Disclosure: South Carolina State University is an HP customer and has received loaned and/or donated equipment from HP.
Creative approaches to funding and supporting virtual reality projects can help launch an initiative and seed additional projects.
Founded in 1896, South Carolina State University is one of the 19 Historically Black universities that were included in the 1890 Land-Grant Institutions Program. Located in Orangeburg, South Carolina, SCSU enrolls approximately 3,000 students in affordable and accessible quality baccalaureate, master's, educational specialist, and doctoral degree programs. Through instruction, research, technology, and service, the SCSU contributes to economic development, enhances the quality of life of citizens, and prepares highly skilled, competent, and socially aware graduates.
As a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), South Carolina State University (SCSU) has a smaller capacity to deploy new technologies than that of some major universities. That hasn't deterred Barbara Adams, executive director of the Institute for Business, Environment, Communications and Transportation (BECT), from leading the movement to offer virtual reality (VR) to faculty as a tool for enhancing student learning and research opportunities at SCSU. And because current students will be joining the workforce in the next few years, she also sees VR as an opportunity to expose students to new ways that technology is being used, as well as to offer virtual hands-on training in a variety of fields, so students will be able to take more than just theoretical knowledge with them when they graduate. Adams hopes introducing technology like VR to faculty and students will help SCSU stand out and provide an incentive to attract students to campus.
Initially, half a dozen faculty members approached Adams with interest in using VR for teaching or research purposes, and Adams was able to secure headsets and workstations as part of a grant from HP to help provide HBCUs with opportunities to test the hardware. However, once initial conversations indicated the cost and the need for specialized skills in programming and development to create a VR project, many faculty members shied away from creating their own VR applications. None of the projects gained traction until Judith Mwakalonge, associate professor of transportation engineering, identified an opportunity to have her students develop VR scenarios of how pedestrians use crosswalks. Two other projects are also in the works, focusing on students' responses to virtual simulations of events, one in the field of criminal justice and the other in health care, but these projects are still in the earlier stages of development and could not be included in this case study.
VR presents an important opportunity for researchers like Mwakalonge because, as she puts it, "We are working on safety research, and oftentimes we cannot test out a variety of scenarios due to liability issues. With VR we can do a multitude of experiments or scenarios and be able to assess how the users respond; then we can decide on the best way to implement things in the real world. I love research, and with this technology I'll be able to conduct more research to help solve real-world problems." If the work of Mwakalonge and the other initial faculty proves successful, Adams hopes to bring VR opportunities to various other colleges and courses across the university.
Adams and Mwakalonge approached their respective goals with different methods. Adams had to consider budgets and the needs of the various faculty who would want to use and develop their own VR projects. For SCSU, finding a vendor that fit the university's budget wasn't possible, so she had to look for another solution. As VR has continued to gain popularity, software solutions are now available that offer prebuilt environments and resources that institutions can use to create their own in-house VR projects that cost much less than developing a custom application with a vendor; however, the drawback is that you are limited to what those solutions provide unless you have existing staff or students with the right computer science skills to develop and maintain a VR project. But to enable VR access on campus, Adams thinks purchasing a software solution to bypass vendor development costs will encourage the creation of more projects by faculty and students.
On the research side, Mwakalonge took a more project-focused approach for the pedestrian-safety research. She identified four students ready to put in the work to develop the custom VR project they will need for their research, and Mwakalonge directed them conduct a full literature review on VR software development to help identify the steps and goals they'd need to bring the project to fruition. They also spent time with the equipment, seeing how the headset and workstation function to determine what, if any, additional resources or equipment they'd need for their project. In the end, they decided to use free Python-based software online to build their project from scratch, but they did need some extra equipment: two 360-degree cameras for creating a digital twin of the real-world locations in which they wanted to test their research scenarios.
All this groundwork being laid by Adams and Mwakalonge is helping support SCSU's mission to provide more opportunities for students to gain skills and competencies with new technologies so they can be part of tomorrow's dynamic workforce. At the institutional level, Adams is learning how to guide future faculty in using VR for their classrooms or research. And at the individual research level, Mwakalonge is building the infrastructure to expand future transportation operations and planning research. Down the line, they will be able to build and test myriad virtual transportation engineering scenarios, giving an opportunity for input and experimentation of designs before any riskier and more resource-intensive real-world tests need to be developed.
Outcomes and Lessons Learned
If building a VR project in-house, a dedicated person or team is necessary. At SCSU, there was little university budget available to help faculty develop VR projects, and this is not unusual. Costs of development can be prohibitive for VR projects, but Mwakalonge had a specific project in mind and students ready and willing to learn and work to develop what they needed. After weeks of background reading and development, the students gained an intimate knowledge of the project and software they were using. Importantly, the knowledge gained by the students is not easily transferred to others while they're still developing the infrastructure of digital twins of real-world locations. Once they've gotten all the groundwork laid, with multiple environments and digital assets created, they will be able to focus more of their time on teaching other students and faculty how to develop their own VR environments and assets.
Look to grant funding to help alleviate the costs of development. Even with student and faculty work to help develop VR projects, it might not be possible to create a project without some additional funding for more developers, software, or hardware. Adams and several of the faculty members are applying for grants to help build out future projects. For an under-resourced institution or program, grants can help alleviate some of the cost burdens associated with VR project development. And since VR is still an up-and-coming technology awaiting more widespread adoption and requiring more research about its efficacy, many groups are offering grants to pursue projects using VR.
Where to Find Funding for XR at Your Institution
Reach out to peers to learn the steps and requirements of new technologies. Another way to ease the costs of time and money of investing in new technology is to learn from the work done by peers. Both Adams and Mwakalonge have reached out to peers at other institutions to learn how they deployed their VR technology, especially what lessons they learned and what pitfalls to avoid. One of the great benefits of working in higher education is the camaraderie and the willingness to freely share experiences to help improve each other's work. As VR technologies, vendors, and resources continue to grow and evolve, other people working in this space will have knowledge and recommendations they can share that might fill the gaps and help with issues that arise during project development. Institutions in the earliest stages of VR implementation should explore what other institutions are doing and reach out to see what guidance or assistance they might be able to provide.
Create a communication strategy to garner interest and develop project plans. One thing Adams wishes had been done better was communication and planning for faculty interested in using VR technology. Although the first email informing faculty of the opportunity led to some early interest, the lack of a request for proposals and more detailed requirements slowed progress on the development of actual plans. VR can bring a lot of initial excitement because it's such an exciting and interactive technology, but planning and setting realistic pedagogical goals, while also understanding the costs of development, is essential to developing a grounded and reasonable project. Extra time used to plan and build a knowledge base about potential projects will be well spent.
Where to Learn More
- Big ideas on XR in education at Starmark
- XR resources at ClassVR
- XR reports from the Arts Management & Technology Laboratory
- Jeffrey Pomerantz and Randy Rode, "Exploring the Future of Extended Reality in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review, June 29, 2020.
Barbara Adams is Executive Director of the Institute for Business, Environment, Communications and Transportation at South Carolina State University.
Judith Mwakalonge is Associate Professor of Transportation Engineering at South Carolina State University.
Sean Burns is Corporate Researcher at EDUCAUSE.
© 2023 Barbara Adams, Judith Mwakalonge, and Sean Burns. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.