How Bentley University uses interactive 360° VR to immerse learners in field experiences

Bentley, a private, not-for-profit university and one of the USA’s top business schools, is a place for successful leaders who set out to create positive change in society. Driven by a desire to do business and do good at the same time, Bentley prepares students to be a force for positive change from the classroom to the boardroom.

Betsy Stoner is an assistant professor in natural and applied sciences at Bentley. From a strong belief that engaging in scientific discovery outside the classroom can be an effective teaching tool, Betsy engages in active research and works with undergraduate students on exploring anthropogenic activities and their influence on community and ecosystem dynamics in New England salt marsh ecosystems, as well as conducting research on benthic marine organisms within subtropical seagrasses and mangrove forests (in Florida and The Bahamas).


Traditional methods of teaching marine biology, such as presentation, lectures, or textbooks, often fail to engage students and allow them to fully embrace the impact that these environments have on the world. Without the ability to experience these ecosystems firsthand, Bentley University sought out VR as a solution to boost retention rates and increase learning outcomes for students of all backgrounds. While Bentley does organize trips to these environments for students to experience firsthand, the university wanted to bring the experience to more students by using VR to create a more engaging learning experience.


In partnership with Florida International University and Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), Bentley developed groundbreaking, immersive 360° virtual reality experiences designed to immerse learners in field experiences. While these videos are accessible to learners of any age, they are targeted towards those in high school, college or university.

The Coastal Marine Ecoystem Experience is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and provides a series of immersive VR experiences using 360° video focused on understanding coastal ecosystems and their threats. Through these videos, learners can explore subtropical seagrasses, mangrove and hard-bottom ecosystems while learning why these ecosystems are crucial for the health of our planet, and for the services they provide to our coastal communities.

Interactive 360° videos were used instead of animation for an improved feeling of realism. They can be played for free on either VR headsets or any computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone with an internet browser — ensuring the ecosystem experience is as accessible as possible for everyone.

The team recorded the videos themselves in South Florida and the Bahamas and used Warp VR to easily convert these into immersive VR experiences. Promotion is done via the website, social media, and several newsletters.

“Warp VR is exactly what we were looking for in an interactive 360° VR platform. It’s easy to work with, the flow editor is extremely helpful and useful, and it allows us to add functionality to the videos that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve. The support we’ve received from Warp VR has been incredible and second to none. From setting up the platform to begin with, to walking us through various scenarios, to answering every question I’ve asked or concern I’ve had, to setting up follow up meetings and calls, they’ve been there with us every step of the way.” - Steve Salina, Principal Instructional and Research Media Production and Infrastructure Engineer, Bentley University


The virtual seagrass ecosystem experience has been implemented in several classes across various institutions, including Florida University, LUMCON, and others. The initial feedback from these classes has been positive, and the results from the study conducted by Bentley reflect this. While the study has only gone through one cohort so far and is therefore not complete, the initial findings are noteworthy.

Student and Faculty Feedback

On the qualitative side, both students and faculty members found the training more immersive, engaging, and even fun. For instance, Rebecca Domangue, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, shared her positive experience:

It was sooo wonderful—I had oohs and ahhs and they were up out of their seats walking around the room viewing the scenes. I used our department iPads to run the VR so there were no device equity issues. I got reactions like "Let's do this again", "Can we do this again in marine bio?", "This was the best part of my week", etc., so the format really resonated with them. Of particular joy was the sea turtle segment and the fish/crab predation competition.”

Quantitative and Qualitative Outcomes

  1. Perceived Quality:
    • Students rated the VR experience as highly immersive, noting a greater sense of presence and engagement compared to traditional classroom settings.
    • Students reported that VR, due to its visual and immersive nature, made complex topics much easier to understand. 
  2. Emotional Engagement:
    • Compared to traditional learning, students felt more emotionally connected to the learning material, fostering a deeper connection and boosting knowledge retention.
    • Students reported increased excitement and curiosity about marine biology topics, with many expressing a desire to participate in similar VR experiences in future courses.
  3. Knowledge Retention:
    • The initial results indicate that students who participated in the VR sessions showed higher retention rates of key ecological concepts compared to those who engaged in traditional learning methods. This was done through a survey that students took before and after the scenario (see graphs below)

This graph shows the results of field training versus VR. As mentioned, students were asked to take a survey grading their general knowledge before and after both field tests and VR training. Bentley University has several VR scenarios, and this graph shows the results for all three (indicated on the right). We can see that VR had a dramatic effect on learning with students scoring higher field training in all situations. 

This graph shows similar results. Student were asked to complete a survey to grade their understanding of seagrass before and after two types of teaching. The first represents field training, which shows a marginal increase while the VR training shows a much more significant increase in effectiveness. In essence, those who took the survey before and after VR training showed significant improvement. Here, it’s important to note that the field test includes mostly students who were not science (STEM) students. While this may account for some of the increase in terms of comparison, the results are still quite clear - VR training was highly effective in this scenario.

Implementation and Future Plans

Based on the positive results, the project team has several initiatives planned to enhance and expand the use of VR in educational settings:

  1. Virtual Tours:
    • The team plans to develop additional virtual tours that cover a broader range of marine ecosystems, acting as a substitute or supplement for on-site experiences.
  2. VR Lab at Bentley Academic Technology Center:
    • Plans are underway to establish a dedicated VR lab equipped with 20-30 VR headsets, turning chairs, manuals, and other necessary equipment. This lab will serve as a hub for immersive learning experiences, making VR accessible to a larger number of students.

Broader Impacts

Even with preliminary results, the success of the virtual seagrass project highlights how powerful VR can be in education. This project allowed students to travel virtually to the Bahamas and experience an underwater lesson without ever leaving the classroom. While on-side exploration still exists for Bentley, of course, it isn't the most suitable for the wide variety of students that attend lectures, some being students in business who don't have the time to travel. This allows the university to still provide top quality education for all students, regardless of their background, major, or availability. We're looking forward to hearing more from Bentley university in the future as they continue to perform studies on the effectiveness of VR training.

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