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WVU using virtual reality technology to innovate training for clinical rehabilitation and mental health counselors

In 2019, even before the pandemic and many lives and professions turned into hybrid worlds, Margaret Glenn and her colleagues were investigating the use of novel technologies in simulation education. Glenn readily admits she was not familiar with much of the technology that existed then but saw a presentation about how immersive videos could help people expand their experience of different subject matter via a virtual reality headset. Five years later, WVU is leading the way in the field of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling with its innovative use of virtual reality technology.

Glenn, a professor in the School of Counseling and Well-Being, serves as the principal investigator in the development of the Accessible, Innovative, & Relevant Training for Vocational Rehabilitation (AIR4VR) project. It is funded by the US Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration’s Innovative Training Program. Glenn’s team also includes David Smith from the Reed College of Media who serves as a co-principal investigator. The project is in its fifth and final year and recently received funding for an additional year.

Their audience includes state vocational rehabilitation programs across the country as well as universities that educate future rehabilitation counselors. The University of Iowa, Utah State, and Western Washington University, among others, have joined WVU faculty in using the resources of this project. It includes online courses, 360º videos, case studies, and the opportunity for participants to immerse themselves in the virtual world of working with adolescents with disabilities, parents, and employers.

This virtual world includes the use of virtual simulation and immersive virtual reality platforms. Both are evidence-based modalities that use technology to provide meaningful learning experiences. The virtual reality method utilizes a VR headset and fully immerses the participant in a three-dimensional world. At WVU, clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling students gather at the Media Innovation Center at Evansdale Crossing during their annual "immersion week" and use this training method to augment their online program of study.

In virtual simulation, participants connect via Zoom with an immersive, mixed-reality lab at the University of West Georgia that delivers simulations and scenarios created by a company called Mursian and modified by AIR4VR to meet their training needs. Students engage in a one-on-one, immersive training simulation with human-powered avatars to practice their counseling skills.

“We were using the virtual sim lab with students in Iowa and when it was over, the professor told us that everyone was raving about the experience, including the students,” Glenn says. The same faculty member told her that AIR4VR provided “one of the most enjoyable new experiences with fieldwork” since she’d become faculty.

The AIR4VR lab experiences provide several key benefits when it comes to training counselors. The first, of course, is the ability for people to collaborate regardless of their location. The training could easily include an instructor in Morgantown and students in New Hampshire or Alaska.

The benefits go further, as the simulation specialists are trained to authentically represent their avatars in simulated challenges developed by the team. Traditional classroom training involves peer-to-peer training where students assume the roles of either counselor or client.

In traditional counselor training, students must often take turns playing the roles of clients due to convenience and practicality. However, regardless of well-intentioned effort, it can still be difficult for all involved to fully commit to the proposed scenario – not everyone is an effective actor. AIR4VR uses actors trained to replicate the scenarios and provide a realistic counseling session. Simulation-based training is just like the real thing.

Glenn learned this firsthand during a demonstration where she started talking to a 14-year-old virtual client named Savannah. Savannah said she was planning on going to Disneyland soon.

“I said, ‘That’s great, Savannah,’” Glenn recalls. ‘When I was your age I went to Disneyland, too.’ We continued a lively conversation about the trip until I became suddenly aware I had forgotten I was talking to an avatar. The engagement was so much different than roleplaying would be. To me, it was true immersion.

“That’s emotional engagement in simulations is always a surprise – and the best part is, this emotional engagement has a major impact on learning.”

Another key benefit to the AIR4VR program is the ability for instructors to observe the sessions without being intrusive, and then provide timely and substantive feedback.

“We give people difficult situations, ones that counselors see regularly. If they get stuck, they can pause the simulation – stop the action – and get feedback about exactly what is going on,” Glenn says.

The AIR4VR program was designed to meet the training needs of rehabilitation counselors, but Glenn and her team want to see it expand out to school and mental health counselors, allowing them to have the experience of working with youth with disabilities and their families in a safe and challenging training environment. It is an unmet need and a solution that can fast-track competency in counseling.

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