San Diego State University (SDSU) has launched the Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) Research Center, which is dedicated to expanding the use of emergent virtual technologies in the classroom.

SDUS’s Information Technology Division launched the VITaL Research Center, and its faculty and staff aim to “expand research to develop and integrate new and innovative teaching and learning practices, spark technological innovation and research in the field of eXtended Reality (XR),” according to SDSU. This includes virtual, augmented, and mixed reality immersive learning tools.

“This is about evolving the traditional learning environment and harnessing the tremendous power of immersive technologies to dramatically increase learner attention by increasing student engagement,” said Jerry Sheehan, vice president for Information Technology, in a press release.

In a press release, James Frazee, deputy chief information officer and senior associate vice president for Learning Environments, Technologies & User Services (LETUS) – a unit within the university’s IT Division – said the mission of the VITaL Center is to improve teaching, learning, and student success through state-of-the-art technological tools and resources.

Faculty and staff will collaborate with students on projects to design, develop, research, and engage with XR while leveraging new technologies in hardware, software, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

“The VITaL Center will create and leverage open, affordable, and inclusive immersive learning resources to serve a diverse community of learners,” Frazee said.

The initial VITaL initiative was launched in fall 2017, but was not a formal research center until this year. Since its inception, VITaL resources have been utilized by 56 faculty teaching 70 courses across all eight colleges at SDSU. The school said that this widespread adoption “provided a living laboratory for research that has resulted in several awards, grant funding, peer-reviewed publications, and invited presentations, as well as national and international press coverage.”

Thus far, faculty have created new ways of teaching through the use of XR applications, including the creation of low-frequency, high-risk scenarios. Projects include developing a virtual holographic patient simulating anaphylactic shock for nursing students, creating interactive moon phase simulations for astronomy students, and creating virtual anatomy lab specimens for distance learning.

“These experiences have been particularly valuable for students at rural SDSU Imperial Valley who do not have access to the same traditional simulation facilities available for students at the San Diego campus,” Frazee said.

In terms of why the school has made the jump to formalize the VITaL initiative into a research center, Sean Hauze, the Instructional Technology Services director, cited a growing body of research indicating that the use of immersive technology simulation fosters student success through increased learner confidence, emotional connection, and motivation to learn.

Hauze added that these research findings are increasingly relevant given the rapid acceleration of the adoption of technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a result, post-secondary education is in the midst of unprecedented change,” Hauze said. “In light of these new realities, universities must provide flexible, customizable, technology-enhanced learning opportunities that allow students to maintain access to high quality instruction. These needs are driving higher education leaders and faculty to rethink instruction to help faculty plan courses that offer a purposeful blend of face-to-face and online modalities to promote active learning and student engagement.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs