Stanford students learning about VR while taking class in VR

by Guy Frum

What’s the only thing cooler for a college kid than learning about virtual reality (VR)? Actually being immersed in VR at the same time. That is what’s happening at California’s Stanford University in a new class called “Virtual People” where students are learning how to experience and manipulate a virtual reality environment in preparation for what many tech and business leaders feel is a likely future of collaboration - in digital environments that can somewhat pass for the real thing, and transport themselves to just about anywhere on Earth without taking a single step. 

Among the activities these first-semester students have already taken include floating in space looking down at the Earth with imagery provided by NASA and the International Space Station (ISS), ‘swimming’ in a coral reef in the Pacific Ocean to see the incredible diversity of life there, and even taken a walk through a crowded virtual environment as a person with a different skin color where programs are active to exhibit prejudice and let others experience what that can feel like in real life.
Several hundred students have participated in the class in the summer and fall semesters of 2021, all learning remotely with VR headsets and a pair of handheld controllers allowing them to move around each virtual environment. The class is actually quite old, but the VR innovations are what is setting it apart. Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, and a professor of communication, has taught a Virtual People incarnation since 2003. 
Over the course of a semester, he spends between 60,000-140,000 minutes of shared time with students in a virtual environment. 

“In Virtual People, the students don’t get to try VR a handful of times, VR becomes the medium they rely on,” Bailenson said in a piece for Immersive Learning News.
“To the best of my knowledge, nobody has networked hundreds of students via VR headsets for months at a time in the history of virtual reality, or even in the history of teaching.  It’s VR at an incredible scale.”
There are already about 10 million VR systems active just in the United States. Its role is evolving rapidly in fields like engineering, communication, behavioral science, and popular culture.
 It is fair to assume that many current college students will have jobs in the future that deal partially or even completely in VR environments. 

“The course is built around learning by doing, allowing students to experience and build applications that previous students could only read about, from therapeutic medicine to sports training to teaching empathy,” said Bailenson.

Although one might expect technology majors to gravitate to the course, enrollment figures show that students of all majors are enrolling, including sociology, psychology, art, comparative literature, film and media studies, biology, anthropology, computer science, communication, political science, and economics.