A nursing school, an HBCU, four land grant schools and one global campus plan to open digital twins of existing campuses in the fall of 2022.
Students at schools from Georgia to Oregon are getting a new back-to-school offering this fall: virtual reality headsets. Seven universities and colleges are opening digital twins of their campuses to provide an alternative to classroom education via video call.
Each school will roll out an on-campus digital twin that students can attend on-campus or remotely. Each student will receive a Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset for use during the course. Courses will run synchronously as if they were being taught on a physical campus.
- Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia
- University of Kansas School of Nursing, Kansas City, KSU
- New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM
- South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD
- West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV
- University of Maryland Global Campus, Adelphi, MD
- Southwestern Oregon Community College, Coos Bay, OR
Student populations in the cohort range from 2,200 at Morehouse to 25,000 at West Virginia University. Several are country scholarship universities in rural communities. University of Maryland Global Campus is a separate institution within the University System of Maryland, which began in the 1920s as the University of Maryland’s adult evening program.
Mike Bechtel, chief futurist at Deloitte Consulting LLP, said virtual universities are not “worse than in person”, but instead “better than on screen”.
“A metaverse classroom experience should not be viewed as a gimmick replacement for the traditional human experience, but as a compelling upgrade from slide decks and tic-tac-toe ‘heads-in-boxes,'” he said.
Bechtel said it will take time for educators and students to identify and build on the strengths of virtual classrooms. The first days will not be the best.
“I have to chuckle when I’m asked to gather people into a stunningly immersive metaverse amphitheater to show them…existing PowerPoint slides,” he said.
Bechtel advised early adopters to avoid the mistake of comparing virtual classrooms to physical classrooms.
“If we can switch from thinking like critics to thinking like creators, the future starts to look a lot brighter,” he said.
Mastering the Metaverse Medium
Bechtel is a part-time college professor and has first-hand experience of the challenges of online teaching. The dual challenges of battery and bandwidth can be stumbling blocks for these virtual universities in the beginning.
“In a metaverse classroom environment, low bandwidth or battery can mean a diminished experience, anxiety in students, or even being mistakenly marked ‘absent’,” he said. “Clearly, graceful failovers (both procedural and technical) will be required.”
Another dynamic to look at is interpersonal cues from students. Bechtel said he has learned how — in live environments and on video conferences — to read body language and facial expressions to spot students who are lost or stuck.
“In a metaverse space, I might miss some of those signals,” he said. “However, to be fair, we are seeing possibilities where participants can update their avatar’s expression or ‘broadcast’ emoji above their heads to provide non-verbal cues.”
Expanding Virtual Learning Options
Steve Grubbs, CEO of VictoryXR, said in a press release that these schools have decided to look for something better than a Zoom classroom. Three additional metaversities will be announced in May. The partnership was funded in part by Meta Immersive Learning, which will provide Meta Quest 2 headsets for each campus, as well as funding for the digital twin buildouts. This project is part of the company formerly known as Facebook’s $150 million investment in virtual learning. VictoryXR will build each campus on the EngageVR platform.
VictoryXR develops Virtual Reality content for the following systems:
- HTC Vive
- HTC Vive Focus
- Windows Mixed Reality
- Oculus Rift
- Oculus Go
- Oculus Quest
- Lenovo Mirage (with Google Daydream)
- Google Cardboard
The company also creates augmented reality content for iPhones and Android phones.