Virtual reality lab expands learning opportunities for students

Education, nursing and business students at SIUE are receiving more advanced training than ever before with the Department of Teaching and 's Professional Practice Lab. 

The Virtual Professional Practice Lab is a resource for students where they can train for situations that are difficult to prepare for. When students sit down in front of the TV, they're faced with virtual avatars they can communicate with as practice for real interactions. 

Susanne James, project director for the VPP Lab, explained that one of the typical practice scenarios is classroom management. 

“We purposefully set up the [virtual] students in a way that our typical [special education] students might act when they're being ornery, and so we'll have them practice those skills to help a child who's unmotivated, or unwilling to learn, or who might be distracted, to better approximate what that behavior should look like when they're interacting with a student,” James said. 

Behind every virtual avatar is a trained simulation specialist who can control and act as multiple different avatars at once. Operating from a different location than the trainee, the specialists use tracking devices and voice modification to hide that they are actors.

While labs like this exist in multiple universities across the country, SIUE is currently the only one in Illinois. According to Bernadette Sobczak, assistant clinical professor for SIUE school of nursing, it will not be long before this becomes a more common technology. 

“I think they actually just put some information in The American Journal of the Nurse Practitioner that schools should be doing this, so I feel like we're doing more cutting-edge stuff,” Sobczak said. “When you look at all the national guidelines, they're pushing simulated learning more and more.” 

 Third-year graduate FNP/DNP student Chelsea Pierce of Belleville, Illinois, spoke on her experience in a simulated training session with a virtual patient and father. 

“We were interviewing her and then went through a real-life scenario that covered some sensitive topics for the patient, such as sexuality and provocativeness,” Pierce said. “So, we had to actually ask the patient's father to step out of the room … they made it very lifelike in like, pushing back, asking questions — we couldn't even whisper because they would react like ‘What are you whispering about? Is it me? Is there something wrong?' So, it provided a really life-like scenario in how to handle sensitive topics in a pediatric setting.” 

James, Sobczak and Pierce were all clear that the simulations' ability to help students prepare for sensitive situations is what makes it stand out. The simulations provide a risk-free environment for students to make mistakes when they would have much less training for these situations otherwise. 

“The nursing faculty use this a lot to work through issues like, a patient who's considering suicide, or a patient who's having a lot of issues with medical needs. It's not appropriate to do that with actual people … So, in essence, it allows for a safe space for them to practice where we can stop a simulation at any time and allow them to change what they're doing … and then go right back into the simulation and do it again differently,” James said. 

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