Professor sees a future for virtual reality technology in classrooms

Tharp already using VR but hopes it can spread campuswide
Kevin W. Tharp wears a virtual reality headset to demonstrate how he creates VR videos as teaching aids in his classes at UW-Stout. / UW-Stout photo by Brett Roseman
​Jerry Poling | October 17, 2018

Kevin W. Tharp is convinced that someday soon the use of virtual reality technology will become an everyday reality in classrooms at UW-Stout — and in graduates’ careers.

That’s why he’s already using it. “People are starting to realize the power of it. There are pockets of this all over campus, and we may get some synergy,” said Tharp, associate professor and director of the digital marketing technology program.

Virtual reality is a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that can be explored and interacted with by a person, according to the Virtual Reality Society. That person becomes part of the virtual world or is immersed within the environment and can manipulate objects or perform a series of actions. Applications include medicine, art, architecture, entertainment and “wherever it is too dangerous, expensive or impractical to do something in reality.”

Tharp hopes that UW-Stout’s Pathways Forward comprehensive campaign might result in funding to help him and others take virtual reality from his one-person studio in the Communication Technologies Building to helping the university become a leader in using and teaching VR.

Kevin W. Tharp appears in a virtual reality teaching video that he created.

 

He’s using VR as a teaching aid, having created more than 20 videos that students watch on a regular video screen to help them visualize concepts. For gaining student attention and helping them understand, VR vs. a whiteboard or PowerPoint presentation seems to be no contest, he said.

Tharp demonstrated one video in which objects existed in 3D space and came to life as they flew past and around him. He also showed how to use VR in real time, writing “UW-Stout” in the air with his controller as the writing appeared on the screen behind him.

He can demonstrate with movement, light and color things that he could only describe on a whiteboard. “It’s a different way of engaging the brain,” he said. “It’s such a flexible medium. If it’s in your brain you can make it happen.”

Tharp calls it his Perceptive Reality Project. It has energized him because it’s a more dynamic way to teach, and students seem to engage better with VR presentations, he said.

He envisions, however, a better VR world at UW-Stout — having enough headsets so that professor and students can be in VR together. VR systems can cost about $3,000 apiece, but the price should begin to come down. “I can’t wait until it’s mainstream. Students want more of it,” Tharp said.

Beyond the value of teaching with VR, Tharp said digital marketing technology majors — and students in other majors — soon will need VR skills to get jobs. Students in game design have been creating video games in VR for several years. “There will be a demand for this to know how to create (digital) marketing materials,” he said.

Tharp, an associate professor, is director of the digital marketing technology undergraduate program.

A recent UW-Stout alumnus already is using VR in his career. Tou Xiong, a 2012 School of Art and Design graduate, is a multimedia specialist at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. He and a co-worker created a virtual diesel truck engine. Diesel mechanics students wear Microsoft Hololens VR headsets to see inside the virtual engine while it’s “running,” giving them new insight into how the engine works. “To see everything in motion and work together is just so much easier to understand," one student said.

That’s what Tharp and his students have learned as well — virtual reality is more than fun and games but an important part of the future of teaching and learning.

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Photo

Kevin W. Tharp appears in a virtual reality teaching video that he created.


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