Social Work

A Different Touch: Virtual Reality Improves Social Work Education

Written By: Drexler B. James '13 | October 9, 2019

Future social work students at UCF may find a new tool incorporated into the curriculum – virtual reality simulation.

Jasmine Haynes, a graduate student in the social work track who is pursuing a doctorate in public affairs, and social work faculty members Denise Gammonley, Shawn Lawrence, and Reshawna Chapple conducted research this summer on the benefits of virtual reality in the classroom.

Their goals were to see if virtual reality could improve students’ feeling of preparedness in working with Alzheimer’s patients, as well as foster empathy for the patients and family members affected by the disease.

“It’s different than having students engage in role-playing or watch videos because one of the challenges with role-playing is that it is only as good as the actor,” Gammonley said. “We needed a better way of exposing students to these situations before we send them out into the field. With virtual reality, students get this experience in a way that feels more real to them.”

Melody Bowdon, interim vice provost of the division of teaching and learning and interim dean of the College of Undergraduate Studies, said the research has helped to convince her of the benefits of virtual reality in the classroom.

“I could see the value of VR for recreational and entertainment purposes before I became aware of the Embodied Labs virtual reality tool, but I didn’t see how it fit into the teaching world,” Bowden said. “Now, I’m an advocate for it. There are some things that can’t be explained or described but that can be experienced through virtual reality.”

Researchers in the School of Social Work are continuing to explore the use of virtual reality simulation training to enhance students’ preparedness in helping patients with other conditions. This kind of exposure helps standardize the learning experience because students are not exposed to individuals with every condition in their clinical training.

“Clinical training is so important to preparing students for their future as social workers,” Gammonley said. “But we have very little control over what they will be exposed to during that training. Virtual reality allows us to best prepare our students by exposing them to an array of conditions they are likely to see in their careers.”

The subject of Alzheimer’s is personal for Haynes; her grandfather, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, passed away in 2008.

“My grandfather was a pretty quiet individual,” she said, “but as his Alzheimer’s symptoms became more severe, he became more withdrawn and detached.”

That detachment is often an obstacle in treating someone with Alzheimer’s. It’s an uncomfortable territory for the patient, the family, and the social worker.

After experiencing life vignettes through the perspective of a virtual Alzheimer’s patient, students feel more comfortable and prepared to work with these patients.

“Learning by experience can help students to connect with the concepts and tools we are teaching them. When we can’t provide the exact experience we are looking to expose our students to in real life, virtual reality can bridge the gap and ignite another dimension of learning,” Bowden said.