AI and VR are Transforming Social Work Education at RIC


Grant-funded research allows future social workers to assess clients using artificial intelligence and virtual reality environments.

Interim Dean of Social Work Jayashree Nimmagadda believes colleges and universities will make artificial intelligence and virtual reality standard tools for learning in the future and she wants RIC’s School of Social Work to be at the forefront.

Currently, Nimmagadda, along with Assistant Professor of Social Work Warren Miller and Assistant Professor of Social Work Aswood Bousseau are co-principal investigators on two AI and VR projects that dramatically change how social workers are trained.

The first project involves the use of an AI platform called SIMmersion that allows students to assess a client for suicide while avoiding the ethical dilemma of practicing on a real client.

Social work students can be anxious and less comfortable asking a client about their suicide ideas and plans, Nimmagadda said. SIMmersion provides a safe virtual environment for students to practice in and it increases their confidence in suicide assessment.

The software program consists of a sim client (a professional actor playing the role of a person contemplating suicide) being interviewed by a student trainee. The strength and innovation of SIMmersion is that the actor appears to be talking to the student in real time when, in fact, the actor has been pre-recorded. 

“SIMmersion is able to achieve the appearance of real time by preloading into the software questions and statements a trainee might ask and by preloading and prerecording responses by the actor,” said Miller, the tech expert of the team.

Through this training, students learn to read both verbal and nonverbal cues and to be mindful of how they pose questions and statements. 

While the trainee is assessing the client, the client is also assessing the trainee, responding and reacting to the trainee based on how the trainee is coming across. The actor’s level of trust drives how s/he behaves at each moment, from warm and open to hostile and distant.

An onscreen coach (an AI-generated avatar) is also available throughout the conversation to note the successful exchanges, to flag mistakes and to give helpful suggestions. 

By the end of the conversation, students receive a performance score. They are also given a transcript of the entire conversation which they can bring to their field instructor to discuss strategies for improvement. 

The great thing about SIMmersion is that trainees can practice with the same client again and again. Conversations never play the same way twice, making repeated practice meaningful.

“We could bring an actor to class to work with our students, but they would have only a limited amount of time to practice one-on-one with each student,” said Bousseau. 

With SIMmersion, students can practice day or night. It’s like having a professional role-player in your back pocket whenever you need it.

“The key is repetition,” said Nimmagadda. “Just like pilots learn to fly after hours and hours of simulation training, our students learn to sharpen their assessment skills after hours and hours of training. The more you practice at anything, the better you get at it. The goal is to build competency and confidence.”

This semester, social work students are also building their evaluation skills by learning to assess homes for safety using a virtual reality environment created by Miller. 

Miller staged a room to look like the inside of an apartment and used a 360-degree camera to videotape and photograph the room. After editing the video and photos, he uploaded them to a VR platform called Wondavr. 

Wearing a VR headset, students are able to walk through the virtual environment and note areas that are unsafe. Using their remote, they can click on, say, a wire running across the room or an open bottle of bleach. And questions appear on their headset, which students must answer.

This training, like SIMmersion, creates an immersive experience that allows students to feel deeply engaged in the learning process and bridges the gap between training and real-world application. 

Like Nimmagadda, Miller believes schools of the future are going to harness AI and VR learning more and more to help students learn more effectively. 

“As a school, we’re continuously looking for innovative ways to create competent social workers,” he said. “Artificial intelligence and virtual reality will be a big part of that.”

The SIMmersion project is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training. The information or content and conclusions are those of the principal investigators and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by, HRSA, HHS or the U.S. government. The virtual reality project is supported by the Rhode Island College Committee for Faculty Scholarship and Development.