The IRL Reality of Virtual Reality Biology Class
A partnership between Arizona State University and Hollywood brings metaverse learning to life
Biology students may soon find themselves spending less time in traditional lab-based classes and more inside virtual reality pods. While engaging with the life sciences through VR sounds like a cool-some-day educational application of the metaverse concept, it’s not so far off.
At Arizona State University, the future is now—and it looks like Dreamscape Learn.
A next-generation learning approach, Dreamscape Learn (DL) is a partnership between ASU and Dreamscape Immersive, a VR entertainment and technology company cofounded by film producer Walter F. Parkes (Gladiator, Men in Black). The technology was first used to create experiences in malls, not so dissimilar to the multiplexes that, once upon a time, were as common in shopping centers as the Gap and Orange Julius. Dreamscape Immersive visits, which cost $20 a ticket, began in an airport lounge-themed waiting area. Soon, up to a half-dozen visitors outfitted in VR computer bodyware entered a vibrating-floored “pod” area where they spent 15 minutes in titles like Lavan’s Magic Projector: The Lost Pearl and Alien Zoo.
In 2020, Michael Angilletta, President's Professor and Associate Director of Learning Innovation in the School of Life Sciences, began integrating DL into ASU's biology curriculum. That work includes the development of curriculum modules with help from Dreamscape Immersive storytellers.
One of those modules is a virtual environment called Alien Zoo, described in the December 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine as an immersion into a new world. “Inside the pod, as your avatar,” Jennifer Kite-Powell writes, “you’re working in a virtual laboratory with a plethora of fictional animal species that function based on biological laws. You can explore, discover, observe, and experience numerous hands-on problem-solving tasks that you can’t dream of or do within a traditional classroom.”
Fifteen months later, hundreds of ASU biology students are utilizing DL, their reactions surveyed for a study on the veracity (and enjoyment) of the experience. The DL initiative is also burnishing ASU’s reputation beyond the classroom. In 2021, U.S. News & World Report ranked the university as the nation’s most innovative for the seventh year in a row, beating out prestigious competition like MIT and Stanford.
To learn more about Dreamscape Learn and its broader application and impact, The Elective spoke with Angilletta along with Lisa Flesher, who helps guide unique, technology-enhanced projects at ASU as chief of Realm 4, Project Acceleration, which she describes as an “education through exploration” initiative.
Michael Angilletta (left), Lisa Flesher (right)
Michael, how did you get involved in the Dreamscape Learn initiative?
Michael Angilletta: I got involved at the very beginning when the partnership that formed Dreamscape Learn was created between Dreamscape Immersive and ASU. University president Michael M. Crow called me in—because I had done some work with other companies on VR—and asked if I would work with them building the first VR immersive biology course for introductory biology students. Subsequently, they created a title for me—Associate Director of Learning Innovation within my school of life sciences—that enables me to focus full time on that.
You’ve been at ASU since 2010. Tell me about the growth of the School of Life Sciences, its move into the digital space, and its involvement with virtual reality projects.
Angilletta: The growth has been enormous. When I first arrived, I think we were in the low 2000s in the number of students. Then, in about 2014, I took over as the Associate Director of Undergraduate Programs. At that point, we were maybe in the low 3000s. While we've continued to increase the number of on-campus students, the big growth, and what really doubled our enrollment within a few years, was our building out an online program. There was a real opportunity that ASU could and should capitalize on being a school that's known for innovation. So we took up that challenge and created an online biology program.
We thought it was very important that it allowed students to do all their courses online, even the labs. That was the big challenge. We also wanted to ensure it earned students a BS, not a BA. Other schools had online biology degrees online that led to a BA, but that is I guess what we consider the watered-down version of the curriculum—it excludes a bunch of courses that are not required for the BS, which probably were viewed as difficult to do in an online setting. The big ones are the labs, where students often come to campus and do experiments. These experiments can be dangerous, or involve expensive equipment, or are just technically very difficult. So how do you replicate this kind of experience at home?
The first thing we did was ask ourselves, "What is the actual learning outcome? What are the learning goals that we desire for a lab? Do we do these labs because it's an historical artifact of how we do things? Do we just keep doing it that way? Have they changed? Do we do these labs for a particular reason?" Then we started to think, "Well, if we do them for a reason, can we recreate a situation where students can get these same learning outcomes in a different environment?"
A virtual environment is one that ended up being the direction we went. There's lots of solutions for this. If you want to do a lab course where you come to a class and normally dissect things, you can mail students a bunch of specimens and they can dissect them in their kitchen. But if you want to do cell biology or you want them to get familiar with a piece of equipment where that's an important outcome, you want to create a virtual situation where they can do those same things. It turns out for many of the things we want students to do, they're not really tied to specific experiments. It's just the idea of learning how science works as a process. And as you get to the higher levels, the more specialized courses, it becomes more and more important to be familiar with specific techniques or specific concepts that are very specialized. That's where the virtual environment allows you to do things that you can never even do on campus.
For example, in our physiology class, we have students who are able to enter VR, go to Antarctica, capture a Weddell seal—which is a species that dives for long periods of time in very cold waters—and study the physiology virtually, like a field researcher would do it if they actually were in Antarctica. That kind of thing made us realize VR could unlock a lot of potential to do things, and we should get better at figuring out how to use that tool.
A rendering of the Dreamscape Learn experience.
Lisa, what was your view on that move into virtual reality?
Lisa Flesher: Generally, when we're talking about bringing VR into education, I just feel super excited about it. I think we are bringing up a generation of youth and young adults that will have some sort of expectation of this in a lot of ways. They spend so much time in games or in Oculus and other home headset devices—this is just a modality that they're enjoying, that they're seeking. Similar to how cellphones became such a norm, I think we're going to see more and more VR-type and 2D and 3D experiences becoming a norm and being expected.
Education can often fall behind on technology, so figuring out now how we can begin to weave VR into our biology curriculum, and then many disciplines beyond, I think it's just an intelligent move. We're a bit ahead of the curve and I'm so excited to see us roll that out—and even more excited to see how it builds engagement and affinity with the content.
Can you speak to ASU using innovation as a driver for the kind of growth Michael described at the School of Life Sciences?
Flesher: You have to be innovative to compete in this space. But, also, we enjoy it. So being number one in innovation for seven years in a row—it's because we seek out these things that feel abstract and hard to accomplish, and sort of out of this world. We have to be thinking of those sorts of crazy things that engage new learners, engage different modalities.
At some point years ago, we were mainly focused on our campus-based students. We have 90,000-plus campus listings. But in the last 10 years we have really brought up our ASU online population to about 80,000 students. After that, we started expanding into massive, open-scale platforms: edX, Coursera, some different partnerships we've had there. As we keep evolving, we're trying to think of new ways and new innovations to meet every learner, whether they’re seeking a full degree or other skills and credentials if they already have a degree. So it's critical for us to think of new and innovative ways of teaching and engaging various learners, and we've really pushed ourselves to stay ahead of that curve.
Tell me about the involvement of Walter F. Parkes in Dreamscape Learn and how it fits into that work.
Flesher: Walter Parkes, famous Hollywood movie producer, at some point spun off from that and started the VR company Dreamscape Immersive. These experiences are in malls and storefronts, and it's kind of similar to seeing a movie. You go book a VR experience, and it's a fun evening outing. They’ve had some really great successes as an entertainment medium.
At some point, President Crow met Walter. He had gone through a couple of the Dreamscape Immersive experiences, but Alien Zoo specifically caught his attention: "We could literally teach biology off this, today. This is great." He loved Walter's narrative, Hollywood storytelling spin. If we could merge that with the excellent pedagogy that we have at ASU, he thought, we could create something pretty cool, amazing, exciting, cutting edge. So they agreed to partner, and we're doing just that.
It has been fun. Walter's not somebody that's just a C-suite executive at the company. He’s in the day-to-day. He's helping us build these biology assets. He's bringing his incredible background and expertise in this industry to what we're doing. It has been really, really fun to see his magic at work, especially combined with the brain that Mike brings from the biology perspective.
Michael, what is the latest on the development of Dreamscape Learn biology curriculum modules?
Angilletta: We're still building those and testing a number of them with hundreds of students in two classes: a non-major biology class and a major biology class. It's kind of an R&D cycle. As Lisa said, Walter Parkes is incredibly immersed in every aspect of this business. I meet with him personally to learn how to tell stories and to combine my knowledge, as well as my colleagues’ knowledge, of biology with his knowledge of storytelling and that of his creative executives. Then we meet with creature artists who create new and strange biological forms that don't exist. You imagine what could exist on another planet and try to design them in a way that makes sense from a biological standpoint for what we know about Earth. Then we meet with developers who do the VR development, and it's a back and forth. It's a constant collaboration amongst all these people and it has been really exciting.
As we develop one of these modules, we almost immediately start to test it. We started out with small pilot tests of a group of students that we bring in and incentivize—we pay $50 to participate in a study, like you might do when you're trying to get preliminary information on any product. Then we move to a classroom study of one of the first modules that we finished. Then we moved to another larger study this semester, where we randomized students between two treatment groups. Now we have hundreds of students in one group. They're doing the same labs as usual, and hundreds of students in another group are doing these new labs we developed for Dreamscape Learn. We'll continue to do this sort of iterative rollout.
A look inside the lobby area of Arizona State University's Dreamscape Learn classroom experience.
But at the same time, we go back revise the modules that are "done." They're never done. That's a really interesting thing about this, as opposed to movies. Walter is the kind of person who's always making notes for improvement about movies he's already made, but you can't change the movie. The movie is the movie. With this sort of thing, we're going to revise and try to improve these VR experiences over time based on how students experience them, what students say about them, and whether students learn from them.
Lisa, what is the procedure for students engaging with the Alien Zoo DL experience?
Flesher: For the biology lab, students sign up via their Canvas shell, which is the learning management system, and come at whatever time works for them. When they show up, there's a screen monitor that has their name, they check in, and then they wait for their show to begin—we call it a show just to have that fun language around it. They go in groups of 12. They're sitting in four groupings of three students per group. They gear up, they put on the headset and the hand trackers. Once they're rendered in the experience, they can see and talk to their peers around them. As they continue through the experience, they get to go at their own pace. As they progress on, there's probably a little bit less interaction with their peers in case they're at different parts of the experience, but they are able to talk to one another throughout all of it.
It's usually about a 10-minute experience, roughly. Some are nine, some are 12, but somewhere in there. There's a series of six modules, and each module has three acts, sort of a beginning, middle, and end to the story. The students come back multiple times, roughly nine times throughout their semester; it's almost weekly that they're engaging with this VR experience. They then take those learnings back out to go into lab and really dig in, forming hypotheses, and doing the rest of the activities and interstitial work in preparation for the next time that they go into virtual environment.
How many ASU biology students have experienced this?
Flesher: Biology 181 is one of the intro classes for our Biological Sciences majors, and Bio 100 class, which is for non-majors and just a science quantitative fulfillment. They’re also using Dreamscape. In Bio 181 there are roughly about 700, 750 students enrolled at the beginning, and we have lots of drops and adds and different things throughout the semester. There are about 100 students in Bio 100 and that entire class is in Dreamscape.
But it’s important to note that only half of those students in Bio 181 are going through the Dreamscape experience; for the other half it’s business as usual. We wanted to be able to do a true research comparison study on the learning outcomes, and if students enjoy learning from how it was previously taught versus how we are teaching it with the inclusion of Dreamscape Learn. So there are about 750 students this semester that are going through in our kind of beta testing of this in those two courses.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from students? So many get to campus with a lot of experience with high-quality gaming systems.
Angilletta: So far, it’s very positive. We have everybody do a survey when they leave the VR pod about what they thought. The vast majority are saying “very good,” “excellent.” But ask yourself: What are they rating, and how are they experiencing it relative to your idea about video games? This isn't really a video game in the sense that most students actually have played 2D video games. In the gaming industry, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent developing a video game where you have all kinds of options, an open world, and the graphics are incredible on a 2D computer screen. This is different, and it's not going to scratch the same itch. But it's going to scratch an itch they didn't know they had had, because most users have not been in VR. I think the vast majority of students that come into these pilots, this is their first VR experience.
VR is a very different experience than a video game for a number of reasons. But I think graphically for VR, this is a very high-level VR. I’d argue it’s better than much of what I've seen. It's a world where you can go in two times and see very different things—depending on where you're looking right at that moment, you're going to see something different. It wraps all around you. Students really love that aspect.
But the other thing about it is it's very narrative-driven, and everything is designed just like a movie and to keep you engaged in the story. The difference here is that you are part of the story. You're given the illusion of agency, the idea that you could somehow participate and change the story through your action. Even though, of course, in a good story, there has to be a particular outcome for all or else it would potentially not be a great story for some students. So the balance is in creating an experience that gives them something they didn't expect from video games, where they get the strong narrative and it also completely immerses them in that narrative and they feel like they're acting within it.
Flesher: To Mike's point, we have a paper survey that goes out immediately once they finish their pod lab experience. We're just asking the Likert scale of how that went, if there's any motion sickness, just some key questions right when they leave that will be better captured if they immediately answer. There are also some questions about how they enjoyed the experience, and we're seeing really, really, really promising results.
But that is one tiny piece of the puzzle. The survey is more focused their enjoyment versus measuring the learning game. We'll have a much more comprehensive picture of the entirety this summer. But we at least know that a high percentage are rating it excellent and very good in terms of enjoying learning this way.
A rendering of the Dreamscape Learn experience.
Michael, how do you think VR learning will impact students who go into biology or life sciences-related fields?
Angilletta: There are two groups of students I might speak about. One is the students that go off to do the kinds of things that scientists do and were trained the way I was. If I look back on my training—and this is not just to be a biologist, but maybe any kind of scientist—I did not find learning from a textbook to be very useful once I became a scientist, or even in graduate school when I trained to become a scientist. What was useful was focusing on specific problems for which there were no solutions and being asked to figure out what data were needed to come up with some ideas, then to evaluate those ideas experimentally, and then to draw some conclusions. If you're lucky, and you're successful in science, those conclusions have meaning: for policy, for corporate decisions, for the public.
You can't teach that from a textbook. That requires practice and feedback on your performance and training in a way that you're solving problems. You can't learn problem solving or quantitative reasoning unless you’re solving problems and reasoning quantitatively. That's the kind of thing that's missing from a large part of higher education. We say we want these things, we want students to think critically, but we don't explicitly teach it.
This VR way of learning, I hope, will prepare students because what they're doing is discovering and solving problems in this novel world. These problems, although realistic, they can't Google the answers because they're presented in ways that are alien to them. They're literally about alien organisms. The only way for them to solve the problem is to actually get engaged and do the work. And we hope that the fact that it's a narrative drives them to be emotionally connected to these creatures. In the story they're basically college interns in an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary, and their responsibility is to protect these species that are endangered from all over the galaxy. If you’re emotionally connected to a species that's the last of its kind, hopefully you're interested in doing the work, learning what you need to know, and acquiring very specific skills along with very generic ones.
What we're explicitly teaching, I think, is a much more valuable, transferable outcome than all the knowledge in any textbook, most of which is being constantly rewritten and is only there because of historical contingencies. We're in a rapidly evolving world, and that group of students, I hope, will benefit from this way of learning.
The other group is the people who are going to go out and become teachers. We generally approach teaching in a way that is probably a century old. You go to a lecture hall, someone tells you what they know, you leave and do some homework, and you come back and someone tells you what they know again for an hour. It's an outdated way to teach and engage with students. So I'm hoping what we'll see is that people will realize, "Hey, there are other ways to learn where I don't have to sit back and hear about what other people know or what other people have discovered. I can learn by making my own discoveries in real time as a student."
Lisa, do you see this sort of immersive learning approach spreading to other schools at ASU?
Flesher: I absolutely see us moving to other places. We're already moving into new content areas with other schools at ASU. Global Futures Laboratory, for example, which is sustainability, climate, and how we operate in the world, is the next content area that we're pursuing. As we get the learning outcomes from this semester, if we see any learning gains, whether they're minimal or even if our dreams come true and they're bigger, it would be hard for faculty members to not want to get behind affording these new technologies that help our students progress better through the content.
But we also have the intention of allowing this content that we build and these technology tools to be licensable by other institutions, whether K–12 or higher ed. We're trying really hard to build these VR assets to be age- and grade- agnostic and ensure all the surrounding curriculum to be very much age appropriate. So, for example, the biology assets we built would work very well in an 11th-grade biology class, a freshman in college biology class, or, if you created some higher-order Bloom's taxonomy and some deeper engagement activities, it could be used in a junior level biology class at ASU. We’re hoping to build that subset as a product that can be used across lots of grades and with different people.
What's your favorite Dreamscape Learn Alien Zoo creature?
Angilletta: I like the Ridgeheads. In VR, they look fantastic. You cruise into this little alien forest, and all of a sudden you'll see this thing just standing there. It almost looks like a tree; it's massive. Then it might bend over and take a bite. I just think they have cool head shapes. They're larger than an elephant but smaller than a dinosaur and they are herbivores, so they're not big and scary but just really, really impressive and weird looking. Walter Parkes has a saying, that goes something like, "The stranger the world, the more comfortable the chair." Things can't look so alien that students have no idea what they're doing. Everything has to have some sort of feel of, "It kind of looks like this to me, but it's not that," and I just like that particular creature. What do you think, Lisa?
Flesher: I think I'd pick the Spotted Glider. They’re super pretty and have amazing colors. I like the flying aspects and their wings.
Angilletta: That's in my top three, so I can't argue with that.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.