How Morehouse College Came to Lead the Way in Remote Teaching Through VR
The students stood surrounded by exploding cannons and Napoleonic soldiers as their professor calmly explained the causes and implications of this European war. In this moment it was clear: college classrooms would never be the same.
For roughly four years, classrooms have tried virtual reality education experiences; but in 2021, VR went from a learning experience to a subtle yet groundbreaking transition: rather than trying VR in a classroom, virtual reality became the classroom.
Early VR was asynchronous — meaning it was a sole experience for an individual student, without the possibility of being in a group setting with a teacher and other students.
An asynchronous educational experience can be a very effective learning tool. Take for example animal dissection. In virtual reality, an animal can be completely recreated from outer skin to inner organs, but other than a hologram teacher, it’s a solitary experience. This can work well in many situations, but there are times when it’s better to be guided by a live teacher while standing among classmates exploring the curiosities of the world together. Arguably it’s the live interaction — clarifying, questioning, debating — that is the most formidable element of the learning experience.
Enter the pandemic of 2020. Remote classrooms became the immediate solution for delivery of education irrespective of its efficacy. Suddenly, students were parked in front of a 2D screen for the next year.
With the early foundation of virtual reality and a desperate need to find a better way for remote learning, Morehouse College became the epicenter of virtual reality education.
It started with Sallie Sanders and the TRIO program, a federally funded outreach program designed to support high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sallie was the original innovator, as she looked for ways to engage her students even though they would not be able to travel to campus in the summer of 2020. What started out as a small experiment in 2019, became a full blown virtual reality program the following year. And it was a big success.
On a fall day in 2021, I had a fateful Zoom meeting with Dushunte Carmon of Morehouse College. Dushunte was looking for something innovative in remote learning. If you don’t know Morehouse College, you should. Its alumni include Martin Luther King, Senator Raphael Warnock, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson and Herman Cain. Even more, it’s a relatively small campus with about 2,000 students.
Fast forward six months. Three professors were launching classes covering biology, world history and inorganic chemistry and this summer a fourth class launches in literature. The revolutionary difference is that these four classes are being held in virtual reality classrooms, not a physical classroom with a VR learning experience.
Open your mind and imagine what the students are experiencing in a VR classroom: Professor Ethell Vereen asked for a barber shop so the young men in his biology class could freely discuss sensitive health issues. Professor Muhsinah Morris needed life size molecules that could be constructed and deconstructed — while in space on a starship! Professor Ovell Hamilton would teach world history while traveling the world from Africa to Europe to Japan. And Dr. Tanya Clark will teach fantasy literature in a Hogwart’s style school known as Mystvale College.
Stop and think about that. Instead of viewing complex molecules in a book or perhaps a 2D video, you can stand in a room with your professor and hold a 3 foot wide molecule in your hand, then deconstruct it and reconstruct it. Because it’s all digital and created in spatial 3D, there are enough molecules for everyone in the classroom and then plenty more.
Imagine learning about reproductive health while taking a group tour through a fallopian tube and then discussing it as a class. Imagine learning fantasy space literature while beaming up to a starship and then putting on a space suit and taking a walk outside the ship.
These professors — along with their project manager, Mr. Carmon, are reimagining what the classroom looks like. If they can think it, then in most cases it’s possible. And this isn’t a future iteration of the classroom, students across the United States are beginning to learn in these modern classrooms today.
Key to the success of the project were two provosts: Michael Hodge and Kendrick Brown. When the wheels of progress were grinding to a halt, Carmon was able to enlist their leadership to keep it moving forward.
Mr. Carmon explained it this way, “What we have done at Morehouse College is different than any group doing virtual and augmented reality; we have made the classroom virtual reality and we have given the professor and the student a magnificent way to connect for a dynamic learning experience. Like I’ve said to many people: what we are doing at Morehouse with virtual reality is a game changer. Hopefully colleges and universities around the world will follow our model and take education to a new frontier.”
Others have taken notice and are following suit. Dana Williams, the pioneering educator who founded American High School (100% online before that was a common thing), has begun transitioning four classes to virtual reality learning environments. And even Washington State University and The University of New Mexico are preparing to launch programs on the VictoryXR virtual reality campus.
Qualcomm, the world’s largest producer of mobile chips, is a partner in both the Morehouse College and the American High School projects.
For many people, it’s difficult to conceive of how this would work, but let me try to pull back the curtain. First, a school (which can include homeschool), purchases a 6DOF VR headset. These include the Oculus Quest, HP Reverb, Vive Focus Plus and the Pico Neo 2. 6DOF simply means that a user has full lifelike motion in this world. They can look up, down, around and can move around the space or look underneath items, just like the real world. Alternatively, a 3DOF headset will be less expensive in many cases, but only gives the ability to look up, down and around. Moving around and having the ability to look beneath and behind items, is not possible in 3DOF.
6DOF headsets range in cost from $300 to $850 in most cases.
In the absence of a VR headset, a student can also access the classroom using a PC with an i5 chip or a late-model phone. Think of it like moving around a 3D space like gamers do in Fortnite or Call of Duty.
Then you need access to a Metaverse VR academic campus. This is an academic campus with learning spaces, learning objects, virtual field trips, live classes and pre-recorded lessons. Let’s break all six of those down.
METAVERSE VR CAMPUS: If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, Ready Player One, then you get this already. It’s a graphically created world that allows users to move around and interact with others just like the real world, except it’s a 3D spatial world. There are a number of these worlds, like AltSpace by Microsoft and Horizons by Facebook. But there’s only one large-scale, fully furnished academic world, and that’s VictoryXR’s campus built on the EngageVR platform.
LEARNING SPACES: A metaverse campus needs learning spaces that make sense and are useful. They can recreate learning spaces in the real world, or they can be more imaginative and fantastic. On the VictoryXR campus, we have a traditional auditorium, science lab and math lab, but we also have dinosaur island for paleontology, a starship for astronomy and a time machine for history.
LEARNING OBJECTS: Once you are in the science lab, you need learning objects like molecules, human organs and items from history like a flintlock gun. Because these objects are created in spatial 3D, students can pick them up, manipulate them and even expand them. Consider the human heart. When Wendy Martin, the VictoryXR award-winning science teacher, teaches human anatomy, she will hand each student their own heart to hold and then ask them to expand it large enough to step inside and examine the ventricles and cavities.
VIRTUAL FIELD TRIPS: While most of what is seen is created through the magic of 3D graphics, there is also the option of virtual reality field trips shot using a 360 camera. With this footage, a student is able to be enveloped in the video. This means a trip to The Great Wall of China allows them to stand on the Great Wall and look to the North where the Mongols invaded. It can also include a teacher providing instruction on the location or the history. Field trips on the VictoryXR campus include volcanoes in Iceland, skyscrapers in Hong Kong, the Singapore Gardens, the Redwood forests of California and a dairy farm in Iowa.
LIVE CLASSES: The amazing thing about a virtual reality campus is that it is geographically agnostic. That means that the students and the teacher/professor can be in the same class — together — even if they are geographically spread around the world. In the VR learning space, those students can gather around a science experiment, travel together or break into small groups of 2’s and 3’s and work on project. It is a synchronous experience, meaning students can engage in questions and experience the learning live — as it happens. This has given the VictoryXR Academy the ability to collect the best teachers from around the world to teach courses on subjects as wide as engineering, geometry, theatre, astronomy, art history and environmental science. The teachers have been from varied locations like New York, Singapore, Iowa and Montana.
PRE-RECORDED CLASSES: Once a live class is held, it is also recorded in full spatial 3D. What that means is that a student who experiences the class at a later time, may move around the classroom, travel with the class and watch the experiments just like the live students did. The limitation is that they will not be able to ask live questions of the teacher and there are some 3D objects that will have limited functionality.
Because a 3D class is accessible via a VR headset, PC or late-model phone, the need to educate through a 2D screen becomes outdated very quickly. This enhanced learning experience is making a difference at Morehouse College as their professors and students transform the way education is delivered in the future. The fact that Morehouse College could move from concept to execution of a new campus in six months is a testimony of the agility of those involved at Morehouse College and the preparedness of the VictoryXR team.
Steve Grubbs is the founder of VictoryXR and a leading voice on the integration of AR & VR into academic institutions as well as the workplace.