Leading the Way in Virtual Reality


It happens often these days. Madison College’s Carly Brady and Bill Ballo are at a conference talking about the robust and advanced use of virtual reality (VR) at the school when they are asked “How’d you do that?”

The queries come from technology leaders at larger and more prestigious four-year institutions who are still trying to figure virtual reality out.

Brady and Ballo are used to it now – the surprise that a technical college in the Midwest is head and shoulders above most other colleges and universities when it comes to implementing VR in the classroom.

For Ballo, the response is “Why not us? Shouldn’t a technical college be doing this? Shouldn’t we be pushing the barriers?"

Bill Ballo and Carly Brady VR demo photo
Bill Ballo and Carly Brady are leading the way for virtual reality in the classroom.

The “A-ha Moment”

The “a-ha moment” for Brady came at the SXSW Edu conference in Austin, TX in 2018. She saw how organizations were using VR and knew that it had the potential to transform higher education.

Today Brady speaks on panels next to representatives from Ivy League schools and large state universities. She is often struck by how far ahead of these institutions Madison College is.

For Ballo, the minute Brady introduced the idea, he was hooked. He knew that he could use VR to give his EMS students experiences they might not otherwise have. This training could better prepare them for what they might face in the field.

From there, the program grew.

The first scenario was a cardiac arrest. It helped EMS students to get as close as possible to hands-on experience with a cardiac arrest patient. Then the team created a five-bed emergency room in which students examined patients, prescribed a course of action and then had to re-evaluate the patients.

Beyond the Health Classes

The pair has since worked with different faculty in the school to uncover the best ways to leverage VR in instruction. They have created a library of scenarios and experiences in partnership with a local company, Arch Virtual, that will be available to other institutions that may venture into VR.

And it's not just for health or IT programs.

The HVAC program now uses virtual reality to give students “hands-on” experience with dangerous chemicals, like freon, in a low-risk environment.

Ballo explains, “Students can practice and mess up and learn from their experiences before engaging with real freon which poses an environmental hazard if leaked and could cause frostbite or worse.”

A birthing scenario is in the works for nursing and EMS students.

“Getting my students to experience a live birth is very challenging,” explained Ballo. “Even if a birth is happening during their rotation, often families don’t want an extra person in the room. This VR scenario checks so many of the clinical experience boxes that most of the students wouldn’t otherwise get.”

The live birth scenario was crafted in consultation with neonatal physicians at the University of Wisconsin, OB nurses and midwives to ensure that the experience and complications that could potentially arise were as real as possible.

Other programs that have used VR include Exercise Science, Respiratory Therapy, Spanish and Botany. The latter is developing a scenario in which they colonize Mars and need to raise plants and manage resources.

The Vet Tech program is building a scenario in which students will engage with a cow simulation. In the past, the program has had to rent a cow for a semester for this portion of class, at quite an expense to the school. Building the virtual cow will save the school money.

Expanding the Reach

This spring, Madison College will open its XR (Extended Reality) Center. This will make the capabilities of VR available to even more students and faculty.

The center will feature 12 VR stations and a conference area so instructors can have students experience a scenario and then come together to discuss.

Ballo says that he doesn’t know of another college or university in the state with a facility like the one Madison College is opening.

rendering of the new XR center facility
A still shot of the Madison College Virtual Reality Center.

The vision is for other programs to experience and determine if VR can enhance the learning for their students and generally make VR more accessible. The XR Center will remove the variables, such as Wi-Fi speed or equipment needs and provide opportunities for all students to engage with VR on a level playing field.

For nursing and EMS students, it will be a place they can do clinicals. But it’s not just for classwork.

Enhancing the Student Experience

Ballo imagines the opportunity for students to sign up for time to stop in and game, or just experience what VR is all about.

Brady cited the opportunity to create relaxing scenarios like outdoor streams or meadows to allow faculty, staff and students to take needed breaks in a virtual environment.

According to Ballo, the robust and advanced adoption of VR at Madison College is centered on the students.

“One of the first things I noticed about Madison College is how student-oriented it is. We’re doing this to bring opportunities and experiences to the students and to make learning engaging and entertaining.”

Madison College President's Annual Report