VANCOUVER -- Simon Fraser University professor Jeremy Turner has bright pink hair and can fly across his classroom, and some of his students look like animal-human hybrids.  

All of this is possible because Turner teaches in a virtual reality classroom.

“It has that immersive feel to it,” Turner said.

He wears a virtual reality headset and uses a platform called Tivoli Cloud VR, which allows him to move around in the virtual environment, using an avatar.

His students can choose where they sit, converse with each other, and even choose their own avatars.  

“I actually forget that I’m teaching inside of a cartoon and that I’m actually teaching a real physical class, that’s how it feels to me,” Turner said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, lessons have been moved online. Using platforms such as Zoom, however, is too restrictive, according to fellow SFU professor Steve DiPaola.

“Zoom is just so-so,” he said, “we really want that experience, that engagement you get with face-to-face, with looking someone in the eye.”

DiPaola, who specializes in virtual reality at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology, said students “attend” class by logging in to the open source virtual reality platform, or they can stream the class on Twitch.

The technology is also being used to train nursing students in Australia, allowing them to complete their practicums virtually, because they’re not currently allowed in hospitals.

“We’re starting it in Australia where we’ve got approval to do it,” DiPaola explained, “and we’re doing it in simulated ways with simulated avatars.”

What’s next? The professors said it is not out of the realm of possibility for an instructor to recreate environments such as dig sites for an archaeology class, for example.

“We think there’s advantages for all kinds of training,” DiPaola said.

For now, Turner teaches two cognitive sciences classes, each of which has between 80 to 100 students.

He said most of them prefer the virtual reality classroom over more traditional video conferencing platforms, and it’s a preference he also shares – pink hair and all.

“It’s like I’m teaching a class in a physical space,” Turner said.