Drop-in series: Virtual reality course brings Asia to students

Inspired by the late Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University where he shared how auditing a calligraphy class in college inspired him years later to add diverse fonts to Apple computers, we set out to visit classes around campus that make us think differently about what it means to be educated. This is one in a series of drop-ins.

Students explored East Asia through virtual reality and online 360-degree videos of locations and cultural gems such as this video of Chinese panda bears. To see the video on Discovery Network’s YouTube Channel, click here.

You visit a panda bear conservation base in China. You explore a historic cave on South Jeju Island. And you get lost in Tokyo’s streets.

It sounds like a study abroad trip. But you can visit all these and more from the comfort of home thanks to a new online class centered on virtual reality. “Study and Travel East Asia through Virtual Reality (VR),” offered through the Asian Studies Program – part of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, is the first course of its kind at FIU.

Using materials like VR glasses, smartphones and Youtube videos, students get to experience East Asia like never before. Students who may not be able to afford study abroad trips now have an opportunity to explore the region without breaking the bank and possibly prepare for a future trip to Asia.

“I want students to get a better understanding of what East Asia is and how real it is, how it works,” says Marcela Lopez-Bravo, who designed the course and taught it this past summer.

Students also read academic texts about topics such as East Asian architecture, history and city development. They engage with each other’s ideas through an online discussion forum Lopez-Bravo dubbed the “Tea Room.” Part of their discussion posts include looking up and sharing 360-degree videos (videos that allow viewers to explore the entire panoramic range of motion) that illustrate the week’s topics of discussion.

Through the VR glasses: students strolled the streets of Nepal. To watch this 360-degree video, click here.

For the VR component of the class, students virtually visit locations they’ve discussed in the readings or seen in assigned films and documentaries.

VR glasses are available online for as little as $10. Students download Google Street View on their smartphone and tap the Google Cardboard setting. Then they slip their phone into a retractable flap on the VR glasses, and they’re in another world.

The class “visited” three countries in six weeks. They explored temples, imperial palaces and national parks in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Tapei.

“The class is super fun,” says Nanda Singh, a senior liberal studies major who took the class. Singh, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in Asian Studies at FIU, says her favorite place to visit during the class was the Cheonggyecheon [a modern public recreation space] in Seoul, South Korea.

“It’s like you’re really there and in a different world. It’s like Santa’s Enchanted Forest. After that, I did some further research about it.”

In fact, ask the students in the class about a location, and they don’t just tell you what it looks like. They can often tell you its history, its cultural significance and its development.

Below is an example of one of Singh’s projects. To offer viewers a virtual tour of Kyoto, she edited several 360-degree video clips together and recorded her own narration. Click and drag your mouse to see in every direction.

“To be in a class where you get to immerse yourself in East Asia, especially if you’ve traveled there, you get nostalgic,” says Dario Encalada, a Japanese Studies major.

Taking virtual strolls throughout East Asia brought back memories of smells and sounds he experienced on his previous trips, and he was also glad to explore new places he wants to visit in-person next.

Several students in the class explore East Asia during one of the class’ face-to-face meetings.

Part of the goals of the class, Lopez-Bravo says, is to attract tech-savvy students so they can use technology they may be familiar with in a new way – as part of the learning process.

And students like Encalada are happy to be using VR and technology to experience education at the next level.

This class will be available in the summer of 2018 under its course ID: ASN 3503 – Exploring East Asia: Virtual Reality Travel. This upcoming fall, Lopez-Bravo will teach another VR course titled Japanese Spirituality. To search for the class and register, find it under course ID: ASN 3931 – RVC Special Topics in Asian Studies.