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Virtual Reality Stars in Oral Roberts University Global Learning Center

Virtual and augmented reality allow students to experience learning, while telepresence brings students far away into the classroom.

Oral Roberts University, based in Tulsa, Okla., has a vision to educate people around the world.That vision moved closer to reality with the grand opening of a new Global Learning Center.

The university finished building the $8.5 million, 54,000-square-foot center in September 2016 and officially opened it on Jan. 11 after a soft launch in the fall. The Global Learning Center has an open architecture to provide flexibility in how students and professors use the space and includes three stories of classrooms, production studios, a virtual and augmented reality room, offices, a performance hall and conference rooms.

In particular, the center will use video recordings, along with virtual and augmented reality, to increase the university's global reach. Currently, Oral Roberts has 3,852 students, with 90 countries represented among the student body.

"It's the first time in 50 years where we're living behind our vision of reaching the world," said Michael Mathews, CIO and associate vice president of technology and innovation, who spearheaded the project.

The classrooms come equipped with infrared 360-degree cameras on the wall that swivel to follow and record professors as they teach. The videos are uploaded to the Desire2Learn enterprise resource planning system so students can watch the videos if they miss class or take classes from elsewhere.

"I can't think of any content in any kind of course that would not be well served by this technology," said Professor David Farnsworth. "It's amazing for us to bring our content anywhere around the world." 

Farnsworth teaches a Spanish phonetics and conversation class and will be able to record his videos in the fall while he teaches live in the center. That will allow Farnsworth to change the way he teaches in subsequent semesters. He's planning to have students watch the videos before class so they can spend class time doing hands-on activities. 

Robots display distance students' faces at the same height as other students in class, allowing faculty members to see and incorporate them into the lesson. With virtual reality technology, faculty can bring experts into the classroom in a way that feels more real as well. To support all this technology, the entire building has more than 60 wireless access points, two Internet connections from different service providers and new switches to make sure everyone can access the learning resources they need.

While a number of international students attend the university from far-flung places, including Nigeria, not everyone can be physically in the U.S. 

Jesupelumi A. Wickliffe, an MBA student and part-time employee in the IT department at Oral Roberts, is from Nigeria and knows the center helps fellow students who can't physically attend classes outside the country like he can.

With the high-tech center, "My friends back at home can get the same quality of education that you're getting here," he said.

Part of reaching the world also includes completely changing the learning experience for students. Oral Roberts University invested in the virtual and augmented reality software platform, built by EON Reality, a company that is at the nexus of the industry, education and entertainment space, according to Mathews. Students and professors can access about 8,000 learning objects in 3-D, and the university can develop its own virtual and augmented reality experiences on the platform.

In fact, Oral Roberts is offering a free one-year programming certificate for community members who want to go through a virtual reality academy. And Oral Roberts has its own virtual reality developer and project manager in Stephen Guzman, who graduated from the university.

The three-story building includes a virtual and augmented reality room where students and professors can walk into Icube, EON's multi-sided VR environment, which projects images onto three walls and the floor and includes sound. Combined with an eye piece (which doesn't go around users' head), Icube lets professors and students travel underwater to examine the structural compliance of an oil rig, walk into a car engine and go through a flight simulation, among other things.

"It brings the textbook to life more," said Nicholas Nation, a junior engineering student. "In the classes, we try to draw our 3-D stuff, and everything kind of gets lost when you're doing that, but here you can really experience it." 

Susan Olagoke-Daniel, a junior computer information technology student from Nigeria, added, "It's usually easier to learn stuff when you hear and see it and when you read it." That's why people tend to remember song lyrics from years before.

Students don't just have one room to go to on campus to experience augmented and virtual reality. Through an app on their smartphone, they can see images in 3-D and manipulate them. More importantly, students no longer have to struggle to learn something only on paper, and faculty can easily incorporate it into their teaching by talking through what everyone's exploring.

"We're not asking faculty to change anything," Mathews said. "We're asking them to actually embrace augmented/virtual reality as content for which they're experts at."