A learning community (LC) is a group of people who share common academic goals and attitudes, who meet semi-regularly to collaborate on classwork. These groups are documented to provide significant positive impact on the participating students’ academic performance. Virtualizing LCs has the potential to expand and supplement existing learning structures, and create new ones where they were not previously available. Our project will evaluate the impact that virtualization has on LCs. This research will lead to a better understanding of the strengths and limitation of introducing VR technologies in higher education. Presenting institutions with data about virtualization technologies that have their impact and benefits well-researched will ease the reservations that administrators and other stakeholders might have.

The central question of this research project focuses on examining whether incoming undergraduate STEM students using collaborative Virtual Reality (VR) in their Freshman Year Seminar (FYS) Learning Community (LC) gain the same skills and benefits for supporting and improving their academic performance as their counterparts in traditional, physical FYS LC do. Answering this question requires the research to be broken into two clear steps: First, grounding and contextualizing its findings within the current established research on learning communities; and second, developing an actionable plan for future implementation. The components of the research question revolve around establishing the measurable impact on academic performance and student peer networks of integrating VR collaboration opportunities into the existing FYS LC curriculum. As a result of this, the evaluation and formalization of social relational metrics necessary to recognize trends in socialization and social group dynamics developed through virtual reality versus physical collaboration will be the primary focus.

Curriculum was designed for small groups of students to meet once a week for 45 minutes of collaboration training. Groups were set at four students as this was the maximum size of a session in Facebook Spaces. Size of four students was also found to be optimal as it was common for one student from the group to be missing, and groups of two did not work well while groups larger than 4 did not work well either. Acitivites were selected to maximize the chance that a group would form that group collaboration identity. The movement from individual performances to group solidarity.

Curriculum changes to study group FYS LCs will be vetted in a rigorous development process with substantial involvement and sign off from the FYS director. Collaboration curriculum used in the study will be aligned so its implementation is the same in physical and virtual form. Both curriculum will be structured within the group collaboration features of Oculus Rooms software, which are round table discussions, video viewing, music appreciation, and board game playing. Physical and virtual curriculum based within this framework will be assessed and tested with affiliated administrators, teachers, and test students to ensure practicality and equalitible educational purposes across the study groups.

The study will run concurrent to the FYS classes, which are active for the first ten weeks of Fall Semester, and meet for 2 hours each week. During the fall semesters, the study will actively engage the FYS LCs study groups through the implementation of physical and VR collaboration modules and data collection points in class assignments. Subjects will engage with this additional curriculum every Wednesday afternoon when no classes are scheduled university-wide to ensure regularity to time and subject participation.