A new class explores learning in the metaverse

Students and educators are discovering some of the possibilities for the future of education through the university’s first course delivered in virtual reality.

When Emily Nunes recently arrived in class, she found herself in a serene outdoor arena near the ocean. Triangular transparent panels formed a roof over her, while Nunes stood in a manicured courtyard facing a large revolving Buddha statue. Contemplative flute music played in the background while her classmates placed candles around the statue. The teaching assistant floated through the arena, leading a discussion. Nearby, two classmates wore astronaut costumes, while another appeared as a frog.

It was clear that Nunes was not taking a typical college course. Wearing an Oculus Quest 2 headset, she walked into “Zen Oasis,” a graduation project three classmates created as part of the University of Miami’s first course entirely in virtual reality (VR).

“It’s unlike any other class I’ve taken at UM,” says Nunes, a senior film student.

The short, 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 Interactive Media Department; William Green, professor of religious studies; and Denis Hector, associate professor of architecture, to explore how spiritual practices and spaces will exist in the Metaverse, a 3D world that humans can enter using virtual reality headsets.

“Every Thursday we would hop and go to this other place,” says Grinfeder, who also leads the university’s program. XR initiative. “It’s been a wild ride and we had a lot of fun on this course discovering new ways in which these immersive technologies allow us to connect and learn.”

While the inaugural version of the class was delivered via Zoom last spring, this semester every class was delivered in virtual reality. This meant that the 15 students and the three professors attended the class as an avatar that they had designed themselves. And almost every week the group met in a different virtual setting. A lesson was given around a campfire, with stars twinkling and crickets chirping in helmets. Another took place in a corporate conference room, and another took place in a virtual theater in Pompey, with a huge semicircle of seats (so neither avatar felt cramped). Students also designed their own classrooms as homework, reshaping learning spaces in the metaverse.

“It was a surreal experience, and it was often difficult to take in all the wonderful things we learned and experienced each week,” says junior Samantha Clayman, who studies biochemistry and nutrition, as well as Jewish studies.

Students and teachers said the increased sense of presence in virtual reality meant the classroom was much more engaging than learning on a video conferencing platform.

“It’s different from looking at something on a screen because you feel like you’re somewhere else,” says Green, who also holds the Fain Family Chair of Judaic Studies. “For example, if you’re outside and you hear the ocean and feel the sunlight, even though you’re not physically there, you feel like you’ve had that experience.”

Flamboyant trails

While the university class may not be the first to be held in virtual reality, the practice is still rare. While developing the class, Grinfeder reached out to colleagues across the country and couldn’t find another example of a semester course taught entirely in virtual reality.

At the beginning of the semester, the students said that the technology was a bit difficult and that they had to take breaks from wearing the headset. But within a month, any lesson lasting more than two hours went by at full capacity, says Matthew Rossi, a math and computer science student who served as the course’s teaching assistant.

The freedom to easily switch classroom locations kept it interesting and allowed everyone to notice the impact of the different spaces. While discussions in the conference room were brief, discussions were more free in the open air, Rossi, Green and Grinfeder agreed.

The university board also supported the class. The provost’s “Classrooms of the Future” initiative gave faculty members a grant to purchase the headsets for the spring semester. In addition, Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, recently presented the trio, along with Rossi, with the Transdisciplinary Innovation Teaching Award, an honor given to a handful of instructors each year.

“Experiences like this course offer our students different perspectives and ways of thinking that can lead to deeper understanding, creative problem solving and innovation,” said Duerk. “Part of what we want to determine is how these technologies can define the classrooms of the future.”

Nate Taminger, senior major in meteorology and marine science, said the novelty of virtual reality learning drew him to the course. Like many of his classmates, Taminger had never tried virtual reality, but he is happy to learn 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 something like that.”

Build from scratch

During the first few lessons, students and teachers learned to navigate in virtual reality (they can walk or teleport) using hand controls and headsets. Then the student teams got their final project: creating a sacred space with a ritual in the metaverse that the class could visit together. Because this required some technical expertise, the teams consisted of an Interactive Media student, an Architecture student and a student from the School of Arts and Sciences, who merged different forces.

The Nunes team created a multi-sensory meditation experience in which participants walk through a deepening water tunnel. At the end of the passage, an arched doorway opens to a sunset on the horizon, where visitors can step on a stone and contemplate the ocean around them. She and others were surprised to find themselves so immersed in the meditative ritual.

“It’s not real life, but our brains perceive it that way,” Nunes said.

Despite the learning curve, the students enjoyed the opportunity to immerse themselves in virtual reality. Many also commented on how refreshing it was to take a course that taught them how to use new technologies with educators.

“It was all just an experiment. And we all learned together, which was so great,” Clayman said. “We had also started designing spaces that don’t conform to the normal laws of physics.”

Students noticed big differences when taking a virtual reality course. First, only early participants can display their full avatar, meaning most of the students in the class simply had a floating head, torso, and hands (missing legs are a common problem in the metaverse). In addition, when avatars appear in the classroom, they all enter in the same place and on top of each other, often causing virtual claustrophobia.

“It’s an unsettling 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 with the headset, even though there is a virtual tablet function.

A blank canvas

Anyway, almost everyone involved in the class said that through the experience they recognized the endless possibilities of learning and working in the metaverse.

“Now, [wearing the headset] it’s like putting a brick on your face. But in the future they will become smaller, more accessible and more user-friendly,” says Clayman. “And right now I think they will be easily used in education.”

“At the moment it still feels a bit like a video game, but the experience will become more authentic over time,” Rossi added. “And as this technology becomes more ubiquitous and the quality of the graphics improves, it will become even more like physics.”

Taminger is excited about the possibilities of virtual reality in his field of meteorology and marine sciences.

“I hope one day I can use it to show people how climate change will affect the environment,” he said. “Whether it’s 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 will do to their communities, it’s a way to show people how their life can change.”

In the more near future, students and educators said using virtual reality could improve lessons in other subjects, such as architecture, art history, foreign languages, health care and other disciplines where being in a particular space could enhance the learning experience.

But students can also create completely new spaces.

“The ability to expand your imagination and reflect 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 educational innovation, agreed, praising the faculty members for tackling the first fully VR classroom.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do in virtual spaces,” he said.
“If we’re not researching this technology, we’re not doing our job as forward-thinking higher education educators.”

Sana Paul, a political science graduate, found the virtual classroom more welcoming to those with social anxiety. She said she thinks virtual reality classes could also improve access for students with disabilities.

“It’s not that intimidating. So in a VR classroom, more people express themselves than in a traditional classroom,” she said.

Paul, who wants to become a lawyer, also sees the Metaverse as part of her future career.

“For the 80% of people who cannot currently afford legal services, technology like virtual reality may be able to bridge that gap,” she said. “And in general, VR can be a powerful tool as a place to talk, learn new perspectives and understand communities.”

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