU Online last summer. Quintana admits, “Compared to hands-on, it’s not the same, but it’s still more interesting to see it rather than to just read about it in a book.” But she also notes, “The visuals were really good, especially when we got to the electronic transfer chain, and I like that it had a sense of humor.”

Penny Stone is among the students currently using the new VR headsets in ASU Online’s biology course. Stone is more optimistic. “I did the first lab on my laptop, which takes you through a similar experience. It looks like your hands are in front of you holding a clipboard,” explains Stone, “But when you’re on the headset, it’s really immersive. I’m really looking around the lab and I don’t have my laptop open with all the other tabs, checking social media. I’m really in it.”

The use of VR headsets in online courses at ASU represents a milestone. In fact, the ASU Online course will be the first in the country to offer a virtual-reality biology lab. However, there is already a long tradition of using VR headsets in other educational settings to teach hands-on skills. Medical schools were early adopters of VR and have already shown that VR can be effectively used to train doctors in several areas, including emergency medicine.