Inclusive Avatars and Narratives in Virtual Reality Biology Simulations

Concurrent Session 8
Streamed Session Equity and Inclusion

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The School of Life Sciences at ASU built a process based an inclusive framework for language, empathy, and diversity that guided the development of new simulations. Between collaborative dialogue and creating shared values, a proactive process for creating content that was more supportive to ASU’s diverse student population was developed.

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Amy is the Assistant Director of Faculty Support, for the School of Life Sciences (SoLS). Her responsibilities include managing the TeachTech Lab, a "makerspace" for faculty and instructors to learn, share and collaborate with innovative technologies for their face-to-face, hybrid, and fully online classes. Amy develops training and workshops, and helps faculty integrate “best practices” for implementing active learning in their courses. She is currently teaching EDT180 for Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Most recently Amy has been involved with the use of virtual reality for online lab classes, and developing the new online biology degree. Amy’s graduate work included studies in elearning, adult learning and faculty development in higher education. Her thesis focused on specialized training to prepare adjunct college professors to be effective in their classrooms. Amy has presented at various conferences, including Educause, The Teaching Professor, and the Online Learning Consortium. She is the Assistant Director for the Emerging Learning Design community and conference.

Extended Abstract

Arizona State University’s mission includes the statement that “we are measured not by whom we exclude, but rather by whom we include and how they succeed.”

This mission infuses the ASU classrooms, and filters into all new initiatives on campus. Inclusive language and equitable teaching practices have been slowly working into classrooms with a number of training opportunities and research by ASU faculty including Renee Klug, the ASU International Educator, and Sara Brownell, PhD the Director of the Research in Inclusive STEM Education (RISE) Center.


In 2017, Arizona State University (ASU) embarked on creating a fully online biology degree. The challenge was how to develop three lab courses that would meet the degree criteria and offer a quality lab experience for students. In partnership with The ASU School of Life Sciences (SoLS), EdPlus, Labster and Google, ASU incorporated virtual reality into three new courses for the online biology students. The lab courses used virtual reality headsets to immerse students in real world simulations to learn concepts typically taught in traditional lab classes.

All the simulations sought to move away from simply replicating the laboratory experience, and instead capitalize on the narrative and presenting life-like cases.  Stories were developed that expanded a student’s experiences beyond the core science concepts, safety protocols, lab technology and analyzing results found in traditional labs. Examples of this included having the students travel to specific locations to gather field samples, and identify local challenges in working with climate and ecology. One lab even had students exploring a completely new planet to apply knowledge to an unknown ecology.

During beta testing there were overwhelming positive responses on the use of narratives, engaging visuals, and clear learning experiences. However, some themes regarding inclusion began to develop that were concerning for the SoLS instructional staff, including stereotypes, microagressions and insensitivity.       


One simulation had a small section where a researcher went to the field to study indigenous people. Students and faculty began to alert the team that these avatars didn’t have typical features associated with the indigenous people. Some commented that they were not treated respectfully, and students often felt like these avatars were stereotypes. Other concerns were that various simulations often had Caucasian male researchers, and females were often lab assistants.

In another simulation for lab safety, students were introduced to a student and asked for the proper dress code for a lab. In trying to implement humor into this topic, the students took a quick quiz that asked “What is wrong with this woman?”  Answer choices included “She walks weirdly” and “She has terrible taste in fashion.” This judgement led to users to let the team know that this was considered a microagression toward the woman, and would never be used in our regular classrooms to teach about appropriate attire. Microagressions training had been implemented into faculty development on campus, however, avatar “instructors” hadn’t developed this awareness.

ASU and Labster were excited by students that became completely immersed in the virtual world. They felt empathy for avatars, and connected with the real-world problems. However, this immersion led to increased empathy for the characters, and students expressed guilt and concern for one simulation with a pregnant woman when she learned about the fetus’ possible disability. Medical professionals needed to portray protocols, but also display “good bedside manner” in patient situations.


These issues in inclusion resulted in a number of meetings, leading to a desire to take a proactive stance on the development of future simulations. ASU School of Life Sciences, EdPlus and Labster teams met to begin to develop a plan for developing content that was inclusive. Teams went through training on supporting international students and were introduced to Bennet’s Model of cultural competency showing the process by which people learn to value and respond respectfully to people of all cultures. This was then applied to online simulations, and interactions between avatars.

Additionally, the School of Life Sciences developed two standards to review their online courses from an inclusive lens. These were to incorporate:

1. “Global” Content - the use of non- U.S. centric content, language support and access

2. “Inclusive” Content - the use of equitable content for gender, and diversity

These training initiatives encouraged the team to form a “Cultural Values” document to be used by SoLS faculty, staff and Labster developers when developing content for simulations. It focused on creating a framework that would allow flexibility, but could be used as a guideline for reviewing content. It included the following frameworks with examples:

  1. Language: Text, voice, and discussions should focus on description over judgement. Descriptions are observable, literal facts, as opposed to a judgement statement that is an interpretation or evaluation of what the viewer may feel about what they see.
    1. Example: “Is this woman dressed appropriately to work in a lab?”
  2. Empathy: Include an understanding of emotions and experiences in another person, which will lead to a more humane interaction between avatars.
    1. Example: Apply empathy from doctor to a patient for the difficult decision involving a possible abortion of a fetus.
  3. Diversity: Include a broad lens for creating avatars, and avoid cultural assumptions of people.
    1. Gender example: Women seen as doctors and lead researchers.
    2. Race, Culture, Ethnicity example: avoid typical stereotypes and accurately and respectfully show diverse people as community leaders
  4. Religion: Include broad examples of world religions respectfully, and include people with diverse beliefs as scientists
    1. Example: avatars wearing religious symbols like a cross, kippot or hijab.
  5. Disabilities: Include broad examples of people with disabilities working in the science industry.
    1. Example: Insert assistive devices for helping researchers with disabilities, like ramps, audio weight scales, screen readers, etc.


After the team agreed on these values, a new process was developed for reviewing all simulations. Labster posted the guidelines within their offices, and encouraged their developers to be mindful of implementing avatars that met these standards. An “Inclusive Review Team” for SoLS was trained and put into operation for all beta testing to give feedback based on the cultural values guidelines. The team consisted of diverse students, faculty and staff with life experiences from multiple communities. Not only was race and gender considered, but also those with disabilities were recruited to give feedback on the simulations.

As expected, the process was awkward the first few rounds, but as the team became comfortable with what was expected, and confident in their feedback, the feedback corrected previous content, and developed more inclusive content with Labster. Each simulation pushed our lens out a little further, including the use of non-gendered avatars. The new simulations mirrored the diverse population of the campus classrooms, and reflected our values for portraying a more diverse and inclusive workplace for our students.


This is designed to be a "Present & Reflect" session. The objectives are to:

  • Create awareness for how often simulations in science use stereotypes and non-inclusive content
  • Share a framework to review content, and create a dialogue that leads to more inclusive content

The presentation will share the case for Arizona State University, and the Labster partnership to create new simulations for a biology degree. After the presenters share their case study, individual participants will watch a 2-minute clip, and review it based on the framework. During the 10-minute Q&A, individuals will discuss their ideas for how the clip could be more inclusive, and some of the challenges and benefits they see in working with this framework.