Renato Roperto wearing a virtual reality headset

Dental lectures in virtual reality flip learning experience

As a dentist also trained as a computer technician, Renarto Roperto created enhanced 360-degree video versions of his lectures so students can experience them in virtual reality (VR) headsets any time they want.

Renato RopertoThe unconventional approach—an adaptation of the “flipped classroom” concept—allows Roperto, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Dental Medicine, to use class time for students to work together on projects, discuss what they learned during the VR lectures or ask questions.

Visuals and video clips are embedded in the VR lectures to add depth and texture to class topics, such as offering a 3-D view of the nerves inside a tooth.

“The goal is to unlock a new, enhanced learning experience,” said Roperto, a Brazil native who has taught at the dental school since 2013.

This past spring, he created the videos during the dental school’s computer-aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) course about new technologies that, for instance, can rapidly expedite crown creation. The videos became available to students on a rolling basis last semester. This fall, all lectures for the class will only be available via VR video.

Screenshot from Renarto Roperto's 360-degree video versions of his lectures
Screenshots from a VR lecture Roperto has enhanced with interactive features

Screenshot from Renarto Roperto's 360-degree video versions of his lectures. This slide features instructions for the courseWhile some students already owned advanced VR headsets, such as Oculus Rift and ViVe HTC (often used for gaming), others bought inexpensive models, such as the Google Cardboard—available for $10 online—that use smartphones to create the 360-degree effect of being in the classroom.

“While nothing can truly compare to physically being in class,” said Nick Slezak, a fourth-year dental student, “VR allowed me to feel like I was in the front row again.”

Students studying for the course’s final exam found the videos especially helpful—particularly if they missed the initial presentation, said Alicia Irizarry, a fourth-year dental student from Cleveland.

Although wearing the headset took a little getting used to, Irizarry said the potential to use VR to simulate working on a patient was exciting, especially during the first two pre-clinical years, when they learn on dummies and plastic teeth.

“Seeing a 360-degree view of a root canal, and seeing the blood, nerves and decay, or simulating a surgery, could help tremendously once we come to work on real patients,” Irizarry said.

“It’ll be like having a personal demonstration available at any time,” said Love. “A slideshow doesn’t seem to cut it quite like this technology. And as this will free up more time for hands-on activities, I think it could make for a better educational experience.”

In the meantime, Roperto is researching ways to extend the VR approach to teach courses on topics such as dental anatomy, envisioning how students can go “inside” teeth and gums.

“In a few years, almost everyone will have access to either VR or augmented reality, or AR,” Roperto said. “This should play a big role in the future of training dentists.”