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MSU Team Developing Virtual Reality App To Help People Recognize Unconscious Biases

a person with curly hair uses a virtual reality headset with goggles worn over their eyes.
Photo courtesy of CANVA
The goal is to identify ways to make campuses more inclusive. But there are concerns about virtual reality's place in teaching about racism

In the wake of last year’s police killing of George Floyd, colleges and universities across the country are focusing more attention on improving equity and diversity.

Some take the form of online classes or videos, but there are now some other options.

A team of researchers at Michigan State University is using virtual reality to help recognize unconscious biases.

A version of this story previously aired on Morning Edition.

Ayodele Dare works for MSU in its diversity, equity and inclusion office.

He’s been testing a new virtual reality application, called “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwE83PUV5-4">A Mile in My Shoes.”

Users will be able to download it for desktop or mobile through the Oculus App.

The Oculus App works alongside an all-in-one virtual reality, or VR, headset that includes goggles and controllers.

"So you have the goggles on, you're going through, you're kind of looking around, trying to kind of reassess your location really,” Dare said.

The program allows the user to select a computer-generated character to play as.

Those characters reflect students of various backgrounds and identities, from which the participant can experience different real-life scenarios that might happen in a classroom.

He describes one instance when he tried the simulation as if he were a person using a wheelchair.

"So when I come off the bus and trying to get to class on time, I always have to go all the way round, in order to get even into the classroom. And because of that, I'm always late,” Dare said.

In the VR simulation, a faculty member comes into the classroom and begins reading a prompt to the user.

The professor then needs to make a choice on how to respond to the participant who is late for class.

Quentin Tyler is Associate Dean and Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

From a faculty standpoint, he said professors need to ask themselves: “Do you show Grace? Do you show empathy, empathy and understanding?”

Tyler is part of the team that’s been developing the app for the last two years.

The app got its start when Tyler stumbled upon a school exhibit.

"The School of Planning construction design was doing an open house, and I came across Dr. Nubani, and she had a virtual reality exhibit,” he said.

Linda Nubani is an assistant professor of interior design at MSU and Program Coordinator of the Crime Prevention through Environmental Design Program.

Tyler connected with Nubani and the two started working on developing the app.

"And I was thinking it would be neat to create an experience for faculty, staff and students, you know, which they can learn from learn about, and ways to mitigate their own unconscious bias,” Tyler said.

The goal is to identify ways to make campuses more inclusive.

But there are concerns about virtual reality’s place in teaching about racism.

Courtney Cogburn is an associate professor at Columbia University School of Social Work.

“Do we need VR to help you understand that racism is not good? That it's not it's not a good thing? It doesn't feel good? So to what degree do I need to create an experience to help you see and understand that? And perhaps the more important question would be, why do you need to see it from this particular point of view?,” Cogburn asks.

Cogburn is the creator of the virtual reality experience, the 1000 Cut Journey, where viewers are put in the body of a black child experiencing racism through adolescence.

The experience uses virtual reality headsets and is compatible with gaming computers that can run larger downloads.

Cogburn says VR can be a helpful tool for creating conversations about racism. But those pushing for change need to also consider its shortcomings.

“There's no VR experience I could create for someone where they could really have empathy for being a Black man in the United States. There's no VR experience that’s going to do that for you,” Cogburn said.

While the app is being updated, Ayodele Dare hopes it will lead to changes on campus for underrepresented students.

"For wheelchair accessibility, and let's say there's only one ramp on one side, in the future, maybe if people start to notice that, and maybe they can start to reach out to MSU, or anyone else said, Okay, let's develop a ramp on the other side,” Dare said.

It will be introduced across college departments at MSU this year with hopes of it being widely adopted in the near future at other universities. 

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