It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Kristin Taylor-Costello’s “Crime and Justice” students shift in time and space from the Bryant campus to the interior of a maximum-security prison. Staring straight ahead and donning virtual reality headsets, they watch as iron bars lock them into a cell. The room is narrow and dark, and patches of chipped paint stain the walls. Turning, they find they’re not alone. An inmate in blue stares at them without saying a word, and Taylor-Costello’s students begin to squirm.
This scene is a snippet from the 11-minute documentary film, Step to the Line, which seeks to provide viewers with a new perspective on prisoners, the correctional system, and themselves. Students, seated in Bryant’s Data Visualization Lab, hear first-hand accounts of how people found themselves incarcerated and watch as inmates are released from the system.
“This is a very powerful learning experience,” says Taylor-Costello, a Politics, Law, and Society lecturer in Bryant’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Through virtual reality, they see what it would mean to navigate prison, and how it would feel to share a space. Crime and policing are something that a lot of Americans, especially voters, are interested in, so having students develop an understanding of the correctional system is important.”
Over the 15-week course, students engage in policy debates and research projects focused on the philosophy, design, and operations of the criminal justice systems in education, immigration, drug control, and other areas. Students also meet representatives from Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) who speak about the ACI and its mission.
Prior to the pandemic, students could visit the ACI, but that is no longer an option in the wake of the pandemic. Believing that one of the best ways for students to learn is to be immersed in an environment, Taylor-Costello introduced virtual reality to help students understand adult correctional institutions.
“I'm a sociologist, so I believe in face-to-face communications but, particularly for skill building, virtual reality is fantastic,” Taylor-Costello says.
Taylor-Costello sees the role of virtual reality in education increasing in the future. Whether students are walking through a virtual-based prison or a local neighborhood, they’re building their observational skills by taking the theoretical concepts they’ve learned in class and using them to understand a lived reality. Come the spring semester, she’ll be expanding the use of virtual reality to her “Urban Sociology” course. Observations will include: How big is the space? Is there trash on the ground? Are there a lot of people around?
“These things tell a very particular story, and students need to learn to understand that story,” she says.
An important aspect of the course is having students leave the classroom, walk city streets, and take note of what they see. While New England weather is not always conducive to this during the winter and spring months, virtual reality offers students the ability to expand the number of places they can explore.
“The idea is that from campus, students can walk streets in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Houston,” Taylor-Costello says. “Students are really curious about these settings and a lot of them may not have ever been to these places, so having this experience is really cool.”
Back in the Data Visualization Lab, students remove their virtual reality headsets and place them on their laps. Calling on students, Taylor-Costello asks undergraduates for their observations and takeaways. Several students note the limited amount of space inmates had and how prisoners’ stories revealed a loss of innocence at a young age that set the course for certain life decisions. Several more explain that while the immersive experience felt “trippy” at first, using virtual reality helped them sympathize with inmates who shared their stories.
“Technology shapes the world, and this is where the future is going,” Taylor-Costello says.