A New Way to Learn: Police and Public Safety Foundations and Virtual Reality

By Centennial College Modified on February 12, 2024
Tags : Campus Life | Fun & Games | News | Tech

Students in the Police and Public Safety Foundations program can look forward to using virtual reality to simulate real scenarios they could see in the field.

 A New Way to Learn: Police and Public Safety Foundations and Virtual Reality

The best way to learn is by doing, which is why Centennial College’s programs get students on their feet, and out into the real world to practice their learning. But when it comes to programs like Police and Public Safety Foundations, you can’t exactly put a student in the middle of a potentially dangerous situation.

However, thanks to the power of Virtual Reality, that’s about to change. In the Winter 2024 semester, Centennial College’s Police and Public Safety Foundations program will be introducing VR technology into the classroom. But it began with a pilot project at the end of 2023, spearheaded by Howie Page, the program’s coordinator, a veteran Toronto Police officer who moved into education. Here’s how it got started, and how students have already benefitted.

Practical experience is the goal

"What we realized, collectively as a faculty team, is we had to bring practical scenarios into the classroom versus lectures on the whiteboard," Howie says. "We needed something different to get the students more engaged, involved, and literally out of their seats." This solution came to them in a 2020 pitch from a Virtual Reality vendor — but before agreeing to it, Howie needed to make sure they were committing to it for the right reasons.

"I had to say, it's all neat, you know," he says about that initial pitch, "but is there a learning objective here, or is it just going to be fun in the classroom? And what I soon discovered was, there's a lot of good learning objectives."

The test run

For this first use of the VR project in late 2023, Howie selected the program’s Crime Scene Management course. In the Police and Public Safety Foundations homeroom, the students strapped on their headsets, and took part in a Virtual Reality scenario where they were front-line police officers responding to a break-in of a home. The participants went through the scene and gathered evidence in real time, the same way police officers would investigate an actual crime scene.

"A number of items have been stolen, the house is in disarray," Howie explains. "And there's evidence throughout the house. When the student goes in, the first thing they have to learn and understand is the safety aspect. How do you clear a house? So, they're clearing the house of any danger, because the suspect could still be in there, right?"

"Moving forward from that is the beginning of taking photographs, or simulating the team seizing and gathering evidence," Howie continues. "In law enforcement, we call it the continuity of evidence, how do they properly seize the evidence. What I liked about that is that the simulation teaches them about contamination. So, if the student were to just pick up the pry bar that’s in that scene, comments would to come back to them, because now what they've done is contaminated the evidence."

"It's interesting," he says. "You see them with the headset, they're looking up in the air, because they're literally taking something off the shelf at the crime scene, or they're down on the floor and they're picking something up."

The student reaction

"We sometimes fight a battle to keep students engaged and energized for a three-hour class," Howie admits. "Well, when we introduced VR to that first class, it ended at 11:20, and I had half my class still hanging back. They didn't want to take off the headsets, they were so engaged in it. I eventually had to kick them out of the classroom because there was another class coming in! I don't remember having to do that before. I had half my students saying, no, professor, can we just stay and do another simulation?"

"We were in week 12," Howie adds, for some context as to why this was so exceptional. "Students are getting beat up a bit, they're getting tired, they’ve got essays, they've got other things hanging over their heads, but I saw enthusiasm and engagement."

The rollout

After this successful test run, future Police and Public Safety Foundations students can look forward to Crime Scene Management’s Virtual Reality components continuing, along with VR components in the Conflict Management and Provincial Offences Courses, complete with new scenarios that fit the learning objectives of both. The Conflict Management Course simulates conflict through a scenario that involves the police actively dealing with a person in distress and having to use proper communication to deescalate the situation and render assistance.

"It's that whole aspect of conflict management, where we teach our students active communication, empathy, de-escalation," Howie says.

The Provincial Offences Act course, meanwhile, has a VR scenario that involves a serious car accident with injured pedestrians. The student takes on the role of the officer responding to the accident, and a full investigation of the accident and application of the correct laws are needed. And there’s more planned.

"I've already figured out at least six of our courses over our entire program that will be able to use VR technology, supplement it into the teaching," Howie says, "And get all of our faculty trained on how to use the equipment, and make sure that we're doing it for the proper reason. We're not doing it for entertainment value, we're doing it because it's an important learning aspect." The long-term goal is to integrate VR learning into the majority of the Police Foundations courses.

A new frontier of learning

Having tested it out to great success, not only is Howie adopting it for the rest of the program, he’s become a proponent of the learning potential inherent in Virtual Reality.

"VR is really going to enhance any program at Centennial," Howie adds, "if you have the technology, and if you have that vendor that has that scenario that can assist you."

"My approach to teaching is getting students out of their chairs and away from their phones," Howie says. "It's a win-win. And when students get to do something actively within your classroom that follows proper learning objectives and your goals, you've achieved what you set out to do, because your students are engaged."

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