Steve Grubbs and Jenny Witt
The Fortnite Generation has arrived at college. Are we ready for them?
Colleges and universities that understand this generation are more likely to attract more students and also have higher retention rates.
A meta-analysis by the US Department of Education, showed that students who had a blended learning program — in-person and digital — performed better. And that’s the beauty of learning on a metaversity campus: it is both digital and in-person. Read on, we will come back to that point.
Fortnite, a multiplayer online survival video game, has taken the world by storm since its creation in 2017. Within the larger umbrella of Fortnite, users can choose from participating in a myriad of smaller events, including Battle Royale, Zero Build, and a range of community-made games. In these games, players can voice chat with one another, enabling them to make friends and build a sense of virtual community. In 2021, Fortnite reported having over 400 million active users, a testament to the game’s ubiquitous popularity, particularly among members of Generation Z. It’s likely that you have heard of Fortnite, and I am sure some of you have even played the game yourselves. Fortnite’s success bodes well for the future of synchronous, multiplayer forms of gaming within 3D, computerized worlds and indicates a growing trend of digital socializing.
In comparison, the popularity of remote and online learning has also dramatically grown within recent years. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, education has had to re-evaluate its methods to adapt to the changing conditions of society. Remote learning made massive strides in societal acceptance as well as technological improvement during that time. Prior to the massive, life-changing influence of the coronavirus pandemic, systems of fully remote and online learning had been becoming more widespread. According to a 2018 study, traditional, in-person learning enrollment rates have been decreasing by one to two percent yearly while online learning enrollment rates have been increasing by five percent per year, even before COVID-19. These statistics indicate that remote learning will continue to grow, even after the pandemic has ended.
When analyzed in combination, the ascension of these two trends provides evidence in support of the future of growth of immersive learning experiences in the educational realm. They beg the question: why not combine the appeal of synchronous gaming and socialization with the appeal of remote learning and education? Where these two megatrends intersect, immersive 3D learning steps in to fill the void. The future of education for the Internet Generation lies with virtual reality, the natural outcome of this fusion.
The popularity of synchronous multiplayer video games has increased within the past decade, creating major successes for online video game companies like Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite. Other popular games of this sort include Roblox, Among Us, and Minecraft, all of which enable multiplayer collaboration. In many cases like these, video gaming is no longer a solitary activity. Members of Generation Z are the primary audience of these games, showcasing that young people are engaged with this trend and demonstrating the potential for growth in the future.
Additionally, these multiplayer online synchronous video games have become spaces to hang out virtually, beyond the act of playing a game. Tech companies have discovered that an excellent way to keep players coming back to these virtual spaces is consistently offering new experiences and ways in which to connect with others. Fostering a sense of digital co-experience and immersive community, despite their nature of being remote virtual platforms, has enabled the expansion of these video games into the metaverse. Hosting live events, like concerts, has become one way in which companies like to achieve user retention as its target demographic, teens, grows up. Fortnite and Roblox have both hosted a variety of live in-game concerts and special events for their users in the past. For instance, in 2019, Fortnite hosted a Marshmello concert that attracted 10.7 million attendees. Roblox tripled those numbers when Lil Nas X performed a concert in-game in November 2020, garnering 33 million attendees from over 160 countries.
These large numbers indicate the popularity of synchronous, 3D video games as well as the platforms’ ability to transcend the boundaries of typical gaming. These online games have successfully innovated new ways in which to keep their players engaged, making it likely that this megatrend will continue into the future.
Similarly, virtual reality has increased in popularity among the average person in recent years. Virtual reality technology can be used for any variety of applications, all of which enable socialization within the context of a three-dimensional, virtual synchronous world. In 2016, companies placed immersive VR headsets on the market for the ordinary consumer for the first time, revolutionizing the field by making immersive virtual reality technology affordable and accessible to people in their homes, schools, and workplaces. Prior to 2016, VR headsets were not commercially available to American consumers. Since then, VR’s popularity has grown markedly, with around 171 million people estimated to use virtual reality in some form worldwide. Bringing multiplayer synchronous games like Fortnite and Roblox into the metaverse is a logical progression for these companies to keep customers engaged and provide novel experiences. In the coming years, consumers’ interest in virtual reality and other 3D experiences will only grow.
Now stop and think about how education can be transformed combining synchronous (group) learning with the power of online virtual reality. Take the cadaver lab for example: in the VictoryXR cadaver lab, students gather around a human body with a professor where they can examine the organ systems.
The professor may plunge her hand into the chest cavity and pull out a human heart. From there, she can pass it to the student to her right. In the cadaver lab, the student may be inches away, but in the real world, miles away. The student takes the human heart — feeling it haptically as it is handed over — and then begins expanding it until it is five meters tall. At this point, the student and professor step inside the heart and learn about the ventricles and cavities. [https://youtu.be/wdn_z3D_ql4]
The dramatic growth of gaming and socializing in synchronous, virtual worlds has occurred in conversation with the dramatic growth of remote and online learning. Prior to COVID-19, remote learning had already been on an upward trend. In fall 2019, 17 percent of postsecondary students took their classes fully online, while 19 percent took their classes partially online, indicating the growing popularity of remote learning. However, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic pushed the world into adapting virtual learning at a rate faster than ever before. In fall 2020, 73 percent of postsecondary students took their classes either fully or partially online. The circumstantial need to adapt remote learning in such large numbers paved the way for its broader acceptance among educators and students as a legitimate learning tool. Promising statistics show that students can retain between 25 to 60 percent more information when learning online than they can when learning in the classroom. Remote learning provides convenience, ease, and makes education geographically accessible to all. For these reasons, virtual learning will continue into the future.
The next logical step in the progression of remote learning is to take education into the virtual reality metaverse, as a fusion between the trends towards 3D gaming and online learning. This transition has already begun at select, forward-thinking institutions of higher education, like Morehouse University. Offering educational options within virtual reality allows colleges to appeal to the younger, Internet generation, who not only expects this option but thrives online. Providing education in virtual reality will thus entice these students to engage with learning in a way unique to their generation and enable them to learn better than ever.
Virtual reality contributes new forms of learning, especially active learning, to the field of education in ways that in-person learning does not. Scientist Scott Freeman defines active learning as teaching that “engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert.” Active learning promotes higher content retention levels, engages students more fully, and provides more context to the information being taught than passive learning does.
According to a 2014 article from Science.org, students are 1.5 times more likely to fail in a class using passive learning as opposed to one using active learning. VR headsets promote immersive, active learning by inserting students into new environments and enabling them to visualize difficult concepts or empathize with foreign situations in ways unique to this technology. The new opportunities that learning in virtual reality brings to the field of education are limitless.
Virtual reality’s benefits can be directly measured via forms of empirical evidence, like brain scans. Researchers from Saga University in Japan conducted a study in which they used EEGs to measure brain activity in students while learning with VR headsets and compared them with the brain activity of students while learning traditionally. When engaged with learning in a traditional classroom environment, students’ brain activity showed a mere 3.0 increase from their resting state. However, when instead engaged with learning in an immersive VR environment, students’ brain activity increased by a remarkable 15.5 points.
Researchers theorized that this significant increase in brain activity among students in virtual reality learning could be attributed to the emotional sensory connection created between students and the learning material, as well as the lack of external distractions while immersed in the virtual environment. Learning in virtual reality therefore alleviates common issues of boredom and distraction among students, allowing them to fully concentrate on their studies.
Learning in virtual reality combines the experience of playing an online, synchronous 3D video game with your friends along with the experience of receiving a world-class education from your home, both of which are popular trends and high priorities for Gen Z. The intersection of these two trends indicates that immersive 3D learning, particularly in virtual reality, will continue for years to come.
Research demonstrates that students of all ages that learn with virtual reality are significantly more engaged with the learning material and perform better on learning outcome exams than traditional students, with these gains extending across all subjects. VictoryXR, among other companies, creates educational content in virtual reality that enables students to harness the benefits of active learning experiences. Immersive virtual reality experiences range from fully-developed ‘metaversities’ to 360-degree field trips. They facilitate engaging, interactive learning that students of all ages can access and enjoy. These remarkable gains in academic achievement should not be overlooked. The future of education lies in the metaverse!
Finally a short discussion about the hardware needed to access a school in the metaverse: while an actual VR headset is preferable, these 3D online worlds can also be accessed by students through a PC, tablet or even a smartphone. The comparison between a VR headset and the rest is akin to standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and seeing it on a video, but nevertheless, access to the right hardware is not a big friction point to adoption. Even more, quality VR headsets start at $400 USD, which is half the price of an iPhone.
While the adoption curve is still a bit fuzzy, there is little doubt that immersive learning will take hold in almost every school in the world over the next five to seven years and it’s clear that the Fortnite Generation will lead the way.
Steve Grubbs is the CEO and co-founder of VictoryXR, a company focused on building the education metaverse, particularly metaversities. Steve is the former Chair of the Education Committee in the Iowa House of Representatives.
Jenny Witt is a senior at Boston College studying History and Political Science. Originally from Willowbrook, IL, she has interned at VictoryXR since August 2021.