Immersive Experience and Virtual Reality

In this story, we share how Brendan and Magdalena Balcerak Jackson, Assistant Professors in Philosophy, dedicated time and resources to experiment and implement the use of immersive reality technologies within their undergraduate and graduate courses. We discuss how virtual reality (VR) technologies helped enrich the philosophy curriculum in two existing courses and spurred the creation of a new first year seminar titled 'Immersive Experience and Virtual Reality.' This case study outlines not only the pedagogical and logistical implications of implementing VR assignments and activities, but also recommendations for the wider academic community.

Increased Access to Immersive Technologies

In Spring 2017, Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement ran a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on 3D printing, scanning, and visualization. Subsequently, with an increased demand for 3D technologies from faculty, students and staff, UMIT funded additional 3D technologies which included VR technologies available to the UM community. FLC fellows also used their funds to purchase additional VR equipment available to all of University of Miami faculty, staff and students at the Creative Studio since Summer 2017. As a result of promoting our VR equipment, we discovered even more faculty discussing literature and media around virtual reality with their students, but now had the chance to bring another form of immersive experiences into their course.


“It was realistic and a lot of fun. At certain points it genuinely felt like it was actually happening.” - Anon.

During the Summer 2017 semester, Brendan reached out to Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement to brainstorm opportunities for students to connect to the concept of ‘virtual realism,’ addressed within his Fall undergraduate course PHI 345, Metaphysics. As one of the more abstract courses in philosophy, metaphysics is the philosophical study of the nature of reality, to explore metaphysical questions to understand ourselves and our place in the world. As Brendan aimed for students to question the perception of interacting with virtual objects and scenarios, we connected existing learning objectives, reflection and writing assignments to a selection of immersive room-scale VR experiences.  In collaboration with Brendan and Vanessa Rodriguez, Emerging Technologies Librarian, we tested and identified certain VR experiences around literature and concepts connected to ‘virtual realism’ which were ‘fantasy’; ‘exploration of time and space’; and ‘handling objects.’ By using a shared Google Doc to outline the goals, themes, virtual reality experiences and videos of game-play, we were able to establish a variety of experiences that students could select from.

Google Tiltbrush

Before the virtual reality session, students were assigned to read an article ‘The Virtual and the Real’ by David Chalmers, and review reflection assignment questions to consider. Twenty-four students then signed up to attend a 25-minute virtual reality session within the Faculty Exploratory or at the Creative Studio. During the experience, students selected up to two virtual reality experiences, while introductory technical guidance and assignment prompts were reaffirmed. After the experience, students submitted their answers to the reflection questions in Blackboard Learn and discussed ‘virtual realism’ during the face-to-face class sessions. Follow up assignments included a final essay with multiple scaffolding elements, including a thesis statement, submission of drafts and multiple in-class peer review and editing sessions using Google Docs.

“I have received a lot of positive, direct feedback. A lot of people really enjoyed it. Obviously it was fun, a number of people saying things about it was much more intense than they expected or that [they] forgot that they were in VR and had a shocking experience when they came back out of it. The indirect feedback - they really dove into the writing side, so it was really easy to get discussions going about it, a lot of work in class and working on their assignments. In terms of me seeing the effect of it, it was very, it was very clear.” - Brendan Balcerak Jackson

The Phenomenological Tradition

After piloting the logistical and pedagogical elements of the VR assignment within the Metaphysics course, Magdalena augmented the Spring 2018 graduate course 583R/683R, The Phenomenological Tradition. As described in the course outline, phenomenology is a historical philosophical tradition as well as a methodological approach to examine philosophical questions. Magdalena’s motivation for introducing virtual reality within this course was shaped around engaging students in deeper critical analysis of the ideas, arguments and theories discussed in the course. She shares that “by giving people some kind of unusual or novel experience, you can highlight some some features that you wouldn't notice otherwise. Often you are so used to the way your visual apparatus works and how your emotions usually function that you just don't reflect on them.” Similar to the preparation with the Metaphysics course, through multiple consultations and testing certain experiences, various VR experiences were selected to elicit emotion, allow students to create in virtual space, explore flying and heights, and or experience spatial audio.

Plank Experience

This specific course change involved multiple connecting assignments - from a virtual reality session to a discussion forum posting and then a short analysis paper. Fourteen students signed up for a 25-minute virtual reality session and then wrote an intuitive and methodologically unconstrained description of it. Students posted their description on a discussion board within Blackboard Learn where other students could gave feedback about whether it was really capturing a phenomenon in a way that was detailed enough. Using methodological constraints, students then transformed the reflective description into an 2000-word analysis paper of that experience. A peer review session was performed on the analysis paper, with a final version submitted after instructor feedback was provided. 

"I had the same experience with the writing. Everybody immediately had something that they wanted to write about […] One of the students wrote a paper about what they did and they said they had the sense that they felt like the virtual world was more realistic and then the real world, despite the fact that it clearly was imperfect. And so he was just reflecting on what kinds of things make it the case that it seemed more realistic for him. He wrote this whole essay about how it could be that it gives you this hyperrealism despite being cartoonish. This was just one example in which I felt like tons of attention was put into something you would never put attention to." - Magdalena Balcerak Jackson

Immersive Experience and Virtual Reality

The Mars Room Bookcover

Based on their collective experience, Brendan and Magdalena Balcerak Jackson discovered further possibilities in using VR to engage students with the material, and expand the philosophy curriculum. Brendan shared with us that he “realized that there's a lot more than you could do here. And there's more ways in which you can use VR to teach philosophical issues and also more issues that are about VR in particular that you could incorporate into it. That's actually what got us talking to put together the course for the Fall.” FPR190 ‘Immersive Experience and Virtual Reality,’ invited undergraduate students within the Fall 2018 semester to engage with a variety of immersive devices, including novels (The Mars Room), movies (Her, The Matrix), video games, virtual worlds (Second Life) and virtual reality experiences (Becoming Homeless).To introduce philosophical approaches to undergraduate students, this introductory course invited students reflect upon the ways in which these immersive devices shape our experiences and our sense of self.

A variety of assignments shaped this exciting new course, including discussion-based activities, exercises, reports and an opinion piece. Brendan and Magdalena also led virtual reality sessions within their classes Merge VR headsets, Oculus Go and the VR station in the Faculty Exploratory. As Magdalena reflected “very often we work with puzzles, and so we attract people to philosophy by thinking about puzzles. And you can formulate so many puzzles really well using VR.”  


While both Brendan and Magdalena shared the positives of this journey exploring immersive experiences, key challenges emerged. Students could only interact with the HTC Vive headset one-at-time, and during scheduled times. Scaling up for larger classes would require significant technological advances, support and set up. During the Fall 2017 semester, there were limited VR experiences which placed constraints on the type of assignments and materials to connect to. Brendan shared that providing multiple experiences that students could choose from had worked well, but searching for further experiences that emotionally connected to a student was challenging. For students with visual impairment or required glasses, the headset provided enough space for glasses, but it was still physically and visually restrictive, particularly where there were experiences that used a lot of text rather than alternative modes of communication. Experiences like Google Tilt Brush or Google Blocks provided visually impaired students the opportunity to lead the creation and design of their 3D space, rather than being in a restrictive virtual space designed for them.

Final Reflections

Amidst the concerns of safety, motion sickness and emerging nature of virtual reality technologies, our partnership with Brendan and Magdalena Balcerak Jackson and the Creative Studio provided us the opportunity to examine the impact of introducing virtual reality within the curriculum and its impact upon students. Through observations of the session, we discovered that as most students had never experienced virtual reality, or had limited experience with video games, they required guidance in navigating the virtual space. In consideration that a user becomes essentially ‘blindfolded’ to the real world, we also had to reassure students they were entering safe environments. As using a VR headset is often an isolated experience, we scheduled sessions so up to three students would attend a specific time period and be able to prepare, view and engage with other students during the virtual reality sessions. Furthermore, in using the Faculty Exploratory as a space for students to reflect before and after the virtual reality session, helped establish a proof-of-concept for installing permanent equipment within that space, that continues to be used by University of Miami faculty today.


Professors Brendan and Magdalena Balcerak-Jackson partnered with Gemma Henderson, Sr. Instructional Designer with Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement. For the past three years, Gemma has lead the faculty learning communities on introducing 3D technologies in the curriculum, with this year focused on Augmented Reality and Spatial Computing. Contact us at to request a consultation about exploring immersive projects within your courses.

PHI 345, Metaphysics, Fall 2017

Instructor: Professor Brendan Balcerak Jackson

Students: 24

VR Set-Up I: HTC Vive and Headphones, Alienware Laptop and SteamVR.

VR Set-Up II: Oculus Rift & Alienware Laptop using SteamVR or Oculus Store.

VR Experiences: The Lab, Google Blocks, Google Tilt Brush, Superhot VR, Job Simulator, Oculus Medium, Robo Recall, The Ranger: Lost Tribe.

Background Music: YouTube or Spotify.

PHI 583/683, The Phenomenological Tradition, Spring 2018

Instructor: Professor Magdalena Balcerak Jackson

Students: 14

VR Set-Up I: HTC Vive and Headphones, Alienware Laptop and SteamVR.

VR Set-Up II: Oculus Rift & Alienware Laptop using SteamVR or Oculus Store.

VR Experiences: The Bellows VR, Richie’s Plank Experience, Google Tilt Brush.

Background Music: YouTube or Spotify.

Basic steps have been provided for a scheduled event for 2-3 students.

Sign Up: Create a Doodle sign-up event with multiple 25 minute sessions to align with the class schedule. This should allow three students per 75 minute session, or two students per 50 minute session.

Reminder: Remind students of their event in class or via an announcement page.

Course Assignment: Remind students of the prompts and why this experience.

Virtual Reality Experiences: Discuss the virtual reality experience options with students, using the Steam Store, if necessary.

Safety: Provide guidance and warning about walls, being tethered to the computer, and considerations about their height.

Headset: Ask the students to place headset on, then tighten and move headset until comfortable.

Controls: Pick up the controls and place in the students hands.

Display Mirror: Click SteamVR window, go to the dropdown menu and click display mirror. A window will open so you can see what students see in the headset.

Tutorial: Start tutorial. This lasts only 5 minutes and prepares students for its use.

Launch: Using the Steam Library, click ‘play’ to launch a particular experience

Instruction: Balance between giving guidance and letting students figure it out.

Monitor: Monitor students and use of space to prevent accidents.

End: Once time is complete, slowly reduce the sound and confirm the completion of the next session.

Reminder: Ensure students time to make notes after the experience is complete.