While everyone adjusts to a “new normal,” Scholars Studio Librarian Jolanda van Arnhem has been grappling with new realities.

Augmented and virtual realities, that is.

In a new First-Year Experience (FYE) course, van Arnhem and colleagues lead students into digital domains to engage with technology playing a growing role in everyday life.

The course, AR U Experienced?, offers a hands-on approach to Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). As van Arnhem explains, AR layers 3D objects over the real world, like a Snapchat filter. VR, on the other hand, is completely immersive, transporting users to a 360-degree digital experience.

In the context of the College of Charleston Libraries, AR and VR offer students new pathways of learning and experience with media that will shape the future information environment.

“The blurring of lines between fine art, pop culture and commerce requires a new level of information literacy in order to become active participants and creators rather than passive consumers,” explains van Arnhem. “The class is twofold: Learning to use the new technology and also research and discuss its social implications.”

Throughout AR U Experienced?, first-year students have the opportunity to produce original 3D content and deliver scholarly presentations. Previous topics have included issues of identity representation in virtual spaces, the treatment of phobias and the privacy implications for a world steeped increasingly in AR and VR.

AR U Experienced? and attendant resources are part of the 21st Century Library initiative, the College Libraries’ commitment to preparing Cougars for the future media they will encounter in their careers. By delivering experiences to in-person and remote learners alike and providing students with disabilities new avenues of access, AR and VR instruction allows the libraries to serve more equitably its entire community.

“Library instruction stands to benefit immensely from these new technologies in ways our field is only beginning to see,” says Dean of Libraries John W. White. “Our librarians’ ability to offer what are essentially digital masterclasses ensures we’re preparing our students for success with whatever digital landscape they encounter upon graduation.”

AR and VR tools are among the latest tranche of new education technology added to the libraries’ collection, joining high-definition video cameras, oral history recording equipment, new tablets and more.

“Collecting and making accessible this tech for our students and faculty is a fundamental part of our mission,” explains White. “Like earlier embraces of electronic books and other digital resources, the libraries’ use of AR and VR follows in that same tradition of adaptation and eagerness to explore new possibilities.”

a student uses VR goggles

Library instruction in AR and VR technologies as well as a VR pilot program are just some of the aspects of the 21st Century Library initiative.

Some of these possibilities are already clear. While traditional information literacy instruction is lecture-based, AR and VR invites more active learning and direct participation. Though it may seem paradoxical, these digital technologies create a tactile connection for students, a benefit that has been a common refrain in student testimonials.

“AR U Experienced? helped me immensely,” says student Iris Vlahogiannis. “In the course we had to do research all semester for our final project. The process of doing so has prepared me for gathering sources for every other class I’ve taken so far.”

And let’s not forget, these new technologies are often fun. A sample video playlist featured in a VR pilot program designed by Research and Instruction Librarian Elena Rodriguez includes “Exploring Patagonia’s Disappearing Glaciers,” “Before the Wall: A Borderlands Journey” and “Sea Turles Nesting in Costa Rica,” each offering a 360-degree viewing experience. 

This cross-discipline pilot program featured heavily in Director of First-Year Experience Sarah Owens’ Travel Narratives course.

“Last semester, my FYE class focused on the U.S./Mexico border with students reading about undocumented immigrants who visited their hometowns through VR,” says Owens. “In van Arnhem’s presentation to my class via Zoom, she wove in the practical uses of VR and connected them to the class’ content. Students were provided practical tips on how to purchase inexpensive headsets and explore the content of 360-degree VR videos through their own mobile devices. I look forward to welcoming her back into my classroom, especially during the pandemic when VR can be a means of safely exploring our diverse world.”

In times of lockdown, escaping to a reality beyond one’s dorm room sounds like a digital miracle, but applications for AR and VR extend far beyond the COVID-19 environment. Everything from advertisements and “live” events to meetings with medical professionals already feature these components, and their presence is forecasted to grow.

“COVID only accelerated these changes – they were already at work,” says van Arnhem.

Global data backs her up. The global consumer virtual reality hardware market is expected to reach $10 billion by 2022, more than double its 2019 level. As of last year, more than 80% of businesses involved in manufacturing, product design and project management already utilized VR in their operations. Though artificial intelligence may get all the hype, the predicted expenditure on advanced education technology worldwide is higher for VR than Artificial Intelligence.

Many folks had never used virtual conferencing prior to the pandemic. Less than a year later, it has become a touchstone for staying in touch with friends and family. “Zoom,” like “Google” before it, is now both a verb and a noun. AR and VR technology may follow a similar rapid expansion and adoption.

“Now, everyone is a master of Zoom, whereas very few of us had ever heard of it at the beginning of the year,” says van Arnhem.

That played out last year as students enrolled in the first spring section of AR U Experienced? had to switch to hybrid learning in the middle of the semester, and the fall section met synchronously on Zoom. COVID-19 restrictions limited the use of the libraries’ latest headsets.

These were challenges for all students, especially first year students for whom all of college was a new experience. Those in van Arnhem’s course rose to the occasion.

“Picture these students: Here they are in college courses for the first time when every college is adjusting to a new model, and for our class we’re researching and discussing new technology and new applications,” shares van Arnhem. “That’s a lot for anyone to get their head around.”

During both semesters, students dived into the issues and opportunities of extended realities, with discussions ranging from how virtual reality will change the way we treat mental illness to how immersive journalism can be used to build empathy.

AR U Experienced? and the VR pilot program are just two of the many ways the libraries are embracing the future. The 21st Century Library initiative involves the complete transformation of Addlestone’s first floor, with facilities for video production, podcasts and more, paired with the technology and instruction for students and faculty to learn, create and collaborate.

“These technologies offer new collaborative experiences, transporting students beyond Addlestone’s four walls and fostering their creativity and expression,” says White. “By embracing these changes and empowering our faculty to experiment, the libraries will continue to serve as the campus hub for discovery – in any reality.”