Human-centered design as an immersive curriculum development approach

Matthew Belskie, Lucia Binotti

Humans are intrinsically social creatures, but many virtual reality (VR) learning experiences at this point tend to be isolated and isolating. For a group of scholars at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill participating in a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on extended realities (XR), this juxtaposition of social creatures and isolating technologies begs the question, “How are we creating curricular pieces that incorporate VR as a socially mediating technology and not an isolating one?”  One approach is to use human-centered design as a method for developing an immersive technology-enriched curriculum.

After a year of focused work within the FLC, we are in a good position now to reflect on how we are using human-centered design to develop innovative curricula that model new venues for acquiring topical knowledge and skills.  This report looks specifically at two cases, one inside Health Affairs and the other in Romance Languages.  The Health Affairs case takes a traditional approach to human-centered design where stakeholders – Pharmacy students, preceptors, and pharmacists in the field – are engaged at every step in the process to develop and refine a new training tool.  With the Romance Languages, we interpret human-centered design through a new perspective of what it means for a technology to be human-accessible and have practical uses both in class and in everyday life.  We find these to be particularly illuminating disciplinary areas because together they cross many cultural and disciplinary boundaries.

Human-centered technologies like VR need to address two feature spaces.  The first of these is the set of interactions and affordances within the technical environment. We find this to be most prominent in the Virtual Patient being created by a team of educators within our School of Pharmacy.  Given the importance for developing communication skills between training pharmacists and future patients, VR is a natural technology fit because of its affordances (Jerald, 2015). In the case of the Virtual Patient, user-centered design and feedback on the project resulted in a set of features, including the ability to interact with the virtual patient using voice commands instead of a click-interface, that led to better human interactions with the software – and concomitant better learning outcomes.

The second focus in a human-centered approach is access to the technology itself.  From our own observations, there is a disproportionate amount of industry attention given to XR hardware (Magic Leap, Hololens, Oculus Rift, ThinkReality) that – because of cost – don’t scale to practical lives of our students.  Three faculty members within the Romance Languages department are solving this problem by focusing on using immersive technology tools that are accessible to classes of students.  A focus on inexpensive technologies informs a very practical definition of what it means to be human-centered and inclusive.  In the sense that design is grounded in human dignity, human rights, and diversity, the economic affordance of a technology speaks in volumes (Buchanan, 2001).  An important feature of these projects is that they also ask the student to engage in a practice of traditional human-centered design themselves (Zoltowski, 2012).

The human-centered design approach might provide answers to the biggest challenges for adoption of VR in pedagogy (Alexander et al., 2019).  At our institution we are demonstrating how a human-centered design approach is resulting in replicable and practical ways that VR is being used in earnest to engage students in compelling new forms of curriculum.