Fearless trailblazing is rare. I work with four leaders who have exactly that trait and the world will never be the same because they possess it.
During the pandemic, we saw most of the academic world stumbling through efforts to get Zoom up and running so they could remotely educate students. We now know that it was a necessary step, but clearly not the type of teaching tool that would change the world.
But throughout the pandemic, there were four leaders I worked with who were able to see past the confusion of the moment and with clear heads, laid the groundwork for the campus of the future.
Over the last 24 months, I have spoken with hundreds of educators and administrators. Almost all could see the future of education includes some form of immersive learning, but these four education leaders stand out due to their willingness to tackle something new while simultaneously keep online learning moving forward.
Part of it is that these four educators all know that the students they see are changing, because the way they consume information has changed so dramatically. In the ‘50’s through ‘70’s, long format films (and when I say films, I mean literal film) were the standard way education was delivered if not by book or lecture.
Then came video, but still long format. Today, we all know that is a thing of the past. Students consume A LOT of information, but they do it on their terms.
Rather than sit back and accept the world the way it was presented to them, they reached out and chose to make the world the way they wanted to see it.
Dana Williams — Founder of the world’s first global virtual reality high school
When others were only dreaming about a 100% online school, Dana Williams was making it happen. Headquartered just outside Miami, Dana’s school educates more than 2,000 students worldwide with her online classes. Founded 20 years ago, American High School has worked through the issues and challenges that others are just now figuring out. But as someone with a college degree in computer science, she clearly has no fear of emerging technologies.
When she realized that virtual reality had moved from being a tool used in class to becoming the class — this was she wanted to explore. Alongside her partners in this work, Qualcomm and VictoryXR, Ms. Williams continues to innovate and lead in the space of virtual learning. Now students from two different countries have embarked on the first high school classes where the geographic boundaries of their locations no longer matter. Even though these teenagers may be 2,500 miles apart, in this class, they stand side-by-side, working collaboratively, handing human hearts to each other (in biology class), and then fist bumping — complete with haptic feeling — to celebrate a successful lesson. Of the dozens of classes American High School offers, several are available this semester in the virtual reality school — and more are being added each semester.
Dr. Muhsinah Morris- Director of the Morehouse College Digital Twin Campus known as ‘Morehouse in the Metaverse’
When the pandemic hit, students and faculty at Morehouse College were completely locked off campus. Strict security meant that it was difficult even for professors to get back onto campus. Like most other places, classes went online and the long drudgery for professors and students began.
Dr. Morris, Dr. Ethell Vereen, Dr. Ovell Hamilton and Dr. Tanya Clark were the first professors, led by project manager Dushunte Carmon, to tackle the challenge of figuring out a virtual reality campus while still acclimating to teaching online. The plan called for a digital twin campus to be built and for professors to meet their students on the campus and teach in a live and synchronous way.
VictoryXR designed the digital twin campus using images from the Internet, and it’s strikingly close to the real thing. From there, professors met regularly for professional development to hone these new skills of teaching in VR. They didn’t have to come up with new lesson plans or curriculum, since that existed in the real world. But they did have to figure out how to transition it to a digital world.
Dr. Morris decided to teach one of her classes on a starship. It was here that students were able to construct molecules from scratch in her inorganic chemistry class. The key difference between their ‘online’ classes and their VR classes was that they could interact as if they were in a real class on campus. Fist bumps, live demonstrations, personal interactivity, and all of the human aspects to learning that are so critical are all easily corralled in the metaverse.
Today, Dr. Morris has been named the Director of Morehouse in the Metaverse, the first in the United States to manage a digital twin campus set in virtual reality. Her inspiring backstory of rising from a modest rural household in Georgia to leading this groundbreaking advance in education is one that should be a motivation to all who are seeking to accomplish great things and make a difference.
Dr. Diana Clemons — Founder and Leader of Future Leaders Outreach Network
Dr. Diana Clemons has a passion for helping students who are at-risk of making bad decisions — decisions that will impact them for the rest of their lives.
Her solution was to attain funding for a mobile trailer that could go from school to school and students could see and experience careers. Her philosophy was that students needed to be given a goal to work toward, rather than always being told to ‘not’ do things. “We always tell them, ‘don’t do drugs, stay away from gangs, don’t get pregnant’ rather than telling them all the positive things they should be trying to do,” said Clemons. “Children need something to work toward.”
To reach this goal, Dr. Clemons realized that the best way for students to experience a career was to step into the shoes of someone who actually does that job. And while she can’t take all students on a field trip to see their dream job, she can bring many of those jobs to the students through the miracle of virtual reality. And Dr. Clemons is relentless. She sees the future and she lets nothing stand in the way of her achieving that future. Through her powers of persuasion (and grant writing), she has secured the help of industry heavyweights like T-Mobile and Facebook, as well as key VR industry players like VictoryXR. She’s able to pay for her trailer, the technology inside of it and the staffing required to run this year-round program.
There’s no blueprint for what she’s trying to do, no manual. Every step of the way she has to figure out on her own — and she does.
Dr. Shirley Brown: Dean of Fisk University
Dr. Shirley Brown and the president of Fisk University, Vann Newkirk, are on a mission to make Fisk University, a small HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee, a technological behemoth in the field of education delivery.
When she read about the opportunity to offer labs in virtual reality, she knew she had to pick up the phone and make a call. Fisk is located in the same city as Vanderbilt University. And because Fisk was not previously able to afford a cadaver lab, pre-med students would take those classes at Vanderbilt, rather than Fisk. But having a cadaver lab on campus would solve this problem and make Fisk an international leader in the adoption of cutting-edge technologies with practical, real-world applications. VictoryXR proposed the concept of building the world’s most advanced, synchronous human cadaver lab with the capability to pull organs from the body, expand them and step inside them — with your professor and other students!
This call was made in March of 2021 and her plan was to have it operational by the fall semester — a lightning fast effort in the world of higher education. Fortunately, President Newkirk was 100% behind her plan so, working with VictoryXR, T-mobile and HTC Vive, the group set to work creating a cadaver lab that could work on Fisk’s campus. The T-mobile team visited campus to check the strength of the 5G network, a critical component for unfettered Internet access (unlike campus WiFi networks that are frequently a problem). Vive came up with the 6DOF VR headsets necessary for a clear viewing. Dr. Brown and her team did the rest.
While it’s still early in this implementation, the bottom line is that Dr. Brown recognized the strategic advantage for the students of Fisk University being able to stay on campus and learn anatomy in a deeper way than has ever been possible before. And while many institutions of higher education are wary of new technologies or driving the faculty to learn new teaching modalities, Dr. Brown forged ahead on an accelerated timeline with a zeal that met the goal of the fall semester.
The Bottom Line: Fearless Trailblazing
So often, it’s easiest for people to choose the path of least resistance. Trying new things means that more hours will have to be invested and one must hear the cynics and skeptics as they generously share their comments on likely failure. That’s why these four education leaders are so special in my mind. They were willing to push forward and try something new. While success is not guaranteed, what is guaranteed is that immersive learning will play a bigger role as time goes on. It’s the early pioneers we will remember and write about in the coming years and those stories will include the likes of Dana Williams, Dr. Muhsinah Morris, Dr. Diana Clemons and Dr. Shirley Brown.