Social work

Social Work Brings Virtual Reality to DSW Curriculum – UBNow: News and Views for UB Faculty and Staff

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Walk around with virtual reality in a mental health clinic.


Louanne Bakk.

Grab both joysticks while wearing these special glasses and step into the newest installment in the School of Social Work’s virtual reality world – the Simulated Mental Health Clinic.

Be careful not to hit the doors and maneuver through the waiting room to face the receptionist. Shine the ray of light on her to hear the bad, less bad, and ultimately most welcoming approach to welcoming clients, a term social workers recognize as the preferred trauma-informed approach.

“Welcome,” the receptionist said, seeming to speak to you, and only you. “Would you please fill out this form for us while you wait for your appointment? If you have any questions, let me know.

Why stop there? Take one last look over the shoulder at the receptionist and enter one of the interview rooms. Inside, with deft strokes of light and coordinating companion triggers, are three furniture arrangements. The best has easy access for clients and providers, which reassures them that they can get out quickly if needed, and generally creates a more comfortable space to do business, another example of principles of care taking into account traumas.

For anyone lucky enough to walk around the simulated office, the value of the illusion is clear. For the uninitiated, Louanne Bakk, Associate Clinical Professor and Director of the DSW Online Program, explains why virtual reality for students is valuable.

“One of the reasons we do this is that we try to connect our students,” says Bakk. “It gives a fuller sense of presence. Students are together in an immersive and shared space. This is one of the main differences with Zoom. Another reason is that we want our DSW students to think about how virtual reality could benefit them in their agencies and working as advanced practitioners. »

Descriptions are one thing. Living the simulation is another. Remember that a principle of virtual reality is that even if the experience is not real, certain parts of the brain react as if it is.

Bringing students together beyond Zoom

According to Bakk and Steven Sturman, instructional designers of the School of Social Work’s VR program, new doctoral students in social work practice — scattered across the country and beyond — are taken to VR classrooms during orientation. , where they can interact with each other.

“Because these are online students, it would be impossible to get them all together in one space to browse and see this,” Sturman says. “It would also disrupt people who work there or visit there. It would be impossible to find a place that had all the different levels of appearance of trauma-informed care principles in physical spaces – from bad to good. So it’s a great way for us to virtually show them what they might encounter in the real world.

And the virtual reality illusion allows what they call “deep learning” to happen.

“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 that focus on social justice or promote empathy. These include apps such as “Traveling While Black” which simulates the history of movement restrictions for black Americans, and “Notes on Blindness”, which simulates going blind. The latter is an eerie, haunting experience of seeing shapes – not full images – and trying to follow the fading voices and images as they float in and out of recognition in the three-dimensional field.

Mickey Sperlich, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work, uses these social justice-focused virtual reality apps in her classroom to promote self-care, which she says is essential for students managing academic stress as well. than the “indirect traumas encountered during their internships in the field or their places of work. »

“Students have used meditation apps that involve guided breathing and visualizations to help them ‘center themselves’ and have found them to be calming and ‘grounding,'” says Sperlich. “They reported that it helped them clear their minds and decompress after a busy day.

“Others have found it to help their ability to focus,” she says. “Other students found the more active experiential applications fun, and even ‘adrenaline pumping’, and appreciated the opportunity to encounter situations that have been largely missed in our daily experiences, especially during the pandemic – such as traveling in different countries, ride a roller coaster or interact with animals.

“Experiencing these apps can help students imagine how they can be used in social work practice,” says Sperlich, “and that’s important as more and more people have access to virtual worlds.”

Pursue to Education Technology

The School of Social Work, a pioneer for years in the use of virtual space and technology, now finds itself at the forefront of virtual reality education. According to Sturman, UB is the first school of social work in the nation to use an immersive virtual reality learning environment to teach students how trauma-informed care can be integrated where humane services are offered.

The school also heeded external critics recommending that it incorporate virtual reality into its DSW curriculum, according to Bakk. He also used virtual reality programs in the community.

“I’m currently working with one of our DSW students to integrate virtual reality into programming for community-based and socially isolated seniors,” says Bakk. “Essentially, we developed a program where seniors engage together in a variety of immersive experiences. This may include skydiving, swimming with dolphins or visiting a petting zoo.

“We found out from qualitative interviews that they love it,” she says. “It’s a fairly compromised group. They have limited mobility. Qualitative data showed that participants were extremely receptive to using virtual reality and found the experience enjoyable, realistic and exciting. »

The benefits come from a synthesis of technology and personal interaction. Virtual reality combines the convenience of remote meetings with the feeling of being together in a shared space.

“This immersive experience makes you feel like you’re actually moved from that place to a new place,” says Bakk, co-author of a recent VR application research brief titled “A Whole New World.”

“That’s why it worked so well with older people. It gives them a break from what they normally experience.

Bakk notes that the VR approach isn’t right for every person, client, or situation. Virtual reality can pose significant accessibility issues because the platform is very visual. Alternative experiences are essential.

However, the benefits are clear, say UB educators. Bakk remembers meeting Sturman when they tested the virtual waters. She was in her home office in Rochester. He was at UB.

“We were able to play a game of checkers in the virtual room,” says Bakk. “And it was very cool because I felt like he and I were together in that place.”