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Steve Grubbs, Amy Novak, Dr. Ethan Gannaway, and Bud Grant Discuss ARVR at St Ambrose University

Steve Grubbs: Welcome to the VictoryXR webinar today with St. Ambrose’s University in my hometown of Davenport, Iowa. We are excited that these professors and President Novak are joining us today, and we’re going to have a conversation about these three things.

St. Ambrose is exploring both augmented reality a virtual reality on campus, and how to integrate it into learning. Their president, President Novak, is a very technologically progressive and naturally curious leader for a university and is really driving the university to be one of the global leaders in this space, and so we are happy to be working with them.

And with that, President Novak, would you maybe introduce yourself real quick and those on the staff faculty?

President Novak: Great! Thanks so much, Steve. I appreciate the opportunity to be on this podcast with you. Today, we’re joined by what I consider our subject matter experts here at St. Ambrose, those who’ve been experimenting in the virtual and augmented reality space.

We have Father Bud Grant and Dr. Ethan Gannaway, they each will share a little bit more about what they teach and how they’ve applied it as part of this podcast.

Steve Grubbs: Excellent! Well, Father Bud, why don’t we start with you, talk to us a little bit about how you first stepped into this world in the world of teaching in the classroom and what progress was made last semester.

Father Bud:  All right, thank you. Thanks for having us. I guess the way we got into it is because Dr. Novak kind of had this great idea and we decided that we needed to be in on it. At least, I thought I’m one of the senior professors, which is a polite way of saying I’m old, and I thought, “I don’t want to get left behind, so I want to be a part of this.”

So, we went to this original meeting in the fall—the August, I think it was, and liked it, and so I enrolled in your academy and managed to get that piece of paper. I don’t think anything was harder except my doctoral dissertation, and so I’m very proud of that.

And since then, I’ve used it in my environmental ethics class so that I could talk to students about what the prairie ecosystem is like, and then we took them on two virtual tours, one of a bison migration and one of a prescribed fire. And I’m still working on it, in addition to those, I’m working on it now for my historical theology class, which I’m now teaching.

Steve Grubbs: Great! So, I’m going to dive into that a little bit deeper here in a moment. But for our listeners or watchers, the certificate is a micro certificate that professors and other educators can undertake through the VictoryXR program and earn through a few hours of study and then practicum the micro certificate to teach in immersive environments like virtual reality or augmented reality.

So, it’s certainly a skill that’s needed in the future and even today. So, Father Bud, talk to me a little bit more about the process. So, I’m fairly confident you were using virtual reality headsets in the classroom and were the students in the same classroom when this occurred?

Father Bud:  Yeah, they were. We had them all together and we had them seated, and it was a traditional classroom with their chairs and desks right there. We were a little bit of concerned about that, but it made zero difference to the students.

I don’t know how much you want me to dig into it, but only two or three of the students acknowledged beforehand that they had had any experience with virtual reality whatsoever, but within the first– oh, I don’t know– five to seven minutes of the first class, they had all made their own avatars, and they were all running around like chickens having a great time.

Steve Grubbs: That’s wonderful. Yeah, I always talk about the fact that the Fortnite Roblox generation is arriving at college and into workplace. And so, for most of them, this is not a new thing to learn or socialize or play in a multiplayer, immersive environment. It might be new to do it in a VR headset, but most of these students today have done it through a PC for a number of years, and so it seems like a natural progression, at least that’s our view now.

Dr. Gannaway, will you talk a little bit about the class that you taught and then also how you took your first steps into teaching with virtual reality?

Ethan Gannaway: Yeah, absolutely. So, I used it for what’s called History Matters. It’s one of our first-year-first-semesters courses in the history department. And it’s just meant to engage students in the discipline of history.

And as we teach it, each faculty member can choose their own topic, and I’ve chosen to do classical mythology. Father Budd and I have taken students abroad a number of times. Two of us have been abroad a number of times, and that immersive environment that the words you use there, that’s what we recognize when we take them there. And we saw how much they learned from these kinds of experiences when you’re actually looking at the architecture at the sculpture, and then talking about the history, it just makes it come alive.

So, when I heard there was an opportunity to do this in virtual reality, I thought, I mean, this is a perfect way to do it for all those students who can’t afford to go on this trip over to Italy to see what we’re showing them, let’s see what we can do with virtual reality.

The other too is that both my parents are computer programmers and my brother did 3D animation for a while and now works for Adobe, and I did email, that was about the limit of my technological expertise. And I thought, maybe I’ll be a part of my family here if I just take on VR. But as it turned out, it wasn’t that hard to pick up, I don’t play a lot of video games or anything, so it took a while for me to understand the controls, but most of the directions for it and all the tools were relatively intuitive.

So, I did have to put in quite a bit of time just to get myself accustomed to being in that space but once I was there, it had opened up these worlds for me. I was as excited to immerse myself in it as I was to get the students in. But I’m happy to [inaudible 07:14] those experiences in the classroom if you’d like.

Steve Grubbs: Let me ask you a question on that last point you made. Did it take you more time– and you may not have considered this before– but did it take you more time to learn to drive a car or to teach in VR?

Ethan Gannaway: Oh, if we count parallel parking, more time to do the car. But sincerely, most of it for me with VR was just being comfortable working in that space but I don’t, as Father Bud mentioned, find that to be an issue with the students at all. And I notice more and more of my adult friends are very comfortable. They play Xbox and PlayStation; I just didn’t happen to. I live in the ancient world– it’s books and archaeological sites.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s wonderful. And the field that you teach in really has so much potential, let me ask and dive in a little deeper with you as well. Of the classes that you taught, just for our listeners, many of you probably already know this, but there’s a couple of ways you can approach immersive learning.

You can use 360 virtual reality field trips. And on our platform, we have over 120 of those, and around YouTube, there’s a lot more, so that’s one option. And you can hop into a Metaverse campus and then step into a 360 room and show any 360 videos in the world, so that’s a pretty cool option.

The other is what our developers would call trueVR, and these are worlds that are modelled in 3D, you can access them through all six degrees of freedom, you can walk around them, you can climb a tree, whatever you might want to do. So, Dr. Gannaway, which of those did you use in your first semester?

Ethan Gannaway: So, both is the answer. So, I employed VR—ultimately, it was four full class periods for the myth class and one for the Latin, but that’s its own creature. So, for the myth class, my first two sessions were, I had to train students how to use VR and be in that environment. So, when we got into that environment, we were talking about the gods in ancient Greece and human beings and how gods run things.

So, when we got to that virtual space, first of all, they figured out their own avatars, and then I just let them run wild. And we went to a place called Dinosaur Island, and I chose it because they could go underwater, they could climb mountains and then they could hop teleport from place to place.

And then I had put some objects– Father Bud and I had talked about this before. We established our classes and so I put some things for them to find out there, but it let them just explore, and the object was that they get a sense of the sublime of awe and wonder. So, I tried to play off of the wonder and awe of VR and try to have them relate that to human beings’ experience of Greek gods in ancient Greece.

So, then I let them have microphone powers, but I would take them away if they talked too much, and so I was telling them I was an all-powerful god. And I did dress like Odysseus or at least as I imagined him, so I had a long grey beard. I looked like a Greek philosopher. I was wearing the toga and sandals and floating around in the air was fantastic.

The class that followed that up, I had him start in outer space, and we were looking at the earth, we were just doing a spacewalk, and then I brought them down to a Greek temple so that we could talk about how Greeks tried to create structures that created that sense of wonder and awe in a space that they could meet that would relate then to the wonder and awe of the nature around them and of the universe. And then I set a parallel series of videos, so these are all 360 videos at this point where someone had created the experience of heaven in VR.

So, it started on a deathbed, and we floated up to heaven, and then we went from there to go into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and then even to the Church of St. Ambrose in Milan. And it was, how do Christians then, how do they shape their space for this wonder or awe? So, it was a combination of using site videos, 360 videos, but also that created space at Dinosaur Island.

And I’ll say as a historian and archaeologist being able to take them to the actual sites, I mean, we went to the ancient site of Troy, we went to the Sphinx on other occasions. The 2D images I’ve shown on the screen for years cannot match that.

Steve Grubbs: You know, and I’m going to ask Father bud this, but all of the studies, almost universally show that when students are taught in an immersive VR environment, that they retain more information. And what we know is the correlation, what we don’t know is the causation. We can only speculate as the causation, but as an experienced educator, what would you attribute that to?

Ethan Gannaway: Oh, gosh, this would be interesting just to follow studies on it, I guess, for courses that use VR over a long period of time. But I would say that having those moments during a semester where you’ve left the classroom and gone into the VR space is just that becomes that special event.

So, it’s like going abroad, or it’s like when you walked into the bakery that time and they had just baked fresh bread, the experience is just—I keep wanting to go back to words like sublime and awe, but I have to find something better at this point, right? But it’s so impactful on that moment, this is out of the ordinary, this is a special circumstance.

And if you’ve prepped them ahead of time, especially—and I found this over the semester, if I prepped them ahead of time before coming into the classroom, the experience of being in that other place and having all these other kinds of virtual senses just kind of come alive and fire. I think that’s what helped them really grab onto the information I was teaching them.

Latin was a little bit different. I was using that like mnemonic devices. And you sometimes see it in videos or in books where imagine you’re in a room and you have certain objects in each or in a building and you have certain objects in each room, and that’s how you memorize all these objects. So, I had them do that with verbs were in one room, nouns in another, and adjectives in another. So, I tried to play off mental pathways in this virtual space, but I mean, it’s still– oh, go ahead, sorry.

Steve Grubbs: I was going to say, and Father Bud, what would be your take on that same question?

Father Bud:  Yeah, I’m going to just play off what Ethan has already said. I happen to be teaching a course right now where the first unit is on experience as an educational methodology. And as I’m listening to the students respond to that question, I realize that they are experiential learners, par excellence, and as a matter of fact, frankly, to the detriment of other methodologies of learning.

So, it is their primary preferred way of engaging ideas. So, it’s a little bit tricky for some fields, but that just makes it more fun to figure it out, as Ethan is describing. There are really creative ways of getting them to engage things that may not feel like there’s any experience to be had but if we can do that for them, there are going to retain it better.

I think I totally believe those studies and I don’t have any of our own primary data, of course, it’s too early for that. But just based on my students’ discussion of the way they use experience to learn, this is it, this is the way to do that.

President Novak: Steve, I’m going to add one thing here. One of the observations we had, I think about eight or nine faculty who came up with, on average four to five lessons in a variety of different disciplines, but consistently, one of the comments that I heard from the faculty that I thought was fairly revealing was the fact that when the student was in the headset, they could not be multitasking in other any other way.

And so, as a result, their concentration and their engagement in the content was just significantly more robust. I can walk into any classroom that’s on campus today, and I can see a student with their phone and their laptop, and probably three other things going on while that faculty member might be lecturing, even if that’s a compelling lecture. And maybe the faculty members even trying to project things up on a board and have them work in small groups, they’re still capable of doing three or four other things while that lesson is being taught.

What happens in the virtual reality environment is they’re there. I mean, there’s option for them, but to be there. And in so doing, it’s all of their senses for the most part, that are being stimulated in a way that seemed to create a much higher level of engagement in the learning

Father Bud:  I would just say, in addition to that, it’s fun, they really enjoy it. I don’t think– and this probably says something uncomfortable about myself, but I haven’t had kids laugh and joke and play around and have so much fun as they did in that virtual space, so it just breaks down. Also, it’s a barrier that just opens them up– I don’t know– just to have fun while they’re learning.

Steve Grubbs: I love to hear that and I think that’s the case when you love something. I love to cook, and so it’s very easy for me to learn and retain information about cooking. Dr. Gannaway, what were you going to say?

Ethan Gannaway: Oh, I was just going to say, a number of students who are a little more hesitant to speak in class because they don’t want to be the object of that attention in real space, you put them in an avatar, they’re wearing an astronaut outfit or something, they participate, they’re all in. And they’ll even get up on stage and act things out in that virtual world.

Steve Grubbs: That’s wonderful. President Novak, let’s shift gears a little bit. I feel very fortunate to have met you. I feel even more fortunate that you are in our home community of our headquarters, and I’ve got a couple of questions.

I’m going to start with the question that you immediately saw the vision for this. Some administrators don’t see it right away, or maybe they don’t see the value in the work it’s going to take to bring faculty on board and that type of thing. What was it that you saw? What is it that you see that makes it worth the trouble, the effort, the expense to move forward?

President Novak: Yeah. It could be, Steve, that as a parent to eight children who are in this learning space right now, I’m very aware that the way we have been teaching probably doesn’t create the levels of engagement that we as faculty or as university leaders really want to see with our students. And frankly, if you look at the data, there’s a whole lot to suggest. Students really are not retaining content like we’d like them to, and it’s not unique to St. Ambrose, it’s a national trend.

And so, for some time, I’ve been asking myself from a leadership lens, how is it that we create different types of opportunities for engagement and learning that really sort of creates this experience as Father Bud described? And it helps them immerse themself in a way that they’re enjoying it, it’s not something they have to do, but it’s something they love to do.

And so, as I watch my own six boys, right, I mean, and the girls are into this too, but they’re really much more into whether it’s Madden or Fortnite or whatever, they might be playing. The reality is, I can listen to them on headsets and I know they’re engaging each other. So could this tool do something for our classrooms?

And so, the reality is, I was open to exploring it, in part because I think it’s a problem that Higher Ed needs to solve, which is how do we strengthen student learning and student engagement in a way that really helps the student retain the content and then take that content and really make an impact in the world, however that might be in whatever discipline that might be.

I would add from an administrative perspective as well. We invest a lot of money into equipment and tools. And as I’ve looked at what healthcare is doing and how we’re shifting even in some of the corporate settings, I’m asking myself the same question, do we have to have a full cadaver lab? Or can something like virtual or augmented reality actually be a more low-cost solution, and a higher engagement solution, something that allows us to create different scenarios in that learning process?

So, I think there was also some willingness on the leadership part here to also say, could we explore other technologies that might actually both increase engagement, perhaps lower cost and make access more possible? St. Ambrose has a long tradition of also serving adult learners. Some of those are in more remote areas. The idea of always coming to campus is okay. We’ve obviously shifted into a much more robust online environment, that even in that online environment, I’ve been asking our team here to much more closely look at: how do we improve engagement? How do we strengthen the overall experience? And I think both of these tools really help us move in that direction.

Steve Grubbs: And President Novak talk a little bit about student recruitment and admissions. Do you see value in this as far as that’s concerned?

President Novak: Oh, absolutely. I just had a tour on campus today. And a parent actually was asking because we had some materials that were shared with the larger news media about it. And they were asking where it’s showing up and in what classes. I think the parent was actually as excited as a student in potentially taking a course that had some virtual or augmented reality. He works in a bank. They’re using it now to do employee orientations. So, in many respects, it’s also equipping our students for the future of work.

So, I think it’s going to be very attractive to students. And we’re hoping to be able to put the admissions tour, and other highlights on our tour, in which students would be able to use those technologies and really see how they might utilize them in the classroom.

One of our newer facilities in campus will have a whole space for a virtual reality commons, a virtual reality classroom space. While the student doesn’t necessarily need to be in the classroom to engage in virtual reality. We did find that at least when you’re starting this technology, having the students there so we can troubleshoot some things, was valuable.

And so, I think the lesson we’ve taken from it, at least at St. Ambrose, is there needs to be some of that student orientation piece. Some of that can be done online for online learners. For those who are on-ground and on-campus, we need to make sure we have the technology investment in our spaces in places so that they can do those things from a residence hall, or from a classroom to make it just more reliable.

Steve Grubbs: Perfect. So, thus far, we have been talking about virtual reality, which is, for our listeners, it’s the full immersion into a 3D modeled world. And a Metaversity has the characteristics that it’s a 3D model world. It’s persistent and it’s synchronous multiplayer, you can have a group of students in it at the same time. So, those three elements really define Metaversity. But here’s the big thing, you, President Novak and St. Ambrose are working with us to build the world’s first AR Metaversity, which I can tell you is much harder than a VR Metaversity.

And the reality is that the augmented reality glasses are not at the level yet that the virtual reality headsets are. But the big difference here is, let’s say that you have some ancient Roman artifacts, and you bring those into the room and you put them on the table, and all the students are gathered around in augmented reality, what we are just now rolling out, you can see everybody in the classroom, you can see their reactions, you can see if somebody enters the room or leaves the room. But at the same time, you can also see the Roman artifact that’s sitting in the middle of the table.

So, President Novak, you and I have had a lot of conversations about this. And what we’re doing will be in 10 years be commonplace at every university in the world. But talk to me a little bit about your vision for augmented reality on campus, both interior and exterior, if you have one.

President Novak: Yeah, I’m super excited about where augmented reality is. I’m excited about virtual reality, too. So, obviously, as you know, Steve, we’re looking at how this can be applied in the Engineering Laboratory. And we’re having some persistent place space, and then being able to look at something and see how that sort of fleshes itself out, if you will, in augmented reality is really important. We’re looking at its application in biology, as well, and really excited about what that might mean for students who could look at something, who could look at an artifact, you could look at part of a plant, and be able to know a lot more about that.

And in fact, have additional video or engagement with that content than just what you can see in its original image. And so I think being able to really build out that augmented reality is exciting. Of course, as you know, I’m eager to have a couple of places on our campus where our mascot, The Fighting Bee can be flying around, outside, and the admissions tour can be able to highlight the bee and people can put on the augmented reality glasses, or maybe they even just use their cell phone to be able to see things in a new and compelling way.

Certainly, both Bud and Ethan also in their Academy for the study of St. Ambrose of Milan, we’ve thought about ways to showcase using both augmented and virtual reality. Some of the writings of St. Ambrose but the work of St. Ambrose, and frankly, its application to today. And so it’s a really interesting juxtaposition because it’s this past, meeting a contemporary technology that we think has the power to really be transformative to learning, and also connects the dots for people. What was it about St. Ambrose and his writings? And how does that impact today and we can visualize this, and we can see it in powerful ways.

Our art history faculty have talked about the idea of an outdoor sculpture garden that could be, you know, viewed through augmented reality. So, I think we’re going to see an enhancement to the campus environment, both in the classroom and out of the classroom, when we can leverage both the augmented and the virtual reality. And I think we’re only at the beginning of this, as you’re pointing out, Steve, when you look at the billions of dollars being invested in these technologies globally, Higher Ed has to be in a space in which it is experimenting, and learning from that experimentation, and advancing it. And I think St. Ambrose is excited to be part of that process.

Steve Grubbs: Well, I appreciate you working with us on it. So, we’re nearing the end of our time, but I want to touch on one last area. And that is, what are the challenges that the technology or the administration of the project or even us as a company, what do we need to overcome over the next year, to make this a better experience for students? And maybe, Dr. Gannaway, we would start with you and then go to Father Bud.

Ethan Gannaway: We’re already seeing some of these changes even since the first semester and starting into this semester. I know one of the biggest ones for us was having students have some experience in that VR headset before they come to the classroom. I mean, I really enjoyed watching them learn how to use the 3D pen and start to grab objects, but you get a lot of really large bulldozers in your classroom all of a sudden. So, getting some of that excitement out and then really that availability to have time for them to play in this space, so that when it’s class time we can focus on the classwork that will be helpful in the future for sure.

Steve Grubbs: Still continuing on that Dr. Gannaway, would you talk a little bit about the tools that a professor has at their disposal for classroom management.

Ethan Gannaway: Yeah, and this where I got to keep playing out my god-like power, and pretending like when they were really good, I would give them use of the 3D pen. The most valuable for me, depending on the day, that 3D pen blows their mind, that they can draw in space like that. And once you focus them on a task, I had them creating composite creatures. And so on this one, they could draw it, or they could grab objects off that I-Effects asset database and that was amazing. I mean, part of it was their own exploration, and then let their creativity just run wild. And let them really be unique and what they brought them into the classroom.

But there were times that it was very helpful to summon them all to where I needed them to be and to keep them seated in that place, so, I can do my virtual lecture to them, or explain the next task for them to do. And then of course, that mute button is helpful, too. I do like listening to their conversations on the side. But sometimes you just have to bring them all into order before they go off and explore again.

Steve Grubbs: Awesome. And Father Bud, my father was a middle school teacher, Frank L. Smart Middle School in Davenport. And I was telling him about these tools, I said Dad, you can automatically press a button, see everybody, or you can silence them all, or you can bring them all into one space when they’re roaming around. And he thought I was kidding. He couldn’t even conceive of that being possible, I suppose from his years teaching eighth graders. So, Father Bud, talk a little bit about the challenges that we need to overcome, and then the best hope for the future.

Father Bud:   Okay. First of all, just to follow up on Ethan’s anecdote there, after they ran around like chickens, and I was being showered with bulldozers and dinosaurs. The classroom I picked was a prairie that I had crafted and created but they put rows of chairs out in the grass and made them go over and sit down. And then I had a direwolf staring at them to make sure they stayed seated. So, that was one strategy I used. But some of the things that I think we all need to do with this, I think sometimes is the issue of bandwidth that makes the videos blank out or not stay focused on what we didn’t want them to do. So, I think that’s something or an area that needs to be dealt with.

Another one would be that it’s very time consuming, at least at first. It takes a long time to set up that classroom and to think about how that outcome is going to be met best by what resources we have. Having more resources, evermore resources is going to be fantastic as it continues to expand. And just speaking for myself personally, the learning curve, for a guy that grew up with a phone tethered to the wall was pretty challenging.

But on the other hand, I will say your staff, especially Dan and Kate, were really helpful. They responded in real time and helped me solve whatever issues I was having, most of which were up here, not in that technology.

But in terms of looking forward about where I think we could have this in the future, I’d say the library of 360 videos, and those virtual worlds that you’re talking about continuing to expand so that we’ll have more options to use. We might even be able to create our own. Ethan and I actually working on that… well, Ethan is doing all the work on it. I just kind of pat him on the back and root for him as he proceeds.

I can see that Dr. Novak already responded to the idea of having a designated classroom. Our staff need to be constantly trained on the technology as it continues to grow. But I think we will have an increased agility, increased efficiency and creating these experiences for students. I foresee that it will be a part of every class, but probably won’t replace any in-person live classroom experience that will in fact be an augmentation to what we’re already doing. I can see us collaborating with more colleagues in different departments. We already did that sort of spontaneously to troubleshoot and give each other a little bit of advice here and there, when we found something that works, we’re sharing with each other. So, that sort of thing is just really important and it’s going to get better.

Steve Grubbs: Great. And I appreciate that.

President Novak: I might add one thing to that, Steve, one of the things that I thought was really valuable from an you know, I wasn’t doing the classrooms, but the sales professor in business who was working on it was talking to the philosophy professor who was building out Plato’s cave, who was sharing insights with another theology professor or with Dr. Gannaway, or Father Bud, it brought disciplines across the university into dialogue and conversation in really compelling ways. And they were helping each other out, in addition to the really outstanding support through Victory XR. So, I think there was a lot of really interesting mutual learning that was perhaps something we didn’t anticipate as a potential outcome, but which it was really valuable in the process.

Steve Grubbs: That’s wonderful. Well, President Novak, Farther Bud, Dr. Gannaway, thank you for joining us on our show today. And as you know, I’m very excited to see where St. Ambrose goes with these different technologies, but also appreciative of the relationship we have and trailblazing the future together, right from Davenport, Iowa. So, thank you, and we will see you in the Metaverse.

President Novak: All right. Thanks.