Virtual Reality at University of Montevallo
Social work students at the University of Montevallo test out a virtual reality group dynamics simulator using the HTC Vive. Shown from left to right: Rebecca Green, Nikki Sanders, Caitlin Waldrop, and (in the VR headset) Audrey Bearss. Photo credit: Brendan Beal.
by Brendan Beal, MSW, Ph.D.
Social work students have been using simulation to practice skills for many years now. Role-plays and standardized clients are examples. Students have also been using a basic form of virtual reality (VR) to practice skills, as well. For an example of this, think of computer simulations, on a screen, similar to Second Life or any other avatar-based game that allows a student to play a social worker or otherwise interact with environments that a social worker might see in the field. But recent developments have taken this kind of simulation to a deeper level. With this year’s release of commercial VR head-mounted displays (HMDs), role-plays and simulations are now many times more immersive.
The BSW program at the University of Montevallo in Alabama is testing out a VR group dynamics simulator. The simulator, once it is developed further, will immerse one student at a time within a virtual setting. When the student puts the headset on, the student’s field of vision is completely encompassed by an environment that looks like a classroom with four seated virtual clients in front of the student. The student can walk around within this environment and use small, wireless controllers to point and select clients or other options. When a client is selected, he or she starts a pre-recorded dialogue, full of rich descriptions of issues the client is having that day. Amateur voice actors within the university’s theater program have lent their talents to record the dialogues. The presence of these virtual group members is incredibly immersive, and the sentiment of most people who enter the simulation is that they feel as if they are really there.
This VR experience is being developed for a Social Work with Small Groups class, so the decisions the students make within the simulation relate to group leadership assessment and practicing action skills. For example, they can call on clients and, after receiving a bit of dialogue, can ask the clients to “tell me more,” “interrupt and move on,” or suggest other steps for the group to take to achieve the group’s goals. These activities, coupled with the immersive environment that only a VR HMD can provide, make for a unique learning experience.
This particular simulation, paid for in part by the Montevallo Research for Creative Projects grant, is still months away from being fully functional. Eventually, the simulation will be able to guide the student through the group therapy session, challenging the student to make decisions regarding group leadership and giving students a grade at the end based on the choices they make. It will be replayable many times over if the student wants to practice these skills further. Elements to be added in this version of the simulation include a client “blow-up,” in which the avatar yells at the group leader, and a scenario in which the student must read a client’s nonverbal communication to best assess the situation. This last feature will be developed using a motion capture rig called the Perception Neuron Suit and will require someone to act out the body language of an avatar.
Whether or not VR will be a natural fit within the social work classroom or just a novelty still remains to be seen. The research on VR HMDs in this capacity is still in its infancy, but because of our field’s dedication to experiential learning, these kinds of new developments might fit perfectly into the social work curriculum.
Regardless of ultimate results of the research in the coming decades, these new VR devices are coming into our personal lives, our classrooms, and perhaps even our work spaces soon.
Brendan Beal, MSW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, AL. He teaches BSW classes, and his research is on technology applications for social work students.