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Immersive classroom experience fosters teamwork in ground-breaking Semester in Alternate Realities

May 14, 2019

By Anne Hainsworth

Co-teaching the first intensive, full-time Semester in Alternate Realities at SFU requires a giant shift in teaching styles for SFU interactive arts and technology professor Bernhard Riecke and UBC theatre and film professor Patrick Pennefather.

The 18 students in the course, who come from a variety of disciplines, are challenged to use virtual reality technology to create immersive experiences that foster meaningful experiences “for good.” They work in teams and will debut their work in three public showcases over the course of the 13-week semester.

“The best way to teach about virtual reality,” says Pennefather, “is to actively engage students in co-constructing virtual reality, rather than just providing them with a theoretical overview of virtual reality or giving them tips and tricks that they can apply to projects outside the classroom.”

Building teamwork

To teach about immersive technology such as VR in a for-good context, the professors wanted to create an immersive teaching approach and classroom experience that would foster teamwork.

Pennefather and Riecke are using the VR4Good projects and constrained timelines to introduce prototyping, agile development and iterative design and evaluation methods. To strengthen group productivity and team spirit, the students play purpose-designed team-building games.

According to Pennefather, the crucial difference in their learning design is letting the students become more and more responsible for making their own critical choices and decisions.

“We don’t want to spoon feed students,” he says. “We constantly hold back giving them too much because we want them to come up with the answers, we want them to come up with the solutions.”

They noticed that changes in the classroom were almost immediate. Students reflect more deeply during feedback sessions and, says Riecke, “really grew together as a team like nothing I have ever seen before.”

Students also noticed an immediate shift in how their teams work.

“I think a lot of other courses are a divvy up, divide-and-conquer strategy and it’s very linear,” says communication student Lukas Ritter. “This one differs in the way our team approaches the work. We are all working in the same space, if not the same thing, and you’re always aware of what the other teammates are doing.”

Reflection important in VR course design

While the students constantly reflect on what they’ve learned, so do the professors.

“Bernhard and I take the Skytrain together,” says Pennefather. “We think about what we have taught, how we have taught it, what have we learned from this, how we can apply what we have learned yesterday to change how we teach today.”

They recognize that they don’t always have to agree on everything.  

“There is a value for students in hearing different perspectives and different life experiences that go into why we say what we do and why we teach what we do,” says Riecke. “This allows us to quickly get feedback and develop things together. And you need a really good fit, you need a partner you absolutely trust.”

Ultimately, the two want to deepen the students’ ability to use VR for designing meaningful user experiences they would not otherwise have.

“The technology is getting more and more powerful,” says Riecke, “but often the stories, the narrative, the meaning and the depth is lagging a little bit behind. Kind of like the first movies that came out—where you just watch people lighting a cigar, or a train coming in. I think where we really want to push people is bringing all that we know from other disciplines like theatre, film or gaming into this realm. Because there aren’t really that many design guidelines yet on how to design for this medium.”