How Immersive Technology is Changing the Way CSU Students Learn
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How Immersive Technology is Changing the Way CSU Students Learn

Angie Marcos

Students in education, nursing, astronomy, geology and journalism — to name just a few fields — are using augmented/virtual reality technologies to learn at campuses across the CSU. And, faculty say, they’re loving it.

How Immersive Technology is Changing the Way CSU Students Learn

With immersive technology like augmented and virtual reality, CSU students from a myriad of fields have the opportunity to participate in a new and exciting form of education that promotes exploration and engagement.  Photo courtesy of CSU Chico


Take a second to imagine any of the following scenarios:

  • a nursing student is virtually placed into a complex, dangerous medical procedure
  • a teacher candidate leads a virtual classroom, interacting with her third-grade students as she introduces a new curriculum
  • an astronomy student is able to move a simulated moon and stars with the flick of a finger
  • a geology student forms virtual mountains and canyons with the sweep of a hand
  • a journalism student reports a story complete with 360-degree photos and video

These aren't just possibilities, though — these programs already exist on CSU campuses.

Just as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have made their way into our everyday lives, changing the way we play, shop, watch videos and use social media, these technologies are having a similarly profound impact in academia.

And, more specifically, at the California State University. Leaders at the CSU are now working to add more pilot projects and courses on campuses to leverage the power of AR/VR.

Peter Young, professor of new media technologies at San José State University, has high hopes for what's to come in higher education with immersive technology.

"This larger field is new and exciting and … encourages exploration and discussion in new areas of discovery," says Young, adding that he sees potential for students and faculty in fields as diverse as healthcare, theater, engineering, and social science.

"[They can] explore new, ground-breaking devices and [test], without harmful side effects, the implementation and eventual use of these new devices."

Endless Possibilities for Teachers and Learners

While augmented/virtual reality dates to the 1950s, it has only recently begun to infiltrate higher education, says Michael Berman, Ph.D., CSU Chief Innovation Officer at the Chancellor's Office, in Long Beach.

"AR allows for new types of experiences, like visiting a place you've never visited before," Dr. Berman explains, adding that its possibilities aren't tied to any field and can be used by anyone.

 "The CSU is one of the largest and most diverse labs for learning in the world. We have faculty and students who are deeply interested in how teaching and learning can be transformed and enhanced," Berman notes.

"With AR, as a faculty member, you are able to teach students about a place or phenomena in a way that you previously would not have been able to. This has the opportunity to enhance student interactions and provide alternative teaching strategies in the classroom.

"The possibilities are endless."

What's Happening at the CSU

Across the state, CSU faculty from various disciplines are implementing this quickly-evolving technology in ways that translate into both higher rates of student engagement and, it's hoped, enhanced learning.

California State University Channel Islands, for example, has five immersive technology pilot programs in the works focusing on special education, nursing, science and business.

"The faculty projects that we have going right now are a key example of teachers learning how to use this technology while improving the education of their own students and getting them excited about the opportunities of augmented and virtual reality technology," says Ben Hytrek, instructional technologist at CSU Channel Islands.

"We are willing to take a risk on technologies that can have a really deep and lasting impact on our students." 

California State University, San Bernardino has two immersive technology programs, for archaeology and journalism students. But faculty choose to use AR/VR judiciously, not just because they're currently a hot area of interest.

"The point is not to adopt technologies simply because they exist, but to adopt technologies because they offer teaching and learning possibilities not available elsewhere," says Mihaela Popescu, Ph.D, associate professor of communication studies and faculty director of academic technologies and innovation at CSU San Bernardino.

"These technologies represent a new form of teaching. They focus on project-based learning and on creating student engagement through new means, whether narrative or technology-based," adds Dr. Popescu.

Whereas an archaeology course may have previously been taught primarily by lecture, textbook or presentation, CSUSB is introducing a campus-wide collaboration that uses fully interactive virtual reality modules to teach students about fieldwork equipment and processes, as well as what to look for when analyzing artifacts.

San Diego State University has also launched a Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning initiative.

New and Better Ways to Engage Students

Student engagement is one of the key goals of the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, a university-wide effort to dramatically grow four- and six-year graduation rates and end the equity gap for underrepresented students.

Immersive technologies like AR and VR could be an important part of getting students more committed to their college experience — plus it equips them with skills and experiences they're likely to need in starting a career following graduation.

"At this time, we do not have any data to indicate how this technology directly impacts learning," says Jill Leafstedt, Ph.D., director of teaching and learning innovations, senior academic technology officer, and associate professor of education at CSU Channel Islands. "But we have seen engagement increase dramatically."

"We are on the edge of knowing the true impact AR/VR may have on learning and are confident this is a worthy endeavor," continues Dr. Leafstedt.

"By experimenting with AR/VR, [the CSU] is demonstrating not only a willingness to move toward innovative approaches to education, but also the power of collaboration across campuses."  

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