As a child growing up in California, Alejandra Buenrostro used to watch The Magic School Bus on TV. In this PBS animated series, Ms. Frizzle and her students rode a special bus that could take them on scientific field trips to otherwise impossible places, including inside the human body.
Now an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas School of Nursing in Salina, Buenrostro is fortunate to learn in much the same way. By donning a headset that allows her to reunite with her classmates in a virtual reality (VR) replica of the KU School of Nursing campus, she will also be able to travel, virtually, inside a human heart, look at the tubules inside a kidney and explore a pair of lungs.
This fall, the KU School of Nursing was one of the first 10 higher education institutions, and the only nursing school, to launch its “metaversity” in virtual reality through the Meta Immersive Learning Project. (Meta is Facebook’s new corporate name.) Also described as digital twin campuses, these metaversities are part of Meta’s $150 million effort to increase access to education and change the way people learn.
“Instead of spending three hours listening to a lecture on the respiratory system, you could listen to a shorter lecture and then spend 30 minutes of virtual reality inside the body,” said Kesa Herlihy, Ph.D., professor clinical associate and director of the Simulation Education Program at the KU School of Nursing. “It’s a totally different teaching method. We have the potential to revolutionize nursing education.
Educate people where they are
This revolution includes not only how people are educated, but how much. Enabling more people to obtain nursing degrees is essential. The national nursing shortage was severe even before the pandemic exacerbated it, and there simply aren’t enough nursing classrooms and faculty to train enough new nurses.
“Each year, 80,000 to 90,000 qualified students in the United States are turned away because we don’t have enough places in nursing schools. In Kansas, we have prospective students across the state who are unable to relocate to Kansas City or Salina [to attend KU School of Nursing]“, Herlihy said. “So we need to be able to educate people where they are. Virtual reality is one way to do that.
The KU School of Nursing began to seriously explore virtual reality learning during the pandemic after classrooms closed and access to many clinical sites was limited. In the spring of 2021, Herlihy was part of a team entering a virtual reality/augmented reality contest with KC Digital Drive, a nonprofit organization working to make Kansas City a digital leader. Herlihy’s team, which used augmented reality to design a more realistic interactive mannequin that students can use to practice the procedures, won the event. With the $7,500 price tag, they bought five headsets and started exploring fully immersive VR environments.
In late 2021, KU School of Nursing partnered with VictoryXR, the virtual reality company that builds metaversities, to build a digital twin of the school campus. The idea is that anyone, anywhere can attend classes virtually. As part of this partnership, Meta provided the school with 50 additional VR headsets. Undergraduate and graduate nursing students at KU will use Metaversity.
The goal is not to replace all traditional classroom learning, but to incorporate immersive virtual reality experiences that enable deeper understanding. Nor will metaversity replace the interaction between student nurses and real patients.
“We understand how important it is to have human-to-human contact,” said Cynthia Teel, Ph.D., FAAN, associate dean for academic and faculty affairs at the KU School of Nursing. “It will be an additional tool that we can use to ensure that students are even better prepared when they have that very valuable time with patients.”
Go to nursing school from the kitchen table
Currently, students using headphones can stand on Rainbow Boulevard in Kansas City, looking at the KU Medical Center’s Murphy Building. They can enter the nursing school atrium, then climb the stairs to the first floor, where the Salina student lab is on the left and the Kansas City lab is on the right. In these laboratories, they will find examination rooms and simulation spaces.
So far, students have used the headsets to learn how to perform virtual reality patient assessments. Using avatars they create to look like themselves, they enter a metaversity exam hall that looks exactly like a real exam hall at school. Once there, they can perform health assessments with “patients” by asking them a series of questions while their instructors observe and assess.
Buenrostro was sitting at the kitchen table in her apartment in Salina when she conducted her first patient assessment via Metaversity. She was impressed that the instructors even placed virtual posters on the virtual walls of the exam room that listed some of the questions they should ask patients, just in case anyone forgot.
“Another good thing about metaversity is that my friend [a fellow student] and I can always come back into the simulation,” she said. “We can enter metaversity whenever we want so that we can practice and see our strengths and weaknesses.”
Making a big difference in nursing
The KU School of Nursing could be fully virtual today, Herlihy said, if it were just for running virtual classrooms. It’s the immersive part, the magic school bus part, that takes time. These parts are deployed gradually.
The school is working with VictoryXR and another virtual reality company, Bundle of Rays, to develop fully immersive nursing lessons as well as three-dimensional virtual objects that students can touch, turn and manipulate. Herlihy said she recently submitted a list to virtual reality companies asking for at least 40 items needed for students to learn how to perform a HEENT (head, ears, eyes, nose and throat) exam. An eye. An eye with glaucoma. One with cataracts. Etc.
It’s a massive project with a number of administrative issues still to be worked out, but Herlihy said she thinks the school could have most of the metaversity done, with all the immersive experiences built into the curriculum, as soon as 2025. The nursing school would also be expected to work with clinical partners to support additional clinical rotations and expand the program.
“Right now, we admit 138 traditional undergraduates in Kansas City and Salina every fall, but using VR technology could allow us to admit many more,” Herlihy said. “It can make a very big difference in nursing.”
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