How Two Law Schools Use Virtual Reality in the Classroom
In recent years, law schools have injected a host of technologically-savvy initiatives into their curriculum, ranging from start-up incubators to online-centric coursework and beyond. But some law schools are looking to move their curriculum into a new dimension: the third dimension, to be specific.
The educational tracks at the 2019 American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) conference opened with “Virtual Reality in the Law Classroom,” a presentation of what two law schools have done with 360 video and 3-D modeling technologies to increase their students’ learning. Kenton Brice, director of technology innovation at University of Oklahoma College of Law, and Jenny Wondracek, director of legal educational technology at UNT Dallas College of Law, demonstrated that while the technology may seem futuristic, adopting it is feasible now.
The Future is Soon(er)
For Brice at Oklahoma, the goal in adopting new technologies is to see them used in a way that integrates with what students are already learning. “We don’t actually have a class in 3D technology; we’re looking to leverage it for the preexisting curriculum,” he explained.
To that end, Oklahoma has explored virtual reality technologies in a number of different settings within preexisting courses, ranging from using professionally-created videos within the school’s Human Rights curriculum (such as the UN-created Clouds Over Sidra) to faculty-created videos with the school’s Transactional Law Practicum. One student, Brice said, even used the school’s VR capabilities to create a 360 video of himself at oral arguments, which he’d later critique.
“He’s actually saying to himself, ‘Why did I just ask that?’” Brice explained while demonstrating the student’s video. “Because then he’s turning and seeing the jury’s response, and you can’t do that in regular video.”
But where Brice and the Oklahoma team are spending much of their time is in explaining class concepts in a way that allows for deeper understanding. In one video, for instance, Brice and another Oklahoma professor used a drone and a 360 degree camera to record VR-enabled video of an oil well that would be near impossible to visit otherwise, looking to better explain the oil and gas industry to students.
In another example, the team built out a replica “crime” scene for students to investigate in an insurance law case. The team modeled important evidence like a shotgun and a screwdriver, and virtual reality software through Oculus allows students to investigate in three dimensions, take screenshots, and annotate as they see fit. “You can measure the screwdriver; it’s seven-and-a-quarter inches long. That matters,” Brice said. He added that with the technology, “I can do everything that a crime scene investigator can do.”
The technology can get pricey though that’s slowly changing. Brice estimated that the first version of Oklahoma Law Library’s virtual reality viewing stations cost roughly $4000, while the latest version sat between $1300-1400. The current technology they use includes the Oculus Rift S, an Oculus touch controller, an Alienware r13 gaming computer, a slew of 360 cameras and drones, and proprietary OVAL viewing software developed at the university.
And with those in place, Brice said that some of his greatest concerns now come with time—both in actually creating the content for the virtual reality system itself, and also in charting a new direction for the curriculum in conjunction with professors. “There’s no textbook about virtual reality in law schools,” Brice said. “We talk about this with legal technology in general, but it’s even harder with virtual reality.”
Virtual Reality on a Budget
For Wondracek at UNT Dallas, the genesis of her virtual reality journey happened when she walked past the school’s courtroom and found a line out the door of 1Ls looking to practice oral arguments. It was then that she thought, why couldn’t that practice be simulated? After a glance into a number of public speaking apps, Wondracek and the UNT team decided to build something themselves.
The result is a pilot program for advocacy, using virtual reality. The software simulates a courtroom setting, where students are expected to make their case (Wondracek focused on the Lizzie Borden trial for the pilot), and the software would grade the student on tone, volume, eye contact and time taken. The student presents to a professor at the beginning and end of the program, but in between, the VR application is the main source of practice for students.
Wondracek’s goal, she said, was to simulate a real courtroom setting. “There are phones that ring, there are people talking, there are lights shining in your eyes, all sorts of distractions,” she explained.
Beyond that, the UNT team has also developed a pilot for crime scene investigation. Similar to Oklahoma, the goal is to move through a scene and pinpoint important evidence. What may make UNT’s VR application unique, though, is that Wondracek said the crime scene simulation was developed “for 45 cents: the price of a sugar free ketchup bottle.”
For the display software, the team used the basic version of Cupix, normally used to show real estate listings. The photos of the scene were taken with a budget 360 degree camera the university already had, and higher resolution photos of evidence were taken using a cell phone. The “murder” victim as a department counselor, and the evidence the aforementioned ketchup for blood and fingerprints. Even the high-tech part of the program was on a budget: Rather than investing in Oculus set-ups, Wondracek purchased three Galaxy S8s and Samsung Gear headsets from 2017 to help students access the simulation.
“It is possible to do this, even on a shoestring budget,” she noted. Now, as the law school’s professors have approached her for more “non-ketchupy scenes,” she said, “We told them, you stage it, we’ll film it.”
While there are still challenges, including finding willing participants for the scenes (“apparently, people don’t like to pretend that they’re dead,” Wondracek joked), VR’s usage has gotten the law school notoriety. She said that first year students have brought up the VR program unprompted at orientation week, especially following an ABA Journal article profiling her efforts.
“It’s been work to see if we can do it,” Wondracek said. “Thankfully, I have people who have helped me along the way.”