Stanford launches first class taught completely in virtual reality

Dec. 1, 2021, 8:22 p.m.

Communication professor Jeremy Bailenson has formatted his class COMM 166/266: “Virtual People” to take place in virtual reality (VR) after 20 years of teaching the subject and seeing the technology develop. It is the first class set entirely in VR in Stanford’s history.

“We live in a time where virtual reality is rapidly expanding its roles in how we work, play and communicate,” said music professor Ge Wang when he introduced Bailenson and first-year communication Ph.D. student Cyan DeVeaux as this month’s presenters at the Art and Tech Salon, a speaker series devoted to bringing together students and professors from across campus disciplines.

When planning the class, Bailenson took a gamble on whether VR software and technology would be advanced enough in time for him to teach it as a summer course. The software the class ended up using, ENGAGE, became ready in late May, just in time to run the course in the Summer. ENGAGE is a virtual meeting platform that provides tools for students and teachers to build and interact in virtual environments. 

DeVeaux, who is a teaching assistant for the class, described how VR allows people to imagine the impossible, adding that the teaching team tried to incorporate that tenet into the curriculum. Class assignments include participating in a guided meditation in outer space, creating a performance with different avatars and building a unique scene.

“The only limitation to this assignment was a student’s own imagination,” DeVeaux said, referencing the scene-building assignment.

Bailenson and DeVeaux had to budget hardware expenses, find a platform to host the class and create a new curriculum that utilized the advantages of teaching a class in VR. They decided to embrace the flipped classroom method, where students do readings over the weekend in preparation for interactive lessons the following week. Class sessions were also limited to 30 minutes to avoid simulator sickness, a subset of motion sickness that can be caused by VR devices.

Another concern the class had to navigate was privacy. Bailenson made a deal with Facebook to allow students to use fake accounts in order to protect their privacy while using their University-provided headset from Oculus, a subsidiary of Facebook’s parent company Meta.

To assess when VR is the appropriate medium to use as a teaching tool, Bailenson and the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, of which he is the founding director, created a model: “Dangerous, Impossible, Counterproductive and Expensive” (D.I.C.E.). For example, VR allows educators to teach things that would otherwise be too dangerous, like traveling to the middle of the ocean, or too expensive, like viewing cities around the world.

The course is part of a study that the Virtual Human Interaction Lab is running on education in virtual spaces. They are interested in studying people in VR over time and evaluating how people adapt their behavior to virtual environments. Over the course of the two classes taught over the summer quarter and this fall, Bailenson and DeVeaux were able to collect over 3,000 hours of data.

Bailenson and DeVeaux are hoping that the data collected from the course will spur discoveries in behavioral adaptation to VR environments and continue expanding the ability of educational VR.

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