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Dreamscape Learn student workers shape future of immersive education


Raymond Chavez guides participants through fully immersive virtual reality experiences designed for innovative learning at ASU's Dreamscape Learn. Photo by Kevin Pirehpour/ASU Enterprise Technology

April 20, 2023

Step into a world where learning is an adventure, classrooms are portals to new universes and students become front-line researchers in far-off lands: Welcome to Dreamscape Learn at Arizona State University.

With a focus on collaborative exploration, students gear up using virtual reality headsets, hand sensors and joysticks to embark on a journey into an interplanetary Alien Zoo. The goal? For students to immerse themselves in the virtual biology lab, where they can study fundamental science concepts such as cell structure, genetics, macromolecules and more. 

Currently, Dreamscape Learn offers this fully immersive experience to students enrolled in Biology 100, 181 and 182. 

“I'm a visual learner so it really helps to actually see what I'm learning about right in front of my face,” said Raelyn Valconesi, a psychology major at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Instead of just reading about the different parts of the cell, for example, I get to see them up close — I can zoom in and out, rotate around the environment and even manipulate outcomes based on what we’ve learned in class.”

The pods are operated by a team of student workers who have taken on leadership roles to mentor and support their peers. This unique combination of technology and student leadership offers a glimpse into a future where students are both learning and leading in immersive, collaborative environments. 

“Being in a leadership role was kind of intimidating in the beginning, but it's all about having a good mindset,” said Raymond Chavez, a junior studying organizational leadership at the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts who serves as the technical support analyst assistant at Dreamscape Learn. “This job has really allowed me to build on my leadership and communication and work with people at various professional levels.”

Dreamscape Learn operates through a partnership between ASU’s EdPlus and Enterprise Technology teams. While EdPlus works with faculty to develop the pedagogy powering these immersive experiences, ASU’s Enterprise Technology manages a team of student workers, or pod operators, through the Learning Experience team

These pod operators support and lead fellow students through the experience, from correctly using the VR equipment to running the course modules inside pods and answering questions. More than 5,000 in-person and online ASU students go through the Dreamscape Learn experience weekly. 

The pod operators also engage with hundreds of visitors each month, including university leadership and special guests that have included ASU President Michael Crow, football players from the Arizona Cardinals and world-renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall.

“We're fortunate to have the most brilliant students in the world and to be able to connect them with all the talent and expertise of visitors that come through the Dreamscape Learn experience,” said Allison Hall, senior director of ASU’s Learning Experience. “It’s a wonderful catalyst for starting learners on their career path — from learning how to introduce people to new technology to making connections with experts in a variety of fields.”

As students develop these skills, they become better equipped to compete in future career opportunities. They learn to think critically, reason quantitatively and communicate effectively with others — all highly valued skills in today's evolving job market.

“It's a way to engage and support our students with immersive storytelling and exceptional pedagogy while giving them a set of transferable skills to carry them through their careers,” said John VandenBrooks, associate dean of immersive learning at ASU. “That's what Dreamscape Learn is all about.”

Launched in partnership with Dreamscape Immersive in 2020, students entering the virtual world can explore the intricacies of introductory biology concepts in a way that is both engaging and accessible. They can see the inner workings of fictional, yet biologically realistic, creatures up close, learning about everything from their physiology to their genetics and evolutionary history.

The Alien Zoo, an orbiting intergalactic wildlife refuge for endangered life forms, was developed by some of the biggest names in media and entertainment — including co-founder and Hollywood executive Walter Parkes and Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg. Every aspect of their design has been meticulously crafted — from their movements to their sounds — to provide a truly immersive experience for students. 

“We believe that 2020 will be seen as an inflection point in the history of education — the moment when society recognized it had both the urgent need and the digital tools to provide first-class educational experiences remotely to a previously unimaginable number of students in previously unimaginable ways,” said Parkes in ASU News. “We intend for Dreamscape Learn to be a uniquely important educational asset moving forward.”

And it's not just the students who are benefiting from this technology. Professors can use this immersive VR experience to teach in new and innovative ways, opening up new avenues for educational research and exploration.

“We can use data to predict future scenarios or shrink to the size of a nanobot and travel at a microscopic level — the possibilities are endless,” said Lisa Flesher, who leads Realm 4 Initiatives for EdPlus. “We are revolutionizing education with immersive technology and enabling students to be explorers of their own education.”

Looking ahead, Dreamscape Learn aims to expand to new subjects — such as chemistry, climate science and sustainability — and include student storytelling from courses like Designing for Dreamscape into their immersive educational experiences.

“The future of education is now,” VandenBrooks said. “We are reenvisioning how we engage and teach our students with innovative learning experiences — that’s what we’re doing here at ASU.”

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