University of Tennessee, Knoxville, seniors weren’t sure what to expect from the next session of their capstone marketing course in the Haslam College of Business. They took in the view of a desert landscape as they watched their fellow students fill the class space, a futuristic-looking auditorium with Distinguished Lecturer of Marketing Mark Collins standing at the front.
These students weren’t on a field trip. They were in their apartments and dorm rooms, attending an experimental hybrid section of their marketing strategy class. Collins believes it to be the first UT class to use virtual reality as a regular format.
“It’s definitely the first one to build it into the pedagogy of the class,” said Collins, who directs the college’s Office of Technology-Enhanced Education. “Nursing has used some VR for particular modules or events, but this is the first class listed as such in UT’s timetable so students would know they were signing up for a class that was partially VR.”
Engaging Marketing Students in a New Way
VR technology has become common in fields like medicine, where training involves high risk or high price tags. But Collins was inspired by marketers who use the related technology of augmented reality, enabling users to view their physical surroundings through a phone or tablet and see computer-generated content such as a brand mascot seeming to appear in the space.
With the encouragement of Lane Morris, the college’s associate dean of undergraduate studies and student affairs, Betsy Adams, assistant dean of finance and administration, and Alex Zablah, marketing department head, Collins obtained Oculus Quest 2 headsets to interface with the VR platform Spatial, which provides high-quality audio and video and integrates easily with smartphones and Microsoft Office.
Collins enlisted the help of Alex Weber, a first-year MBA student from Lynnville, Tennessee, who won funding from the college’s fall 2021 Vol Court Pitch Competition for EVRLASTING, his business that makes VR recordings of weddings and other events. On the first in-person day of class, Weber gave a presentation about how to operate the equipment. Students checked out the units they would keep for the semester, signing a financial waiver and a liability waiver—the latter mainly for vertigo, which some users experience when wearing the headset.
For this hybrid section of the capstone marketing course, Collins planned for six or eight class sessions in the middle of the semester to be delivered through VR and the rest face-to-face. In the same semester, he taught another section of the course that was completely face-to-face. He said that while both sections achieved the required level of learning for the class, he believes the VR class absorbed the material at a higher level.
“Because it was so different, it made them focus and pay attention a lot more,” said Collins, who makes a clear distinction between VR and other types of remote learning. “The interaction and engagement by the students in VR is night and day compared to if we only had met on Zoom. Part of it, I’m sure, is the fact that they’re an avatar, so they don’t feel that self-consciousness.”
“Having an avatar makes the classroom experience feel personal and like we are all in the room together but also makes it less intimidating,” said Bridgette Liederbach, a senior marketing major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Like most of the other students in the class, she’d had no previous experience with VR. “Zoom sometimes makes me uncomfortable to have my camera on and [unmute] because I know everyone will see my face pop up on their screen, but using Spatial makes talking in class easier.”
Potential for Teaching across Disciplines
For future sections of the course, Collins wants to take the entire class on a virtual field trip to a store, using VR footage of retail aisles that Weber has already shot.
“I want to stand there with them in front of that and say, ‘OK, what’s happening here? Why are there 13 different types of Cheez-Its?’” he said. “Then we can go down the aisle and see how the competitors are reacting, and what they’re doing that kind of matches up with what Cheez-It did.”
Other business faculty members have approached Collins about the feasibility of using VR in their courses, and he is enthusiastic about the possibilities, especially as more units, apps, and software become available at lower price points. While he doesn’t yet recommend teaching full courses exclusively through VR, he imagines financial reports in which students could pick up information and place it where it belongs, or a VR supply chain where they could identify and manipulate bottlenecks.
“Across all disciplines, there are moments where we want the students to understand something at a really deep and meaningful level,” he said. “We can use VR to make that engagement and interaction happen. I can see using it in a focused short time span to keep it really powerful rather than just becoming the new normal.”
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