New extended reality initiative looks to improve learning, encourage interdisciplinary work

Thursday, September 26, 2019 - 2:59pm

Multi-year XR initiative brings technology to classes.

Multi-year XR initiative brings technology to classes. Buy this photo
Courtesy of ARI

University of Michigan Provost Martin Philbert announced a campus-wide extended reality initiative — an umbrella term for augmented, mixed and virtual reality technology commonly referred to as XR — last week. XR Initiative Director and University alum, Jeremy Nelson, said the technology will enhance learning both on campus and online.

“These are advanced technologies that allow you to experience different environments, different perspectives in a way that may be challenging to do if you're not able to travel somewhere or to see inside of an atom,” Nelson said. “It opens up lots of opportunities for expanding the learning experience for students and learners around the world.”

Nelson works in the Center for Academic Innovation, which is spearheading the three-year initiative. A new fund will support projects related to XR on campus.

The major academic goals of the project, he said, are to improve the quality of on-campus teaching through the use of XR and integrate XR into online curricula. Additionally, Nelson said the initiative was created in hopes of prompting public-private partnerships with the goal of developing new XR-related technologies.

Nelson said he has been working with professors across disciplines to increase the quality of education through XR. As an example of this, he noted a School of Nursing course utilizing XR to give students the opportunity to experience high-risk hospital situations without the actual risk.

“I would love to see really interdisciplinary engagement, so students from Engineering, students from Art & Design and architecture and humanities,” Nelson said. “It really brings different skill sets to the table to either build new content or curate these experiences. Building upon that expertise is what Michigan is known for. It’s really cross-discipline and interdisciplinary research and learning, and taking that to the next level in the student experience.”

The interdisciplinary goals for the initiative span beyond STEM, Nelson said. While he noted XR is typically associated with the technological and scientific fields, he said he sees opportunities for all disciplines to benefit from XR.

Specifically, Nelson said an English professor could use this technology to create a scene from a novel to show how the characters experience empathy. He pointed to this collaboration as one-way humanities scholars have used XR to improve education.

Currently, a team of University professors led by the School of Information are working on creating a graduate certification for XR technology. Nelson said there will be a fellowship for both undergraduate and graduate students to work on projects involving XR at the University.

Since 2018, the student-led Alternative Reality Initiative has been exposing students to XR. Nelson lauded the ongoing commitment of students already involved with this technology and said the initiative is building off their work.

ARI Vice President Matthew Kosova, Engineering junior, said he is excited to see how XR technology will change how classes are taught.

“Traditionally, students learn using 2-D outlets like textbooks and worksheets,” Zhang said. “Now, with XR technology, we’ll be able to learn not only with 2-D elements but also with 3-D representations of material that we're learning in 2-D.”

Business junior Michael Zhang, ARI president, said he hopes more people will use XR as the technology becomes more accessible in terms of ease of use and cost. Zhang also serves as president of the Inter-Collegiate XR, a community of school XR student organization leaders in 20 North American universities.

“The technology has reached a point where prices are becoming better and the hardware is becoming easier to use,” Kosova said. “Now, it’s up to a diverse group of talented creators to design new applications, design new use cases for this technology, and that's why XR technology essentially relies on the fact that there is a diverse pool of people using their respective backgrounds and interests to discover what are the future uses of XR technology.”

In the near future, Nelson said the initiative is planning an XR speaker series and hackathons to generate student interest. He said the new initiative supports the University’s role as a research institution as well as a commitment to enhancing the public good.

With the student work done in the past, Nelson said much of his work at the beginning stages of the initiative is to gauge the work that has already been completed on campus in the field of XR and looking for ways to bolster that work with the new resources from the initiative.

“I’’m spending this these early days understanding what work has already been done,” Nelson said. “Who are the people that are experimenting and experts in this space? What sort of resources do we have? What do we need? And helping pull that together and shine a light on all the great things already being done and how we take that to the next level as we go forward.”