Beyond Zoom: Exploring the Next Frontier in Online Learning 

August 10, 2020
By Whitney Stewart

Dr. Peter Decherney’s vision for the future of online education extends well beyond Zoom.  

He stands at the vanguard of educators who advocate for the integration of immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (known as AR and VR respectively, and XR collectively) in the online classroom. 

A professor himself, he is acutely aware of the unique challenges and opportunities associated with quickly pivoting toward remote and hybrid learning models in the COVID-19 era. So, like many educators, he is exploring and integrating tools like AR and VR to deepen engagement with students while delivering rich learning experiences. 

"The takeaway from a survey of what educators need from VR technology - everything people want already exists with one exception - the ability to interact with both VR headsets and desktop technology" -Bethany Winslow, M.S.Ed. Instructional Designer at San José State University, Community Virtual Library Hypergrid Resources Project Head

This is the value thought leaders in online learning sought to unlock at “Beyond Zoom: XR for Teaching and Research in the COVID-19 Era,” a virtual conference the University of Pennsylvania held in collaboration with Dartmouth College August 7, 2020.  

Participants gathered virtually for lightning talks where presenters across the globe shared their success employing AR and VR with online learners while also addressing the challenges associated with implementing these technologies during the pandemic. They even had the chance to engage with each other directly and explore project demos through Mozilla Hubs, a VR chat room accessible via headset or web browser.



It quickly became clear that AR and VR could be applied in a myriad of disciplines and use cases to provide learners experiences that are not achievable in a traditional classroom environment. 

“There are many things you can do using AR and VR that you can’t do in a real lab or a studio.” - Dr. Peter Decherney, University of Pennsylvania 

Jasper Sachsenmeier of Penn State University, for example, demonstrated the value of harnessing VR to recreate historical sites like the Fort of LeBeouf for use by students, researchers, and the general public. He explained, “…[there is] no surviving structure of this important site. It is a challenge, but an interesting opportunity for our preservation efforts.” 

By contrast, Dr. Alfred Kow Wei Chieh of  Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, introduced PASS-IT, a VR-enabled patient safety training. Through the system, learners were immersed in an operating theatre scenario where they were exposed to processes from dental clearance and anesthesia evaluation to procedures for safe conduct in the operating room. 

“We see engagement levels up and they’re enjoying these [XR] experiences.” -Bill Egan, Senior Instructional Designer, Penn State University. 

Impressively, each testimony also acknowledged a marked rise in student engagement and genuine excitement when these technologies were introduced. 

"Yes, AR and VR is valuable for courses that require three-dimensional space and human interaction,” Dr. Decherney effused, “but there’s almost no course that couldn’t benefit from students and faculty collaborating in an immersive environment!”  

"VR can model a path forward during and beyond the converging pandemics of the coronavirus and racial injustice in teaching and industry practice." -Dr. Monica White Ndounou, Associate Professor of Theater and the 2017-2018 Sony Music Fellow at Dartmouth College 

The next frontier in online learning is here... and it belongs to the educators ready to harness its potential throughout this chapter of remote learning, and beyond. 

Dr. Peter Decherney is a Professor of Cinema & Media Studies and English. He is the Faculty Director of the Penn Online Learning Initiative and Director of the Cinema & Media Studies program.
Q&A with Dr. Peter Decherney

 Q: How have you implemented AR / VR technology in your own classroom? 

A: “I am a virtual reality filmmaker. I am never far from my headset! Personally, I taught a virtual reality lab course for the past three years. The first time, we went to film a documentary about a refugee camp in Kenya. The second time, we made documentaries about immigrant resettlement organizations in Philadelphia. This past Spring, I was teaching a course where students collaborated with curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to make films based on the collections. The original project was interrupted by COVID, but students were still able to create films about their personal realities and connections to the objects they researched earlier in the semester.” 

“I am a virtual reality filmmaker. I am never far from my headset!” 


Q: Can you describe sample use cases for XR that are currently deployed across Penn? 

A: Penn Nursing uses XR to teach CPR. You put on a headset and someone collapses in front of you. They place a mannequin in front of you to provide tactile feedback as you perform the procedure. Penn Med uses HoloLens and AR to simulate critical medical simulations. For its part, Penn Design uses AR and VR  to recreate spaces and buildings. Through these technologies you can make three-dimensional representations of spaces that haven’t been built yet or represent those that no longer exist.  


For additional resources related to immersive technology in teaching, research, and learning, check out Penn Immersive, an initiative powered by Penn Libraries.