DePaul classes adapt to online learning with tech

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Eric Henry

DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus.

Some classes at DePaul are zooming past normal standards of virtual learning. A Discover Chicago class used virtual reality to acquaint freshmen with the city and their peers. 

Bree McEwan, a professor in DePaul’s College of Communication, taught her honors Augmented Chicago class with virtual reality headsets this past fall quarter. 

McEwan and her colleague Paul Booth used a grant they received prior to the pandemic to launch the Virtual and Augmented Reality in Communication Lab. As McEwan’s class is location specific, it was a perfect opportunity for students to experience Chicago for themselves without being in-person. 

“So I thought, well, I do have this grant and we’re kind of stuck in not being able to use that money for building out the lab the way we were thinking originally. So what could we do?” McEwan said. 

According to a press release from DePaul Newsline, McEwan delivered 23 headsets to students in the Chicago-land area and shipped the rest to students who were pursuing her course out of state. McEwan’s class was primarily taught on Zoom for a few weeks until students received their headsets. Common Hour and other parts of the class were also conducted on Zoom. She used the HTC Vive focus plus headsets to teach the class. 

The class consisted of different activities, while still maintaining parts of the course on Zoom. 

Students had their own avatars, sat in a stadium setting for class, built 3D-models and interacted with each other in small groups. 

McEwan brought in guest speakers including Matt Wren, the president of the Chicago Chapter of the Global Association of VR (Virtual Reality) and AR(Augmented Reality). Since Wren lives close to McEwan, she was able to bring him a headset so he could log into the classroom. The Chicago Quarter Mentor for the class also had a headset. 

The designers of the Vive sync space also came in and explained to students how the headsets were made along with engaging in discussion about what they like and don’t like about the experience. 

“They actually came in because they were very interested in what we were doing at DePaul and using their space,” McEwan said.

McEwan pointed out how her class focuses on contested knowledge and how to create knowledge. She explained that VR can immerse you in something different from reality as known. 

“The fun thing about VR is like, we’re literally changing your world, right? We’re literally immersing you in something that’s a completely different reality,” McEwan said. 

Based on student feedback, McEwan explained that they liked that they felt they were present with others and being able to move their avatars around and “sit” next to who they wanted to. 

Other students at DePaul spoke to The DePaulia on other programs that are being used in classrooms aside from Zoom. 

Cody Cwik, a senior at DePaul, studying Economics and Management Information Systems, explained the benefits behind his computer science class using Discord

“It’s nice because it’s easier for multiple people to share their screens if they need help with their code,” Cwik said. 

Cwik also mentioned that Discord’s chat function makes it easier to pose questions and ask classmates for help outside of Zoom and discussion boards. 

Natalie Walsher, a senior majoring in Education, said that teachers should be using interactive platforms like Nearpod and Pear Deck for classes. 

“I’ve had a teacher use that in one of my special ed classes and it helps get more of a response from students,” Walsher said about both softwares for her courses.

McEwan said she hopes to expand the VR space to other classes, namely her communication and technology graduate course. 

McEwan said that learning through virtual reality can go beyond distant learning purposes. 

“I mean, it’s all distance learning now, but what if we used this for distance learning, to bring people together who are all over the world, is a potential way of doing this,” McEwan said.