Getting students to read the syllabus is often a challenge in online courses. It is not uncommon for students to ask faculty questions that have answers easily found in the document. Even if students do read the syllabus, they may only skim through it. Ways to encourage a thorough reading include strategies like “easter egg” hunts where students find particular items to pass a syllabus quiz. This article will explore another method that uses a software application called Perusall, which is designed to encourage close reading.
Perusall is used at the Oregon State University Ecampus as a learning technology integration with Canvas, the learning management system. Using Perusall, students can highlight, make comments, and ask questions on a document. There is a grading interface with Canvas and a variety of settings, including reminders for students to complete the assignment. It offers a useful way for students to engage with the syllabus together, which can lead to closer reading than if they had done so individually.
To test this idea, a professor used this approach with a 400/500 class that involved multiple assignments in Perusall throughout the term. If the syllabus assignment proved useful in Perusall, then it would also serve as an introduction to the platform for students. Here are some examples of student engagement that resulted from this activity:
Requests for additional background material to check for prerequisite knowledge.
Interest in the website of the professor (linked to in the syllabus).
Shoutouts to the course teaching assistant.
Concerns about the prerequisites for the class, which were addressed by the professor specifically.
Questions about technology used in the course based on students’ previous experiences in other courses.
Gratitude for ending the course week on Mondays instead of Sundays.
Confirmation by a student that the textbook is available as an electronic copy at the library.
Inquiries into the length and other logistics of Zoom office hours.
Excitement expressed by a student about a focus paper requirement.
Queries about how grade numbers are rounded and types of quiz questions.
Exchanges between a TA and a student looking forward to further discussions in Perusall.
Clarifications about the different work expected for undergraduates and graduates.
Ideas about how to communicate as a class.
Questions about the details of major assignments.
Appreciation of opportunities to participate in frequent knowledge checks.
Thanks for the late assignment policy and statements about flexibility.
Advice about how to check assignment due dates.
Students’ comments and conversations helped to initiate a feeling of community in the course. Many logistical issues were clarified for students by providing and encouraging a forum for discussion. There were highlights and comments by students on seven of ten pages of the syllabus. The three pages that were not discussed were university required policies. There were no negative comments about using Perusall as a syllabus activity. So this seems like a good method to engage students at the beginning of a course to prepare them for success. It may be especially helpful for classes using Perusall in other assignments because it provides a way to practice using the application.
People spend more time in virtual worlds than ever before. And educators are leveraging these popular forms of recorded and interactive escapism to increase student engagement. Recently academic departments have begun to experiment with the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets, which have become much easier to use and far less expensive. Headsets can make people feel like they have traveled to a new place, so they are an intriguing new tool for learning. They can create an experience that differs significantly from using a computer to work or play in an online environment.
When using a computer to visit an online world, your sense of immersion is affected by many factors, including the quality of video and audio, the number of distractions from real life, and your virtual representation on the screen. It is like a tug-of-war. Your avatar may be traveling in a helicopter through a fantasy landscape, but your brain also knows that you are sitting in front of your desk. You can see and feel the cat in your lap for example, but it is not in the helicopter with your avatar, so you are managing two worlds at once. In a continuum of this sense of immersion, at what point is there presence, where you lose connection with your environment and truly feel that you are somewhere else?
Using a VR headset instead of a computer may move you along this pathway, because you don’t see your desktop or clearly hear the sounds of your household. The sense of being connected with the everyday world changes. “I usually say the way to tell if it is working is if you take off the goggles and are surprised by which direction you are now facing,” says Warren Blyth, Multimedia Developer at Course Development and Training Department (CDT) at Oregon State University’s Ecampus. And whether you are a student who may find themselves in a class with VR components, or an instructor curious about adding this kind of experience to your teaching, VR, like most new adventures, will be shaped by your readiness for it.
You could think of the act of putting on a headset as departing on a voyage, because for many it feels like traveling somewhere and being present in another place. When you take off the headset at the end of the trip you may have moved physically, mentally and/or emotionally. Or not. Just like a trip to Paris, everyone’s experience will be different. To help you get ready, this article is a checklist about the very beginning of your journey, before you put on the goggles. It is about the pre-departure phase in which, as for any other trip, you might prepare by researching, planning, packing your bag, and saying goodbye to the cat.
Technology lift may be a part of your pre-departure phase. This is a term floating around the CDT Department, thanks to the adventurous lexicon of Assistant Director of Course Development & Training Laurie Kirkner, who says that “technology lift takes place over a longer period of time than cognitive load, which is specific to working memory. It includes activities like reading manuals, investigating safety protocols and coping with expectations. And it will vary with the difficulty of the task and your skill level, just like cognitive load.”
Technology lift in anticipation of a VR journey may be analogous to researching luggage before taking a trip to a foreign city. You may ask: how much weight can I lift and for how long? Many of us have witnessed the oversupplied backpacker on a trip overseas. She struggles with a heavy load while shouldering her way through the crowds. One wonders if more thoughtful preparation could have saved her from being on the brink of pitching over during her first day in Paris. And although she probably had a great time anyway, planning ahead may have been worthwhile.
Before entering a new VR space you can find out what controls exist for dealing with inappropriate or annoying behavior. For example, some platforms allow you to mute the audio of other avatars or create a personal space bubble. If you plan to meet others or visit a popular platform it can be helpful to do a test run by yourself beforehand, taking the time to get used to the location without any social awkwardness concerns. Owners, builders and organizers of platforms may have additional controls like banishing certain users – instantly and/or permanently. In addition there may be codes of conduct governing acceptable behavior. It is great to learn something about the culture before arriving.
Pre-departure planning can increase positive experiences and keep you safe. For example, people have experienced sexual harassment, lack of respect for personal boundaries, and socially undesirable behaviors in real life (IRL) as well as in VR. “Social VR creates a life-like, immersive and public experience. Given this immersive nature and the overwhelmingly unequal gender dynamic with more men than women in this space, respondents talked about these spaces as seeming similar to public settings where they have been harassed.” (Outlaw & Duckles, 2017) You can take off the headset for a quick exit and also research other strategies to keep your trip free of pests.
If you took a trip to Paris, how would you get from the Charles de Gaulle airport to your hotel? After getting through customs you may feel jet lagged and confused, which is not a good time to learn new things. So your cognitive load would be less heavy if, for example, you already knew how to buy a ticket and get on the right train. In VR, navigation systems vary widely, so you may want to learn something about them before departure. A good example is learning how to move, fly, or teleport. And especially if you plan to meet others, it is helpful to know how to open the menu system and search for locations/meetings.
When you go places, you occupy new spaces. Once you put on a VR headset, you will set up a play area that can be stationary or quite a bit bigger. For the Oculus Quest 2, a popular newer headset, at least 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet is recommended for natural body movement. Once you get out the measuring tape, your house may suddenly feel claustrophobic as you figure out the distance between the couch and the cat box. So consider how much movement you would like to have on your trip and whether it is worth moving the furniture.
Packing your bag
For a voyage to Paris, you might think about which beret (and matching scarf) to bring along for a feeling of style and comfort. For your VR trip, the headset will eliminate any possibility of style, but you can still plan for comfort. In the last couple of years, headsets have become much less onerous; for example, they are now untethered from computers, and lighter. But there are still personal adjustments that can make you feel more at ease. And in regards to style, you could always try a beret over the headset.
“Did you know? The world’s first VR headset was created in 1968, and weighed so much it had to be mounted from a ceiling. Due to its appearance, it was nicknamed “The Sword of Damocles.”” (Best Reviews, 2020)
When shopping for the right backpack for your trip to the City of Light, the size and shape of your body comes into consideration. For VR, it turns out that the distance between your eyes is important. This is because you want the lens spacing in the headset and your interpupillary distance (IPD) to line up in order to decrease the possibility of motion sickness. This may be especially important for people with smaller bodies, such as women. According to the 2012 Anthropometric Survey of U.S. Army Personnel, the mean interpupillary distance is 61.7mm for women and 64.0mm for men. The Oculus Quest 2, for example, has three IPD settings: 61mm or smaller, 61 to 66mm, and 66 mm or larger. You can check with your optometrist to find your own IPD and then make sure that your headset is on the right setting.
Straps and Comfort
Even though headsets have become much more comfortable, it is always a good idea to make sure that things fit properly. A trial run with the headset powered off but resting on your face can give you some time to dial in the best strap tension and see how it feels on your head. “I often tell people before a demo that they want it just snug enough that it isn’t falling off their face – but not so tight that it’s cutting off circulation,” says Blyth. Some people report discomfort with the way their headset feels on their face, which can be distracting. Because you may need to spend less time using it than anticipated if it bothers you, taking the time to adjust your headset properly will help you feel more immersed on your trip.
Before you put your headset on and can’t see anything, you may want to try out your hand controllers, which can include features such as buttons, thumb-sticks and triggers. You could view support materials from the manufacturer or other users to investigate all of the functions in order to create a tactile memory of the controllers.
Saying goodbye to the cat
As you get to the final stages of pre-departure, you may want to check in with your expectations. “Virtual reality – even the name is hype,” says Nick Harper, CDT Multimedia Developer. “VR only addresses the senses of sight and sound, and even those may not work well for some users. Touch, smell and taste are underdeveloped at this point. So trying to immerse yourself in VR through a headset can feel like a struggle because your body wants to keep you safe and your brain is getting so many mixed signals.” One thing we know for sure is that your virtual trip will not be like anyone else’s experience. It may disappoint, or possibly blow your mind. And your memories will be affected by any problems you run into along the way. For example, if you walked right into a sewer during your first trip to Paris, it might be hard for you to believe other people had an amazing time in the Louvre or atop the Eiffel Tower.
Right before you leave, there is a point where you say some goodbyes. After all, you are leaving to meet new people and experience groovy new things in virtual reality. And the cat can’t come along. So saying goodbye may mean removing pets and humans from your play area, shutting the door, and putting the phone on mute. With the headset on, immersed in video and audio, it won’t be fun to step on your pet or hear snarky comments from your roommate (even if you are wearing a beret). Finding a way not to have an audience on the ground can help you relax and feel immersed.
It may be said that reading about VR is like dancing about architecture. So if you do get the chance, try it for yourself, (and also maybe think about that trip to Paris). No matter how many descriptions you read, the final destination will surprise (and hopefully delight) you in ways you may never have imagined. Especially if you have researched, planned, packed your bag and said goodbye to the cat, you will be ready for a great trip. Bon voyage!
VR Readiness Checklist
Take some time to plan/create your play area.
Research the platform codes of conduct.
Find out what controls exist to minimize unwanted interactions.
Learn how to navigate, access the menu system and search for locations/meetings.
Check with your optometrist to find your IPD and then make sure your headset is on the right setting.
Experiment with controller functions and create a tactile memory.
Adjust the straps so that they are snug but not cutting off circulation.
Explore your expectations.
Create a distraction free space.
Take a test run before meeting others.
Best Reviews. (2020, December). Best VR Headsets. https://bestreviews.com/best-vr-headsets
Kei Studios. (2017, November 23). A Complete Virtual Reality Glossary.
Outlaw, J., Duckles, B. (2017, October). Why Women Don’t Like Social Virtual Reality: A Study of Safety, Usability, and Self-Expression in Social VR. The Extended Mind. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56e315ede321404618e90757/t/5afca0716d2a73e7b3c77f28/1526505624385/The+Extended+Mind_Why+Women+Don%27t+Like+Social+VR_Oct+16+2017.pdf
The Economist. (2019, November 21). Virtual reality continues to make people sick. https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/11/23/virtual-reality-continues-to-make-people-sick