Empathy comes from experience, and in a field like social work, there are few qualities more necessary, according to Jennifer Pribble.

As director of field experience for Northwestern Oklahoma State University-Enid’s social work department, it’s Pribble’s responsibility to see students put what they’ve learned into practice, and that they learn from practice what can’t be taught in a classroom.

But with the addition of a brand new virtual reality lab opened Friday, Pribble sees a way for students to ease into the experiences they’ll come to face.

“All of our students go do a field practicum for 420 hours, but they can’t go until they have these skills,” she said. “This is a middle ground to give them some practice before they’re out there in it.”

There are 11 stations in the lab, each with a set of VR goggles, and a pair of controllers for each hand allowing the user to interact with the world wrapped around their eyes. Large, wall-mounted monitors display to the room what the user is seeing and doing.

At the Oct. 25 open-house event, the social work department showcased the $40,000 grant funded lab to visitors with a variety of experiences. Roller coaster rides, a safari jaunt, and plenty of others for entertainment.

Some were truer to the room’s educational purpose, such as a real-life street tour of San Francisco, led by one of the city’s homeless residents.

Another puts the wearer behind the eyes of an autistic child at a birthday party, their internal dialog narrated to explain how all the varied action and commotion in the room might effect someone with the condition.

The open house was student Scott Messenger’s first time using VR. He took the San Francisco tour, among other things.

“It made a little bit of my hair stand up. I’m looking around like I’m expecting something to happen,” he said. Watching on the monitor, there’s a greater barrier between what’s happening and what’s felt, as it’s clear to the viewer how far removed they are from the events on screen.

But put the goggles on, and “whatever you thought your safety wall was, it gets blown wide open,” Messenger said.

A lot of content exists for use in VR, and more is created every day, but there’s not much designed specifically to prepare social work students for the profession.

There is a video she has used, developed by Oral Roberts University, which takes the user through a home visit as part of child welfare investigation. It’s potentially helpful viewing, but Pribble said she would like to provide students with something more in-depth and interactive.

“That’s something I want to develop, is a VR where they’re getting to assess safety specifically, as they go on a home visit,” she said. “Do you go right in the door when someone on the other side says, or do you wait for them to answer the door? Where in the room do you stand? Whenever you walk in, what do you look for? What looks dangerous?”

Virtual reality is still relatively unproven as a teaching tool, and many schools have yet to invest heavily in it. Though she feels it’s gaining popularity, it’s not yet standard in education.

Pribble said the department will be looking closely at the VR lab and student performance to determine just how effective a teacher it is, and in the future, it may be implemented into the curriculum.

Story provided by Enid News & Eagle

Written by: Mitchell Willetts