Stuckeman School professor uses virtual reality to expand studio environment

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The COVID-19 pandemic posed many challenges to educators around the world as they worked to create an online learning environment in which their students could thrive. Travis Flohr, assistant professor of landscape architecture in the Stuckeman School, took this challenge in stride and led a virtual reality (VR)-based studio for undergraduate and graduate students during the fall 2020 semester that allowed students to have more learning opportunities — and more connectivity with each other — in a virtual setting.

According to Flohr, online learning via Zoom created several obstacles that made it difficult for students to excel in a studio setting. In addition to “Zoom fatigue,” barriers to engagement, collaboration and peer communication resulted from virtual learning. These challenges sparked the need for a change in online learning environments.

“Zoom was okay, it filled an emergency need and a gap, but by itself, it didn’t really allow for us to engage with students the way we typically do in a studio environment, which is very much a hands-on process,” Flohr said. “We do a lot of small groups and one-on-one instruction. Zoom does allow for breakout rooms, but it’s just not the same [as physically being in the studio].”

In response to the challenges created by the pandemic, Flohr’s colleague and Emeritus Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Tim Johnson created a VR environment for Flohr and fellow colleague Ken Tamminga, distinguished professor of landscape architecture, to use. The VR studio was used for the “Design Implementation Planting III” course taught by Flohr and Tamminga that educates both undergraduate and graduate students on planting methods and construction documents.

The VR studio is modeled after the studio setting in the Stuckeman Family Building, thus allowing students to easily navigate through the online space. The model includes sounds, people and plants to add realistic elements to the virtual space. The studio was made up of several panoramas where students could examine rooms in the studio from a 360-degree view.

“The studio was built using 120 unique panoramas exported from twin motion and imported into 3DVista Virtual Tour Pro, an interactive 360-degree virtual tour operating software,” said Flohr.

Students were able to move through the studio by clicking on “hotspots,” small dots scattered throughout the online space that allowed students to navigate to each panorama. Shortcuts were also located in various spots in the studio, allowing users to reach any panorama from their current location.

The virtual reality studio incorporated several features that replicated in-person learning. The studio consisted of four parts: studio desks, lecture hall, pin-up spaces and a lounge.

Bailee Bair, a current fourth-year landscape architecture student, participated in the virtual studio during the fall 2020 semester.

Our in-person studio is a space that we spent a great deal of time in and the environment there is very important to how we work. There is definitely a mixture of work and fun, but I think this is necessary to our creativity and workflow.” — Bailee Bair

“The features of the online studio went beyond just workspaces and contained some fun extra details. This was really appreciated by my classmates and I, and I think that these extra details really helped the virtual studio to feel as similar to our in-person studio as possible,” she continued.

The studio desks included a whiteboard software that allowed students to upload files and use drawing tools on their designs. Another important component was a Zoom link to every instructor’s meeting room, allowing students to easily access faculty as needed. Due to the nature of the course, which included detailed instructor feedback for complex construction designs, the whiteboard and Zoom features of the desk space was vital for students to learn from their peers.

“We integrated some features that allowed us to have a more traditional, albeit digital, version of studio, pin up boards and desk spaces that students could use so they could see each other’s work, which was a big complaint they had about using Zoom and Canvas. They just couldn’t learn from each other [in those platforms],” said Flohr.

The lecture hall feature of the studio consisted of links to synchronous Zoom lectures, past lectures, software tutorials and other course materials. This information was found in one space, making it easier for students to access all resources needed for the course.

Pin-up spaces were used for group critiques by using concept boards to facilitate discussions, instructor and peer feedback, comments and presentations. The lounge feature included links to streaming service watch parties, and music and food delivery services.

“Each of us had our own concept board space but it was accessible to everyone, much like our desks at our in-person studio. This feature provided us with a space to store all of our work and a way to stay organized, but also a place where we could ask questions, make suggestions and collaborate virtually,” said Bair. “Without this feature, I think my online learning experience would have been a lot less successful.”

Flohr conducted a research project to measure the effectiveness of the studio on student learning and peer engagement. The survey results revealed that the virtual reality studio created a better peer learning environment than Zoom and also helped students understand concepts better.

“The students really credited the way in which the virtual studio was set up so that it allowed them to constantly go back and review our interactions with their work throughout the semester,” Flohr said.

Flohr was recognized for his work developing the studio at the 2021 annual international Digital Landscape Architecture conference in May. The theme, which was “Hybrid Landscapes,” focused on how landscape architecture instruction adapted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flohr also gave a presentation about the virtual studio at the conference and credits his recognition to effective collaboration with faculty.

 It just shows what you can do when faculty members come together and work so well like we do here, particularly when there is an immediate, pressing need.” — Travis Flohr

“It is amazing what we can do when we pull our resources together,” he concluded.

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