Higher Education VR Leaders: Interviewing SDSU's Sean Hauze and James Frazee

Written BY

Emily Friedman

September 19, 2022

Today’s higher education students are the workforce of tomorrow. Thanks to the efforts of James Frazee and Sean Hauze, many SDSU graduates will enter the professional world with experience using AR and VR technologies, becoming the first generation to use XR both at school and work. Enterprises should take note. 


Emily, BrainXchange: To begin, could you provide us with a little background on yourselves and your career? How did you end up at SDSU?

Dr. James P. Frazee: I am the Deputy CIO and Senior Associate VP for Learning Environments, Technologies, and User Services or LETUS at San Diego State University (SDSU). LETUS is a unit within IT that aims to support teaching and learning through active learning environments, pedagogical research, learner-centered technologies, and user support. We partner with faculty and other campus stakeholders as well as regional, national, and international higher education and industry partners to improve student success.

Sean Hauze, Ph.D.: I serve as Director of Instructional Technology Services at San Diego State University, providing leadership and direction for applications, initiatives infrastructure, training, and support services across the broad spectrum of instructional technology functions. I also teach doctoral-level research methods and evaluation for the Department of Educational Leadership. 

With over 15 years of academic technology experience, I have, among other things, led campus-wide learning management system and enterprise-level software transitions and co-led SDSU’s transition to virtual instruction during the global pandemic


Emily: What was your first encounter with augmented or virtual reality?

Sean Hauze, Ph.D.: My first encounter with virtual reality was in 2013 with the Oculus Rift DK1 of a friend who was an early backer of the original Oculus Kickstarted campaign (before Oculus was acquired by Meta). While the head tracking was a bit awkward, it was clear to me after that initial immersion into the Oculus World demo that this technology would be a game changer for academia.

Dr. James P. Frazee: Like many people, my first foray into AR was Pokémon go, and there was a quite robust community of IT professionals and faculty members who chased virtual Pokémon around campus. Later that year (2016), we began meeting with vendors to prepare for our inaugural SDSU Immersive Learning Summit, including Embodied Labs, HTC, Mursion, TeachLivE, and more. Then in 2018, AR entered the mainstream when media outlets debuted augmented Olympics coverage.


Emily: What was the VITaL initiative launched in 2017, and how did it lead to the creation of a formal research center?

James and Sean: Instructional Technology Services, a unit within the SDSU Information Technology Division, launched the Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) initiative in fall 2017. It served as an incubator for faculty to create new ways of teaching with XR, including the creation of low-frequency, high-risk virtual scenarios. Some of the XR simulations included life-threatening medical conditions, interactive moon phases for astronomy students, and virtual anatomy lab specimens for distance learning. Faculty also created a custom application demonstrating interactions between nano materials for mechanical engineering students, animated 3D models of molecules and magnetic fields for chemistry and physics students, and an award-winning virtual holographic patient simulating anaphylactic shock for nursing students.

In January 2022, VITaL was established as a formal Research Center to foster even more interdisciplinary research, more new immersive teaching and learning opportunities, and new public-private partnerships across academia and industry. The center will focus on both the San Diego and Imperial Valley border (U.S.-Mexico) region, and involve faculty, staff, and students at both SDSU and SDSU Imperial Valley.


Emily: “VITaL resources have been used by 56 faculty teaching 70 courses.” What does this look like? Is it one headset in each classroom or one per student?

James and Sean: Widespread adoption started with just one HTC VIVE headset that faculty could check out one by one. This grew into multiple class sets of VR and AR gear and a dedicated Learning Research Studio, which provided a living research lab resulting in several awards, grant funding, peer-reviewed publications, presenting opportunities, and both national and international press coverage. Collaborations with student organizations and industry partners have resulted in career pathways for SDSU students at top employers.


Emily: How did the pandemic impact VR adoption at SDSU?

James and Sean: While sharing of XR headsets stopped almost entirely, the rapid shift to virtual instruction began triggering ideas among faculty. This coincided with the publication of a landmark and highly relevant study from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) which found that simulation-based learning in VR allows for both quicker and more focused learning compared to traditional classroom or e-learning methods. 

As a result, we believe that universities should provide flexible, customizable, technology-enhanced learning opportunities that allow students to maintain access to high quality instruction. Pandemic needs have driven higher education leaders to rethink instruction and plan courses that offer a purposeful blend of face-to-face and online modalities to promote active learning and student engagement. 


Emily: What kinds of students are benefiting from VR? (What majors?)

James and Sean: All kinds: those studying anthropology, biology, communications, hospitality, journalism, and even mathematics. A full list of VITaL courses and instructors is available online: https://its.sdsu.edu/news/vital-the-future-of-immersive


Emily: What are the benefits to industry partners? Research, recruitment, etc.

James and Sean: A number of students who have contributed to the VITaL Research Center through design/development as well as formal academic research have gone on to obtain excellent high-paying jobs at companies like Google, Apple, Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Sony PlayStation.


Emily: Has there been any pushback from faculty or students?

James and Sean: We are working to address accessibility challenges, including common barriers like eyeglasses that are too large to fit inside headsets, however we haven’t observed major pushback from either faculty or students. In general, everyone has been eager to experience immersive educational experiences.


Emily: How is VR expanding access to higher education?

James and Sean: Within the VITaL Research Center, we’re developing the concept of Open Educational eXtended Reality resources. OEXR grew out of a need to provide anatomy models to students and faculty with limited or no access to formaldehyde-preserved specimens due to medical conditions, pregnancy and other factors limiting their presence in the lab and lessons. The OEXR virtual assets were developed using photogrammetry and made freely available to students and faculty

In March 2020, rapid transition to remote instruction dramatically increased adoption and use of OEXR resources. We conducted a study to investigate the implementation of the OEXR library in an anatomy lab setting relative to student motivation to learn as well as knowledge retention and performance. We found that students using the virtual assets were more engaged but less confident in their mastery of the material, which was ultimately contrasted by their overall performance. The results reveal an adequate alternative to physical lab resources and an opportunity to leverage OEXR virtual models to supplement physical lab specimens in cases where access is limited or impossible. 


Emily: Do you see VR in university classrooms as a way to close the skills gap in industries like manufacturing, engineering, energy, etc.?

James and Sean: Yes, particularly in the STEM fields where students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, are often unaware of the career opportunities available through STEM education. XR provides a hook to engage students, create meaningful interaction, and simulate real-world scenarios. Early research, including an award-winning study conducted here at SDSU, indicates that XR technology may be particularly effective for increasing student motivation to learn


Emily: What is your vision for the future of higher education? (with VR, of course, or in the “metaverse”)

James and Sean: The vision here at SDSU is for the VITaL Research Center to create and leverage open, affordable, and inclusive immersive learning resources to serve a diverse community of learners through development and integration of new and innovative teaching and learning practices that enable students to experience the content they are learning about, not just read or be lectured to about it conceptually.

Further Reading