Students and teachers have discovered some possibilities for the future of education through the University’s first course offered in virtual reality.
When Emily Nunes came to class recently, she found herself in a peaceful outdoor arena near the sea. Triangular transparent panels formed the roof above him, while Nunes stood in a manicured court facing a large revolving Buddha statue. Flute music played in the background for meditation, while his classmates placed candles around the statue. The teaching assistant floated around the arena, leading a discussion. Nearby, two classmates are wearing astronaut costumes, while another appears to be a frog.
Apparently Nunes didn’t take a typical college course. Wearing an Oculus Quest 2 headset, he went to “Zen Oasis,” a final project done by three classmates as part of the University of Miami’s first course entirely in virtual reality (VR).
“It’s not like any class I’ve taken at UM,” said Nunes, a senior film student.
The small, discussion -based course, “Religion and Sacred Spaces in the Age of Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence,” is a collaboration between three faculty members – Kim Grinfeder, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Interactive Media ; William Green, professor of religious studies; and Denis Hector, Associate Professor of Architecture, to examine how spiritual practices and spaces exist in the Metaverse, a 3D world that people can enter using virtual reality headsets.
“Every Thursday we jump in and go to a different place,” said Grinfeder, who also runs the University’s program. XR initiative. “It’s been a wild ride, and we really enjoyed this course discovering new ways that these immersive technologies allow us to connect with each other and learn.”
While the inaugural version of the class was held at Zoom last spring, each class this semester was held in virtual reality. This meant that 15 students and three professors attended the class as avatars that they themselves designed. And almost every week, the group meets in a different virtual setting. A class was held around a campfire, with stars twinkling above and crickets twinkling on helmets. Another took place in a corporate conference room, and another took place in a virtual theater in Pompey, with a large semi-circle of seats (so the avatar doesn’t feel cramped). Students also designed their own classrooms as homework, rearranging the learning spaces in the metaverse.
“It’s a surreal experience, and it’s always hard to capture all the weird things we learn and experience every week,” said junior Samantha Clayman, who studies biochemistry and nutrition, as well. Judaic studies.
Students and faculty members say the increased sense of presence felt in virtual reality means the classroom is more engaging than learning on a video conferencing platform.
“It’s different to see something on a screen because there’s a feeling of being somewhere else,” said Green, who also holds the Fain Family Chair in Judaic Studies. “For example, when you’re outside and you hear the sea and feel the sunlight, even when you’re not physically fit, you feel like you’ve experienced that.”
Even if the university class may not be the first to be held in virtual reality, the practice is still rare. In developing the class, Grinfeder has reached out to colleagues across the country and has not found another example of a semester course fully taught in virtual reality.
At the start of the semester, students said the technology was a bit difficult and that they needed to take a break from wearing the headset. But within a month, each class of more than two hours passed at full speed, said Matthew Rossi, a math and computer science student who served as the course’s teaching assistant.
The freedom to quickly change class locations remains interesting and allows everyone to notice the impact of different spaces. While the conversations in the conference room were brief, the discussions flowed more freely in the outdoor settings, Rossi, Green and Grinfeder agreed.
The university administration also supports the class. The provost “Classrooms of the Future” initiative gives faculty members a grant to purchase headsets before the spring semester. In addition, Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, recently presented the trio, along with Rossi, at the Transdisciplinary Innovation Teaching Award, an honor given by several instructors each year.
“Experiences like this course provide our students with a variety of perspectives and ways of thinking that can lead to deeper understanding, creative problem solving, and innovation,” Duerk said. “Part of what we want to know is how these technologies can define classrooms in the future.”
Nate Taminger, senior major in meteorology and marine science, said the innovation in virtual reality learning took him on the course. Like most of his classmates, Taminger has never tried virtual reality before, but he’s glad to know about the technology.
“In college, everyone wants to try new things and explore new opportunities,” he said. “Some of my friends are jealous that they didn’t do it like this.”
Build from scratch
During the first few classes, students and faculty members learn to navigate virtual reality (they can walk or teleport) using handheld controls and headsets. Then student groups are given their final project: to create a sacred space with a metaverse ritual that the class can visit together. Because it requires some technical skills, the teams include an Interactive Media student, an Architecture student, and a College of Arts and Science student, who combine different strengths. .
The Nunes team created a multi-sensory meditation experience where participants walk through a deep water tunnel. At the end of the trail, an arched door opens at sunset into the sky, where visitors can step on a rock and reflect on the ocean around them. He and others were surprised to feel immersed in the meditative ritual.
“It’s not real life, but our brain understands it this way,” Nunes said.
Despite the learning curve, students enjoyed the opportunity to immerse themselves in virtual reality. Many also commented on how invigorating it is to take a course where they learn how to use new technologies with faculty members.
“It’s all just an experiment. And we’re all learning at the same time, which is really amazing,” Clayman said. “We also started it based on designing spaces that didn’t mention the normal laws of physics.”
Students noticed many differences about taking a virtual reality course. First, very early entrants can display their full avatars, meaning most students in the class have floating heads, bodies, and hands (missing legs is a common metaverse issue). In addition, when avatars appear in class, they all enter the same area and on top of each other, often causing virtual claustrophobia.
“It’s a bad feeling, even if it’s not your real body, it feels like an invasion from space,” Nunes said.
Students also found it difficult to take notes using the headset, even with the virtual tablet feature.
A blank canvas
However, almost everyone involved in the class said the experience enabled them to recognize the endless possibilities of learning and working in the metaverse.
“Right now, [wearing the headset] it’s like putting a brick in your face. But in the future, they will be smaller, more accessible and easier to use, ”Clayman said. “And at this point, I think it’s easy to apply to education.”
“Right now it looks like a video game still, but the experience will become more authentic over time,” Rossi added. “And as this technology becomes more ubiquitous and the quality of graphics improves, it’s starting to look more like physics.”
Taminger is excited about the possibilities of virtual reality in his field of meteorology and marine science.
“I hope I can use this one day to show people how climate change is affecting the environment,” he said. “Whether it’s going to the Great Barrier Reef to show what’s going on there or using augmented reality to show people what two meters of sea level rise can do in their communities, it’s a way to show people how their lives have changed. ”
In the foreseeable future, students and faculty members said the use of virtual reality could enhance lessons in other subjects, such as architecture, art history, foreign languages, health care, and other disciplines where being in one area can enhance the learning experience.
But students can also create completely new spaces.
“The ability to expand and show your imagination in the metaverse is greater than in the three-dimensional world, simply because you can create structures in ways that are impossible to build in real life,” Green said.
Allan Gyorke, the University’s deputy provost for teaching innovation, agreed and applauded faculty members for facing the first all-VR classroom.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do in virtual spaces,” he said.
“If we hadn’t explored this technology, we wouldn’t have done our job as teachers of higher education.”
Sana Paul, a political science graduate, found that the virtual classroom is more hospitable to people with social concerns. He said he thinks virtual reality classes could also improve access for students with disabilities.
“It’s not as scary. That’s why in a VR class, more people express themselves than in a traditional classroom, ”he said.
Paul, who hopes to become a lawyer, also considers Metaverse as part of his future career.
“For the 80% of people who can’t afford legal services today, technology like virtual reality can bridge the gap,” he said. “And overall, VR can be a powerful tool as a place to talk, learn new perspectives, and understand communities.”