School of Social Work uses virtual reality for doctoral program

Video showing a simulated mental health clinic via virtual reality.

Release Date: March 31, 2022

Louanne Bakk.

Louanne Bakk

“One of the reasons we’re doing this is we’re trying to build connection among our students. ”
Louanne Bakk, clinical associate professor
University at Buffalo School of Social Work

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Grab both joy sticks while wearing those special goggles and enter the newest installment of the School of Social Work’s world of virtual reality (VR) — the simulated mental health clinic.

Take care not to run into doors, and maneuver through the waiting room to face the receptionist.

“Welcome,” says the receptionist, appearing to talk to you, and only you. “Will you please fill out this form for us while you are waiting for your appointment? If have any questions, let me know.”

For the uninitiated, Louanne Bakk, clinical associate professor and program director of the online doctorate of social work (DSW) program, explains why virtual reality for students is valuable.

“One of the reasons we’re doing this is we’re trying to build connection among our students,” Bakk says. “It does give a more full sense of presence. Students are in an immersive, shared space together. That’s one of the key ways that it’s different from Zoom. Another reason is we want our DSW students to consider how VR might be beneficial to them in their agencies and work as advanced practitioners.”

Bringing students together beyond Zoom

New social work practice doctoral students — scattered around the country and beyond — are taken into VR classrooms during orientation, where they can interact with each other, says Steven Sturman, instructional designer for the School of Social Work’s VR program.

“Because these are online students, it would be impossible to get them all together in a space to walk through and see this,” says Sturman. “It would also be disruptive to the people actually working there or visiting there. So this is a great way for us to virtually show them what they might encounter in the real world.”

And the illusion of virtual reality enables what they call “deeper learning” to occur.

“It’s more than just reading a book or watching a movie,” Sturman says. “That immersion makes it more memorable.”

The School of Social Work encourages students to explore other simulations, including those oriented toward social justice or fostering empathy. These include apps like “Traveling While Black” that simulates the history of restriction of movement for Black Americans, and “Notes on Blindness,” which simulates becoming blind.

Mickey Sperlich, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, uses social justice-oriented VR apps to promote self-care, which she says is critical for students managing stress.

“Other students have found the more active experiential apps fun, and even ‘adrenaline-pumping,’ and have appreciated the ability to encounter situations that have been largely missing from our daily experiences, especially during the pandemic — like traveling to different countries, riding a rollercoaster or interacting with animals.

“Experiencing these apps can help students envision how they can be used in social work practice,” Sperlich says, “and this is important as more and more people gain access to virtual worlds.”

Continuing toward education technology

The School of Social Work, for years a pioneer in using virtual space and technology, now finds itself on the forefront of VR education.

Sturman says UB’s is the nation’s first school of social work to use an immersive VR learning environment to teach students how trauma-informed care can be integrated where human services are offered.

The school also has used VR programs in the community.

“I’m currently working with one of our DSW students to incorporate VR into programming for community-based, socially isolated older adults,” Bakk says. “Essentially, we’ve developed a program where older individuals engage in a variety of immersive experiences together. This might include skydiving, swimming with dolphins or visiting a petting zoo.”

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