Campus News

Social Work brings virtual reality into DSW program

Take a walk with virtual reality through a mental health clinic.


Published March 30, 2022

Louanne Bakk.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this is we’re trying to build connection among our students. It does give a more full sense of presence. ”
Louanne Bakk, clinical associate professor and program director,
Doctor of Social Work program

Grab both joy sticks while wearing those special goggles and enter the newest installment of the School of Social Work’s world of virtual reality — the simulated mental health clinic.

Take care not to run into doors, and maneuver through the waiting room to face the receptionist. Point the ray of light at her to hear the bad, less-bad and eventually most welcoming approach to greeting clients, a term social workers recognize as the preferred trauma-informed approach.

“Welcome,” says the receptionist, appearing to talk to you, and only you. “Will you please fill out this form for us while you are waiting for your appointment? If have any questions, let me know.”

Why stop there? Give the receptionist a last over-the-shoulder look and enter one of the interview rooms. Inside, with deft flicks of the light and coordinated companion triggers, are three arrangements of furniture. The best has easy access for clients and providers, reassuring both that they can quickly exit if needed, and generally making a more comfortable space to conduct business, another example of preferred trauma-informed care principles.

For anyone fortunate enough to wander around the simulated office, the value of the illusion is clear. For the uninitiated, Louanne Bakk, clinical associate professor and program director of the online DSW program, explains why virtual reality for students is valuable.

“One of the reasons we’re doing this is we’re trying to build connection among our students,” Bakk says. “It does give a more full sense of presence. Students are in an immersive, shared space together. That’s one of the key ways that it’s different from Zoom. Another reason is we want our DSW students to consider how VR might be beneficial to them in their agencies and work as advanced practitioners.”

Descriptions are one thing. Experiencing the simulation is another. Remember, a tenet of VR is that even though the experience is not real, parts of the brain react as if it is.

Bringing students together beyond Zoom

New social work practice doctoral students — scattered around the country and beyond — are taken into VR classrooms during orientation, where they can interact with each other, according to Bakk and Steven Sturman, instructional designer for the School of Social Work’s VR program.

“Because these are online students, it would be impossible to get them all together in a space to walk through and see this,” says Sturman. “It would also be disruptive to the people actually working there or visiting there. It would be impossible to find one location that had all the different levels of how trauma informed care principles might look in physical spaces — from bad to good. So this is a great way for us to virtually show them what they might encounter in the real world.”

And the illusion of virtual reality enables what they call “deeper learning” to occur.

“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 oriented toward social justice or fostering empathy. These include apps like “Traveling While Black” that simulates the history of restriction of movement for Black Americans, and “Notes on Blindness,” which simulates becoming blind. The latter is an eerie, haunting experience of seeing shapes — not full images — and trying to follow voices and fading images as they float in and out of recognition in the three-dimensional field.

Mickey Sperlich, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, uses these social justice-oriented VR apps in her classroom to promote self-care, which she says is critical for students managing school stress along with “vicarious trauma encountered in their field placements or their workplaces.”

“Students have used meditation apps that involve guided breathing and visualizations to help ‘center’ themselves and have found them calming and ‘grounding,’” says Sperlich. “They have reported these helped them clear the mind and decompress from a busy day.

“Others have found these promote their ability to focus,” she says. “Other students have found the more active experiential apps fun, and even ‘adrenaline-pumping,’ and have appreciated the ability to encounter situations that have been largely missing from our daily experiences, especially during the pandemic — like traveling to different countries, riding a rollercoaster or interacting with animals.

“Experiencing these apps can help students envision how they can be used in social work practice,” Sperlich says, “and this is important as more and more people gain access to virtual worlds.”

Continuing toward education technology

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

The school also heeded external reviews recommending it incorporate VR into its DSW program, according to Bakk. It also has used VR programs in the community.

“I’m currently working with one of our DSW students to incorporate VR into programming for community-based, socially isolated older adults,” Bakk says. “Essentially, we’ve developed a program where older individuals engage in a variety of immersive experiences together. This might include skydiving, swimming with dolphins or visiting a petting zoo.

“We found from qualitative interviews they love this,” she says. “It’s a fairly compromised group. They have limited mobility. Qualitative data illustrated that participants were extremely receptive to using VR and found the experience pleasurable, realistic and exciting.”

Benefits come from a synthesis of technology and personal interaction. VR blends convenience of remote meetings with the sensation of being in a shared space together.

“That immersive experience gives you the sensation you’re actually removed from that place into a new place,” says Bakk, co-author of a recent research abstract on VR applications called “A Whole New World.”

“That’s why it’s really worked so well with older adults. It gives them a break from what they’re normally experiencing.”

Bakk notes the VR approach doesn’t fit every person, client or situation. VR can pose significant accessibility challenges because the platform is highly visual. Alternative experiences are essential.  

However, the advantages are self-evident, UB educators say. Bakk remembers meeting with 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,” Bakk says. “And it was very cool because I felt like he and I were in that place together.”