Rabindra “Robby” Ratan receives the 2023 AT&T Excellence in Teaching with Technology Award for innovative use of online technologies for instruction at Michigan State University; launches new Victory XR Virtual Reality project.
Avatars, virtual reality and education
Robby Ratan, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Information, has expected to eventually use and study VR in a teaching context from the time he was a master’s student. In 2014, Ratan started a research stream with his students at ComArtSci, using avatars in a web-based discussion forum to facilitate student learning and enhance motivation.
Due to the initial costs of VR technology, however, it wasn’t feasible to use VR in the classroom until last year. Ratan was able to purchase enough headsets for his students to borrow from his Social and Psychological Approaches to Research on Technology-Interaction Effects (SPARTIE) Lab thanks to grant funding from Meta.
Ratan has been teaching courses through VR headsets since spring 2022. While many students and professors experienced “Zoom burnout” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ratan’s classes, Understanding Virtual Reality Experiences and Avatar Psychology, gave the perfect opportunity to pilot this new method of instruction.
Using Quest 2 headsets and the Engage VR metaverse platform, Ratan and his students meet for class in virtual worlds together — where Ratan says students feel less distracted and more engaged.
“Learning in VR can mean many things,” he said. “Most generally, it means immersing yourself sensorially to experience a sense of presence—feeling like you’re actually there—in a virtual environment.”
Ratan focuses on social VR, or being able to meet with others, within his classes. He notes that others (at MSU and elsewhere) focus less on the social, shared VR experience and instead use immersive content to augment learning outcomes — interacting with course content such as molecules or anatomy models.
Because certain things, like participating in a lab with specialized equipment, cannot be replaced or augmented yet, Ratan believes that for now, VR is best used as a tool for group discussions, or where educational materials have already been made to teach specific subjects.
AT&T Excellence in Teaching with Technology Award
In 2023, for the second time, Ratan is a recipient of MSU’s AT&T Excellence in Teaching with Technology Award. The annual awards program, generously funded by AT&T and facilitated by MSU IT, recognizes instructors who use technology to support student success and enhance their teaching with impactful, accessible and engaging practice. He also received the award in 2015 for Best Blended Course.
“Students in VR are less tempted to multitask on their computer screen because they are essentially stuck in the virtual environment,” Ratan said. “Of course, some people need to fidget, so I give them full license to teleport around, draw artistically in three dimensions, create little scenes of three-dimensional objects, or otherwise keep themselves mildly occupied while also participating in class discussion.”
In addition to creating an inclusive space for neurodiversity in academia, Ratan sees advances for other areas of equity and inclusion with VR. “There is great potential for avatars to reduce the emphasis people place on their potentially stereotyped identity characteristics, thereby allowing people to feel less beholden to those stereotypes. This has been a topic of research for me since I started my Ph.D.”
As for the students, Ratan says they generally seem to enjoy the VR experience. “It is a media literacy that they recognize will be very relevant to their future careers,” said Ratan.
Ratan’s first VR class was half in-person, half VR; his subsequent courses have all been fully remote. He acknowledges that transferring instructional content to a VR setting was “nontrivial,” but Ratan believes courses of any subject can use virtual reality to enhance instruction.
“Discussion based classes are best, but most any class can benefit from teaching with VR,” Ratan said. “If you can teach it through Zoom, you can teach it better in VR.”
VictoryXR VR project
This year, Robby Ratan is leading the charge to bring VR into more courses at Michigan State. In partnership with education metaverse company VictoryXR, six units across the university will receive up to five VR headsets and access to a large library of educational content. Additional headsets will be made available through the MSU library for student use.
Social technology company Meta has provided funding for headsets housed in the SPARTIE Lab, and Ratan said funds have been aggregated from the other participating units (Communication Arts and Sciences, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, College of Nursing, College of Natural Sciences, Department of Physiology) to receive the headsets and education accounts at a discounted rate.
Ratan is thrilled for ComArtSci to be on the cutting edge of this technology and a leader for other campus units to follow. He expects to spend the summer setting up the headsets in the library repository so that students may borrow headsets for their classes starting fall 2023. Ratan also plans to lead faculty workshops on teaching with VR each semester.
“This is very exciting because this type of technology will continue to get easier to use and more accessible across a variety of contexts, from education to industry,” Ratan said. “Our students will be better prepared for their future by learning to use this tech now. The metaverse is coming, and MSU students have an opportunity to start developing relevant media literacies.”