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ASU Sees Biology Grades, Student Ratings Improve With VR

Following the success of biology courses aided by technology from Dreamscape Immersive, Arizona State University is hoping to make more use of virtual reality for other course subjects moving forward.

Students in a classroom using virtual reality headsets.
Students participate in the Dreamscape Learn VR lab.
Photo courtesy of ASU
As AR/VR technology continues to improve for more classroom applications and enhancing instruction, more and more universities are making use of the emerging technology to make lessons immersive and engaging. Among them is Arizona State University, which enlisted the help of the entertainment and technology company Dreamscape Immersive to offer virtual-reality versions of biology courses.

According to ASU’s Associate Dean of Immersive Learning John VandenBrooks, the university began piloting VR biology lessons in spring of 2022 before rolling out the full-course versions for biology majors that fall. He said the VR technology has been used in ASU’s Bio 100 course for non-majors as well.

A digital rendering of a person wearing a VR headset while seated in a glass pod surrounded by plants and robots.
This rendering shows what the VR lab experience looks like for the user. (Image from Dreamscape Learn)
“The way that the technology is used is that it integrates virtual reality experiences with the curricular elements that go in between those virtual reality experiences. In biology, for every 15 minutes that the students are in virtual reality, there is a session that follows that where the narrative continues, and everything the student is doing is in service of solving a problem … It’s about giving students novel problems they care about solving that they can’t Google the answer to,” VandenBrooks said. “The final three-hour session is a summative assessment, where they then apply those skills back to real-world problems. Neither the VR [aspects] nor the curricular elements stand alone. They’ve been built in tandem.”

VandenBrooks said the goal of launching the Dreamscape VR initiative was to help address performance gaps in biology and overall student engagement, as well as to use VR technology to replace the wet labs traditionally used for activities like dissections.

“Each pod holds 12 students [with headsets] at a time, and we have two of those, so we can have 24 students at a time going through the experiences. And with those two pods, we get almost 3,000 students a week [going] through these experiences,” he said of the program’s current capacity.

According to VandenBrooks, the use of VR technology for biology lessons has so far been a success with students, both in terms of engagement and performance. Citing a recent ASU study on the Dreamscape VR initiative, he noted that students who went through Dreamscape Learn were 1.7 times as likely to get an A in their biology course than those who went through ASU’s traditional curriculum. The study also noted that students in the Dreamscape Learn courses had higher lab grades than those in the conventional course, with the median lab grade for students in Dreamscape Learn at 96 percent compared to 87 percent for traditional activities.

“Overall, they rated all the virtual reality [lessons] 4.5 or 4.6 out of 5, and we were really nervous that they might rate the early ones high and then it would wane over time, but they actually rated the last [lessons] even higher than the first, which meant it really had to do with how engaging we made these narratives and stories for the students,” he said.

VandenBrooks said ASU is looking to expand the initiative to launch VR courses in other subjects, such as chemistry, art history and space exploration. He said ASU expects to begin rolling out its first VR courses in chemistry next year.

“There are a lot of different ways to leverage this technology, and it’s not necessarily even STEM-specific,” he said. “We want to expand to as many fields as possible. I think the reality is there’s an infinite amount of things we could do, but we really want to start with where we make the biggest impact, in these very large general-education courses, both for majors and for non-majors.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.