Teaching innovation allows nursing students to see the world through the eyes of a person living with dementia

Pat Bradley
Pat Bradley

Pat Bradley, an associate professor of nursing at the Faculty of Health, has combined two of her passions – nursing and technology – into a meaningful experiential education opportunity for the students in York’s Internationally Educated Nurses program.

Pat Bradley
Pat Bradley

For her Health and Aging course, Bradley hit upon the idea of pairing inexpensive cardboard Google virtual reality (VR) glasses with videos that provides students with the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of someone who is living with dementia.

“It’s about empathy,” Bradley said. “Many of the students have cared for people with dementia, and I wanted the learners to approach the course material and understandings with ‘new eyes.’ The VR opportunity is experiential learning that engages the learners where they are to support meaningful learning.

“With the 3D experience, it feels more as if you are seeing this woman’s daily experiences through her eyes; it’s immersive. The woman goes out shopping, sees water on the street and worries that it’s a hole and she will fall. The experience uncovers the fears and concerns about safety that the woman with dementia experiences.”

This is a cardboard Google VR headset similar to the ones used by Pat Bradley in her course

Bradley has shown the videos both with and without the VR glasses and made the decision that the VR experience was powerful and would add depth to the learning experience.

“The 3D glasses bring the experience to another level,” she said. “It was more personal. The students were surprised by the woman’s challenges and the power of experiencing her difficulties.”

Part of the VR experience was a pre-briefing about what the students are going to see and a de-briefing afterward. The debriefing that includes reflection in, on and beyond the experience is “essential to learning.”

After virtually walking in the woman’s shoes, the students worked in small groups to answer Bradley’s guided discussion questions about the experience before discussing it as a class. The initial small group discussion created a safe place to discuss their thoughts before sharing those thoughts with the entire class.

“I provided questions about their feelings and discomfort upon experiencing the woman’s life and asked them how it will change the way they provide care to clients with dementia. Bradley said. “I wanted to know what they had learned and how it would affect the care they provide in the future.”

The students are all nurses from other countries who are working toward a bachelor’s degree in order to be able to practice as nurses in Canada. They bring varied experiences to class and Bradley wants to ensure this diversity of experience is acknowledged and appreciated.

“I ask them to hand in the guided questions, because they may not be comfortable saying what they are thinking aloud,” Bradley said. “I try to create a safe learning environment where they can share differences openly. Some students may come from a place where learning is more hierarchical and don’t feel comfortable being direct with a teacher. I see this as an invitation for reciprocal learning.”

Bradley has used the VR experience in two classes so far, and she sees its potential far beyond nursing classes.

“It’s not nursing specific,” Bradley said. “I can see using this kind of experience especially for affective learning. It teaches you the emotions that reading a paragraph in the text may not.”

Virtual reality may sound like an expensive option, but it needn’t be. Bradley provides her class with cardboard VR glasses and uses a free online video created in Britain. She experimented with a variety of cardboard glasses before settling on Google glasses, which worked well and fit both Android and Apple smartphones. Since cellphones are ubiquitous today, they were the perfect vehicle for showing the video. The phones are inserted into a pocket in the cardboard glasses, the video starts and “away they all go.”

“The fear that people with dementia have really comes through in VR,” Bradley says. “I want the students to have a sensitivity to that. I want them to consider what they’ll do in practice when someone has such fear.

“The students had a level of surprise at the harshness of living with dementia. The VR experience spoke to their hearts.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus