Developing the Pedagogy of Presence with XR, featuring Georgian College’s Rob Theriault

Rob Theriault has recently become Georgian College’s immersive lead, finding ways to employ XR technologies to enhance learning in various courses. He explains how faculties need to become innovation adopters if their students are to do the same.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance, and individualize learning for everyone. And today, my guest is a good friend from here in Barrie, Ontario, in Canada. Welcome Rob Theriault, an immersive technology lead from Georgian College. Rob has been a part of the paramedics program, and asked just most recently to start taking over a lot more of the technology at the college. Thank you so much for joining me today, Rob. I’d love to get right into it and learn about your story and your position in the college. So thank you so much for being here today.

Rob: Hi, Julie. It’s a pleasure. Thank you. You want some background?

Julie: Yeah, I would love that. Why don’t you do a bit of introduction?

Rob: Sure. I’ve been a paramedic for 36 years and teaching paramedics for the last 20. And I’ve always had a keen interest in educational technology. But I’m also a skeptic when it comes to technology. So I think educators would be wise to be somewhat skeptical and cautious about using technology, ensuring that it actually enhances learning or provides something new to learning. A couple of years ago, I introduced virtual reality into our paramedic program for patient simulation primarily, and that led to a conversation with our president and vice president of academic, who wanted to know where I thought virtual and augmented reality was going. So I told them that I felt that it needed some investment, that it needed some leadership. And surprisingly, they agreed, created a position and set out. So now I’m the immersive technology lead for the college. And my role is to communicate with the faculty, to engage in exploring virtual reality, engage in its potential pedagogy, and to see about integrating virtual or augmented reality into curriculum.

Julie: That’s amazing, because you’re really introducing this technology into multiple different courses. So maybe you can actually talk a little bit about Georgian College’s highlighted programs, because I know you and I have talked a lot over the past couple of years of knowing each other, and not every course can be put into these immersive technologies. You still need that one-on-one. So maybe do you want to talk a little bit about Georgian College’s programs, and then taking a look at all the programs, which ones could have this technology applied to them and the ones that couldn’t?

Rob: Yeah, I’m not sure about the ones that couldn’t. I’m not convinced of the fact they’re any– that would not be amenable to virtual or augmented reality. But cross that bridge when I come to it. So our architectural technology program has been using virtual reality for the last three years. They were the first at the college. And it’s a remarkable experience for students to be able to construct or design buildings from within the building, and have that spatial awareness and be able to test building materials in the process simultaneously. So they were the leaders in that area. And then we introduced it in the paramedic program. And I’m hoping to get funding to continue to use virtual reality in our advanced care paramedic program this fall. We’re going to be using a program that involves students resuscitating patients from cardiac arrest and with different abnormal heart rhythms. And the program we’re proposing to use employs artificial intelligence and voice recognition.

So essentially, the student stands in a virtual room with — for example — someone collapsed on the floor. And they’ve got a team of paramedics around them, basically, and each paramedic has a name tag on them. And the student just simply commands the avatars to do things. So the student might say, “Aaron, can you start chest compressions? William, can you start an intravenous line? Fatima, can you give a milligram of epinephrine?” So really quite a remarkable program. And what it also does is it tests your leadership skills and your situational awareness. So one of the avatars, for example, might be doing chest compressions and start to slow down, and people fatigue doing CPR after about two minutes. So the student has to be aware that that’s happening and prompt the the avatar to compress faster or deeper, or rotate them out and have someone take their place. So really excited about that program.

We’re also hoping to do some research around that particular virtual reality experience. Our indigenous studies program has a course this fall called Learning in the Home. They have a small cohort of ten students who will each have headsets. The headsets will be shipped to their home probably mid-September. And what we’ve done is we’ve constructed a house, a virtual house in Altspace VR, and we’re constructing a second one that can be brought in to any other platform, probably ENGAGE VR. And so what the students will do is they’ll go into the home and they’ll be learning language surrounding the home. So things in the house, like in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the bathroom, in the garage. And what I’ve done in Altspace VR is, I’ve built a house with objects that each have an info button next to. So when the student clicks on the info button, it’ll give them the Ojibwe word and the English word.

And there’s really good research to support context based learning. So you’re more likely to retain information if you’re within the context, or more likely to retain information about words and verbs and sentences in the home if you’re actually in a home, say in contrast with looking at a PowerPoint slide or reading a book. In the second home that we’re constructing, we’ve contracted a company to do this. It’ll have interactive objects, so students will be able to open a cupboard, open the stove, pick up a plate, pick up a bowl, and it’ll give them the Ojibwe word, the English word, and it’ll give them an audio file with pronunciation.

So, again, there’s research to support an even higher level of retention when you’re in context and you’ve also got interactive objects. So really excited about this. Our indigenous studies faculty are really enthusiastic about it, which excites me even more. So we’re looking forward to that. But the other thing that’s great about this pilot — and we do have funding for this pilot, so we are going ahead with it — is that not only will students be with their teacher in virtual reality and they’re probably going to do about 30 minutes to 45 minutes max per week in virtual reality with their teacher. But the students can go into those platforms any time they want, day or night. And they can have group discussions, they can just socialize, they can just explore the land, if you will. So that social aspect is so important now, especially under the current pandemic, where students don’t get to get together. So we’re excited about that program.

Julie: That’s awesome. What’s the response of the students when– well, I guess in their program itself, it would be, “you will have access to a VR headset.” Is there any kind of surprised reaction that you hear from students that they are starting to use this technology in their program?

Rob: Well, they haven’t heard yet, so… [laughs]

Julie: Oh, okay. [laughs] Surprise!

Rob: [laughs] Yeah. So they’re going to be finding out fairly soon. And so what I will probably do is meet with them and the instructor in the first week via PC, by a desktop computer. And so they get familiar with the platforms and like initially, and then we’ll ship the headset. So probably around a week four, and I’ll have to do an orientation with them to the virtual space, because — as you know — there’s a bit of a learning curve, especially if you’re in a spatial network like Altspace VR or any other one, where if your avatar — the character of the human body — is moving but your legs are not moving, the conflict between what your eyes see and your vestibular system creates some vertigo for some people. So I have to give them a little orientation on how to how to move, and what to do if you feel unwell, and how to reduce the incidence of cyber-sickness. So I’m guessing they’re going to be pretty excited. And I’m hoping that in addition to learning the language, I’m hoping that it actually translates into improved language learning and more enthusiasm for language. But I’m hoping it’ll also excite students about the idea of learning in virtual reality. Maybe some of them will even go into designing virtual reality in the future.

Julie: Yeah, I would love to actually do a part two on that as a use case study with you. Maybe in a couple of months we’ll jump back, and let’s see what the results of that class was and the return on experience. It would be great to understand how that implementation goes. Are there any other programs at Georgian College that you want to highlight, that you’ve put into place, where VR and AR are now a part of the program?

Rob: Yeah, so not yet. But again, we’re hoping to launch two of the pilots. One is in our biotech degree and the other is in our vet tech program. So in our biotech degree, there’ll be a cohort of about– there’s a large group of students, but we’re going to take small cohorts, because we really want to explore virtual reality with faculty and students on a small scale initially, just to get a sense of 1) is this a good experience? 2) Is it interactive and engaging? 3) Do the students enjoy it? 4) Does it translate into improved learning? We won’t know that until we do some research, and my plan is to launch a whole series of pilots and then maybe do research in a year’s time. With the exception of our paramedic program, where we’re hoping to do research this fall.

But in our biotech degree, students are going to be using a product called Nano, which is a multiplayer virtual reality system that enables students to look at atoms the size of a football or basketball or larger. So there’s a– they receive kind of a spatial awareness of what atoms and molecules look like, and they’re able to manipulate those molecules, they’re able to pull proteins out, proteins in. And it’s a product that’s familiar to scientists around the world. In fact, scientists around the world are using Nano to get a better understanding of novel viruses — like the novel coronavirus — and develop new drugs, synthetic antibodies, new vaccines, things like that. So this is really cutting edge learning technology, I’m really excited about it.

The students are also going to be — as far as we know — using Inspirit VR to run chemistry labs in virtual reality. And chemistry is a great subject area for virtual reality, when you think about it. So students can do their chemistry lab safety training in there, and they can do it on their own, or with the instructor, or a combination of both. And they can also conduct experiments that might otherwise be dangerous, but not so in virtual reality. So really excited about what they’re doing with biotech. In our veterinary technician program, we have a veterinarian who provides medical oversight for the program, and he’s really excited about what they’re going to be doing. So they’re going to be doing animal dissection in virtual reality and animal anatomy. And the anatomy program we are using is an open source anatomy program from Virginia Tech. So we took the product, we sort of branded a little bit with Georgian College and enhanced the menu process, and so really excited about doing that.

So those are the pilots. But we’re also looking really closely right now at hospitality, tourism, and fine arts. And the trades, the trades is a huge one, but we’re looking for content and we’re looking at the possibility of maybe putting out an RFP in the future, to develop some trades experiences in virtual reality that are high yield, high priority.

Julie: It sounds like there’s– every single industry is covered here. And it’s so great to hear that. Everything from hospitality to medical applications to veterinary to bioscience. And you touched on chemistry and Inspirit, who– their team is incredible, what they’ve put out. I’ve done an interview with them, as well. And it really does come back to sciences and how important sciences are in learning in general, and that critical problem solving and exploration and collaboration that happens in chemistry, to discover what’s possible. And that’s what we really need right now during this time of innovation. So while bioscience is already focused on chemistry, specifically, the whole premise of sciences really covers the skillsets needed to use this technology in every single industry.

Rob: Healthcare and trades are two particularly critical areas right now, especially healthcare in terms of hands-on experience, because a lot of hospitals have stopped taking medical students and nursing students temporarily, until they figure out how they’re going to address the personal protective equipment issue and infection control issues. And so we’re looking to do two things. One, to explore virtual reality to develop skills. And I sort of think of medical simulation in two categories. One is discrete skills, and the other is scenarios where students engage their higher order thinking and decision making. So in the discrete skills category, there are many, many, many nursing skills, paramedic skills, personal support worker skills, dental hygiene skills, for example. There could be maybe 15, 20 minute virtual reality experiences where they can repeat those skills over and over again. In fact, there may be opportunity for students to repeat those skills in virtual reality more frequently than they would otherwise in the lab, just because they’re competing with other students.

And some of these programs are more expensive and some content is a little bit lacking currently. But my hope is that eventually we’ll get nursing and other programs learning discrete skills, and that will translate into a sort of learning curve into better performance in the lab. And there’s good evidence to support that. In fact, there was a study recently this year, done with a group of second year medical students who were randomized to standard learning of a surgical procedure, which involved looking at a video and reading some text and looking at images, versus virtual reality training. And they found that the percentage of steps done correctly in VR compared to standard training was 63 percent versus 25 percent. And the knowledge retention in the VR group was 50 percent versus 11 percent. And that’s really– it’s a small group. I think there were like a cohort of 20. It’s a small study, but it’s really good initial proof of concept for skills development.

Julie: Absolutely.

Rob: Yeah, it’s incredible. And so that’s one of the areas that we need. And then I think a lot of the XR developers are really aiming at the full-out scenario type training, because not only does it target the fourth year nursing students and the third year paramedic students, but it targets working nurses and the respiratory therapist and physicians. So it’s a bigger market. So it makes sense for them to go after that market. But I’m having conversations with hundreds of companies around the world on a daily basis, and telling them sort of what our needs are at colleges and universities, and hoping they come through for us.

Julie: That’s great. So let’s shift over to where you mentioned. You have a couple of great professors that — like yourself — who are forward thinking. And I guess my question is, what kind of response did you get from Georgian College teachers in general, to kind of adapt to that remote learning, especially since we were forced to it through COVID. But now, is there a challenge in converting any teachers into this remote process that is going to change their course — literally — and in some of these courses that are being offered?

Rob: Definitely. So the transition to remote teaching has been a real struggle for a lot of faculty, who’ve never taught online before. I’ve been teaching online asynchronously and synchronously since probably 1999, and the transition is easy for me, but for a lot of faculty it hasn’t been. If I have a conversation with a faculty member who is in a program where I think virtual reality would be ideal, the response I’m getting now sometimes is “I’m just overwhelmed with what I have to do now. I can’t look at this stuff now. I mean, it’s exciting. I love it, but I just can’t do it right now.” So I have to take a little time and baby steps, and let them get used to remote teaching and then we’ll introduce virtual reality. But for the most part, faculty I’ve spoken to are really excited about it. And so what I’m doing is saying, “Look, you’re not ready for now, I totally understand. But let me get a headset into your hands and we’ll meet for 30 minutes, and I’ll show you what’s available in your program area and see what you think. Chew it over. Think about it. Maybe winter 2021 or the next fall, we’ll look at implementing it partially into the curriculum.” And so most people are excited by that.

But the risk with technology in early days — like today — is that you’ll get one teacher in one program, who’s really enthusiastic about it and launches it in the program. And then the next person who teaches that same course — maybe it’s part time faculty or full time faculty — just doesn’t have any enthusiasm whatsoever for virtual reality. And it dies. That’s a risk. So it’s going to be lots of peaks and valleys for the next five to ten years in the XR industry at school. That’s my prediction.

Julie: So one of the things that– and I’ve been in some consultations with other colleges and I’ve used Georgian College as an example of forward thinking, and basically a sign advising them to assign an immersive lead like yourself for the school, to become a champion for the technology. Maybe before we kind of close this conversation, maybe a little bit of advice to those colleges and universities out there that have not started this process, which a lot of them have now with remote teaching. And maybe they have a champion in this school that’s already thinking like you do. But from a very high level perspective, I guess, what is your advice to them to have them start to adopt this and try to implement it into an entire college or university system?

Rob: Yeah, baby steps, number one. [chuckles] Almost every college university has virtual reality in a lab of some sort. So they have some room, somewhere, where some techie people have some VR headsets, and faculty can go there and try them out. And that kind of closeted VR approach, in my opinion, never takes off. And when I first spoke with Georgian College about it, they wanted to put virtual reality in a room, in a building. And I said the only students who are going to go there are the computer students and the computer faculty. We have to get in a high traffic area, like the library. And if we’re going to start to generate some interest in virtual reality, we have to get faculty exploring it and trying it. And so they gave me the go-ahead to do that, which was great. So we’re doing small pilot, small student cohorts, maybe two or three programs at a time, and building up some understanding of it and exploration of it. And I think this is so important in the early days.

And just as you said, if colleges and universities can create a position like mine, someone who can help drive it and communicate with faculty and help them explore. I think that’s the key. And it’s important to explore for two reasons. Number one, we want to explore its pedagogical potential. “Do students actually experience enhanced learning?” And you think about how it’s being used now, if — as a student — I could go to historical sites to learn the history of that site or what battle took place on that site or what the Roman Empire was like, while standing in the ruins of what was formerly the Roman Empire, why would you ever teach in front of a chalkboard, a whiteboard again? I mean, that kind of context and experiential learning is just phenomenal. So I think faculty need to explore it, to see its true pedagogical potential. And I think it’s also thirdly critically important for faculty to communicate with developers of XR, to ensure that they have good instructional designers, who understand pedagogy and know how to make virtual reality or augmented reality a good learning experience. And I’ve seen some really good XR experiences that were impressive visually, but really weak pedagogically. I didn’t feel it was strong for student learning. So I think those three things are important.

Julie: Well, Rob, thank you so much for joining this XR for Learning podcast. I think when it comes to education, there’s so much to talk about, and there’s really so much to change the way that we’re learning and that we’re teaching. And from my perspective, I just wanted to let you know that I really admire you.

Rob: Thank you.

Julie: Your connection and network connection, not only here in Ontario, but online and through the networks as well. And just seeing how you’ve managed to lead Georgian College — well before COVID started — implementing this, I think that’s what really set your role and Georgian College apart from some of the other colleges and universities that I’ve seen. And I wanted to congratulate you on the hard work, because I know how much it has taken, to be able to implement this and not just from the software side, but you and I have talked several times about the challenges of hardware, which I think that could be another segment on this show. [laughs]

Rob: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Julie: But why don’t– I guess the best way if anybody wanted to reach out and maybe ask a quick question of advice to you, I guess the best place to reach you would be on LinkedIn, or if you want, you can share your email.

Rob: Sure, they can reach me on LinkedIn, for sure. That’s probably the easiest way. And from there I can share my email address, it’s probably easier than– or do you keep show notes, like a website with show notes?

Julie: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

Rob: Happy to share my email there. Or they can reach me on Twitter, @EdTechMedic.

Julie: That’s great. Well, thank you so much, Rob, for joining us today. And all the best in this next semester of 2020, where remote learning will– I don’t think will stop from here. It’s only going to improve and the learning experience is just going to get stronger and stronger. So really excited to do a part two with you one day, and learn about some of the pilot programs that you have.

Rob: Sure. Happy to do that. Thank you.

Julie: And thank you to the listeners for listening in on the XR for Learning podcast. Don’t forget to follow us on social media and share among your community, and friends and family to help learn about the different ways that teaching and learning, especially at the college and university level, are taking place. So thank you very much, everybody, for joining us. And thank you, Rob, for joining me today on the XR for Learning podcast.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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