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An educational journey through virtual reality with John Saldanha

John Saldanha, Sears Chair in global supply chain management and director of the Wehrle Global Supply Chain Lab, writes for AACSB about the possibilities of incorporating VR technology into the classroom.

Originally published on the AACSB website.

  • Through the new Wehrle Global Supply Chain Lab, the Chambers College plans to use VR to embark on virtual field trips, gamify lessons, and enhance in-person learning.
  • The school has partnered with VR vendor VictoryXR to co-create content related to business generally and supply chain management specifically.
  • While VR offers many benefits, the potential of the current technology is hampered by three key drawbacks: minimal interactivity, limited computing power, and a steep learning curve.

COVID-19 arrived at a time when critics already were questioning the value of a conventional college education. According to some analysts, the previous four decades had seen a 1,400 percent increase in college tuition, and pandemic lockdowns raised additional doubts about the value of a four-year degree.

Some observers saw the crisis as an opportunity to revamp outdated systems. Others predicted it would lead to a massive upheaval of the education system. At the John Chambers College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University (WVU) in Morgantown, we recognized that the pandemic made it imperative for us to implement novel and effective approaches to engaging students.

In the summer of 2020, we had an opportunity to do just that. When the Supply Chain Management (SCM) Program received a generous gift from the Wehrle family, we decided to use the donation to explore extended reality (XR) technologies. Our goal was to launch the Wehrle Global Supply Chain Lab to develop and deploy technology assets for effective supply chain pedagogy.

But first we set out on a quest to develop a strategy to serve that mission from ideation to implementation. Along the way, we discovered that virtual reality (VR) technologies offer intriguing possibilities for educators—but bring challenges as well.

Choosing a Partner

Given our faculty demographic—professors who are over 50 and have so little XR experience that no one had donned a VR headset—we knew it would be daunting to articulate and deploy an XR strategy.

Our first step was to join a university-level XR working group that included faculty from the health sciences (who were the most advanced users) and engineering. This group provided considerable peer mentoring and information about resources.

We also put together a delegation consisting of the college’s information technology administrators and students whom we identified as “power users” of gaming VR technologies. This group attended the November 2021 Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California (AWE2021).

Drawing on the collective experience of our university working group and AWE2021 attendees, we identified a small set of vendors focused on education and an even smaller subset entering the higher education space. We decided to partner with VictoryXR, a firm that specializes in higher education. At the time, the company offered its content exclusively through the Engage multiplayer platform. Simply put, we looked at Engage as a platform like YouTube, and VictoryXR as a channel that offered content in a pay-to-play model.

Because VictoryXR was a relatively new company, launched in 2016, we were able to leverage several first-mover benefits. These included access to a free stylized digital version of the WVU Morgantown campus, free headsets, a discounted subscription fee, and unlimited access to some of the interactive content on the company’s VictoryLab platform.

At the same time, we faced a major challenge. The VictoryLab content is not focused on supply chain management—in fact, there is a dearth of business and SCM content on every XR platform. We realized that we would need to be active partners in developing such content by drawing on the subject matter expertise of our SCM faculty.

We wanted to become strategic partners with VictoryXR because we knew we could learn, develop, and grow together. Once we made this decision, we were ready to explore VR in the classroom.

Stepping Into the Virtual World

From the outset, we believed we could use XR for three primary purposes:

To conduct field trips over VR. Like many students living on campuses far from the main arteries of large supply chains, our SCM students lack easy access to production and logistics facilities. But site visits are necessary to enrich students’ understanding of how supply chains work. When field trips are impractical, faculty typically fill the gap with two-dimensional videos.

We wanted to use 360 VR video to put students in the middle of the action, whether they were in a seaport railyard loading containers onto an intermodal train or following different manufacturing processes from the receipt of raw materials to the assembly and shipment of completed items.

To gamify learning. Interactive computer-based and physical supply chain games can put students in control of their learning and deepen their understanding of supply chain theories. A classic example is the beer distribution game that illustrates the bullwhip effect created through lack of information sharing.

XR technology offers a seemingly limitless ability for instructors to customize and scale experiential learning scenarios. For example, VR can create problem-solving situations for a variety of supply chain activities such as quality management, production, transportation, and distribution.

To augment in-person learning. We believed we could use XR in a way that enhanced the classroom without merely replicating online experiences. Therefore, we explored integrating physical items into hybrid and XR interactions.

For example, we wanted to combine VR with three-dimensional printed objects from traditional SCM games, such as the paper airplane production game. Our plan was to have students complete physical exercises in class before they developed, tested, and diagnosed their production methodologies using “real” objects in a VR environment. We anticipated that these exercises not only would give students a deeper understanding of foundational theories, but also would allow us to explain these phenomena in real-world applications.

Discovering the Downsides

Since we began this journey, we have deployed VR in four classes. At this early stage of adoption, the clear draw is the novelty of the technology. It’s particularly breathtaking for folks who are in headsets for the first time and experiencing unfamiliar and dangerous settings in very real 5K resolution.

However, in the classroom environment, the novelty of being in a VR headset wears off quickly, and its drawbacks become clear. Three are particularly challenging:

Minimal interactivity. VR is a great tool for creating and demonstrating static settings. We can use 3D VR objects (created through a process known as immersive effects, or IFX) to render any real-world object, including machines, vehicles, buildings, people, and animals. We can even animate IFX and imbue them with audio—for example, we can get a cow to moo.

Virtual reality is breathtaking for folks who are in headsets for the first time and experiencing unfamiliar and dangerous settings in 5K resolution. But its drawbacks are clear.

But we can’t do much else, as some faculty found out after spending hours going through training sessions and creating elaborate settings such as warehouse and production facilities. For example, on Engage, simple phenomena from the physical world, such as gravity, cannot be replicated. This means that, while we can move objects to a point in 3D space, it remains floating in space even once we’ve released it. Hence, instructors soon realized that several planned interactive supply chain activities were reduced to show-and-tell exercises.

The problem appears to be that multiplayer platforms such as Engage are primarily built for virtual enterprise engagement. Recognizing this as a limitation, VictoryXR seems to be prioritizing development of its interactive VictoryLabs products.

Limited computing power. Instructors can purchase IFX objects from sites such as Sketchfab to use in the VR environment, but objects with high fidelity come with big file sizes, which can use up storage and processing resources on multiplayer platforms. To use large-file 3D models like Sketchfab’s Model-T Ford assembly line, we have to significantly reduce them in size, which diminishes their pedagogical value.

The limited capacity also causes connectivity problems and choppy viewing when we use the platform in large classes with multiple headsets. (Our largest class has 45 students.)

A steep learning curve. Even though VictoryXR offers superb training and support, faculty have to invest several hours over and above their normal course preparation time to work VR content into their classes. When the payoff is merely a novel show-and-tell exercise, it is not a useful investment of time for junior faculty. This has limited the adoption of VR exercises in our classrooms.

Looking Ahead

Despite these drawbacks, we feel that XR in general and VR in particular have educational value. Through the Wehrle Lab, we will persevere in our mission to develop these technologies with strategic partners who are the leaders in content development for business schools. And we are continuing to focus on the three primary uses we originally identified for VR, while adding a new one:

Field trips. With the help of experts in WVU’s Reed College of Media, SCM faculty have captured the vertical supply chains of several industries, including those relating to garments, electronics, and food. Using 360 video—which is the moving picture equivalent of the 360 Google Street View—SCM faculty can take students on virtual field trips of end-to-end supply chains. This allows students to experience different types of production, warehousing, and transport terminal operations.

Gamification. ;While we’re not aware of any extant SCM VR games, we plan to use our partnership with VictoryXR to translate some SCM game concepts into VR.

We are convinced that VR is a worthwhile technology to pursue—but only if we take a deliberate, critical approach to pursuing a holistic strategy, avoiding trends and hype.

In-person learning. When we combine existing VR games with face-to-face exercises in class, we can generate a competitive advantage for on-campus learning. For instance, we can combine the Lean Lego Game with complementary exercises in a VR environment. Using IFX objects that behave the way they would in the physical world, students can experiment with a variety of production philosophies to test and solidify their knowledge. With 3D printing, we have greater flexibility to develop novel extensions and even new games.

Student enrollment. We have used VR as part of our enrollment growth strategy for both the Chambers College and the SCM major. For example, we have used VR field trips to demonstrate supply chain management concepts to potential students and their families during their campus visits.

Sharing Conclusions

Through our experiments with VR, we have learned that it does more than enable us to educate students in seemingly real environments that are still safe and controlled. For instance, our instructors have found that when students are captivated by the fun and engagement of using a gaming device, they are less distracted by their phones, tablets, or computers.

We are convinced that VR is a worthwhile technology to pursue—but only if we take a deliberate, critical approach to pursuing a holistic strategy, avoiding trends and hype. We know that this will be hard. Because the technology is developing so quickly and its capabilities are multiplying with each developmental cycle, mistakes are inevitable.

Based on what we have learned in our journey so far, we would recommend that other schools take the following steps if they want to integrate VR into their classrooms:

  • Launch a strategic partnership with a leading content developer. Among other things, work with this provider to co-create new VR content.
  • Use other technology to introduce flexibility into the classroom. For instance, use a 3D printer to create objects for games that can be played in the classroom for a hybrid in-person and VR experience.
  • Leverage accessible and effective content, such as activities that lend themselves to virtual field trips and show-and-tell pedagogical experiences.
  • Appoint a dedicated technology manager to manage connectivity issues and take care of the XR hardware and software. Maintaining headsets is very much like maintaining computers in a lab.

We plan to follow these approaches to ensure we are using XR effectively in our SCM program. As we refine our VR strategy, we are confident that we can offer our students hands-on learning experiences that will give them the freedom to explore any number of virtual business contexts—and hone their real-world business skills—all without leaving campus.

John Saldanha
Sears Chair in Global Supply Chain Management
Director of the Wehrle Global Supply Chain Lab

Chambers College