Students at Morehouse College visit the virtual Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. In 1965, then-25-year-old activist John Lewis led more than 600 marchers across the bridge and faced brutal attacks by oncoming state troopers. Photo: Youtube Screenshot

Imagine reliving the Selma March in 1965 or taking a tour of the Amistad slave ship. Soon, students at North Carolina A&T University will have the opportunity to do these and more by using Virtual Reality (VR) — immersive, computer-simulated environments.

NC A&T joins 25 colleges across the United States in becoming a “metaversity.” The schools will create a digital replica of their campus or classrooms, allowing students to use VR to experience specific environments on campus or during remote learning. 

The concept, led by VictoryXR and Meta Immersive Learning, aims to use technology to provide a hands-on learning experience on the digital campus or a unique virtual location.

Why it matters: Colleges and universities are trying new ways to engage students as remote learning and college dropout rates continue to rise.

 “The more that students are engaged, the better their success rates are,” Evelyn Sowells-Boone, NC A&T’s computer systems technology department chair, told QCity Metro. “We want to retain and recruit students, and [virtual reality] gaming is a way to attract them.” 

Providing the “Aggie experience” away from campus

Sowells-Boone said she initially heard of VR after her son used the technology in class as a student at Morehouse College

Morehouse College was one of ten schools to first incorporate VictoryXR’s virtual reality programming into course instruction in 2022. 

She said she contacted Victory XR and received a VR headset to tour Morehouse’s virtual campus. 

The experience encouraged her to present the idea to NC A&T, she said.

“I thought that this would be perfect for our university,” she said. “The idea was easy to sell to the school.”

Sowells-Boone said the school’s goal was to not only engage students in the in-person setting but also to help remote learners.

Enrollment in NC A&T’s online degree programs has continued to increase since the pandemic, Sowell-Boone said.  

She said she believed incorporating VR would benefit those students and provide them with the “Aggie experience” even when learning at home.

“There’s something about walking across campus and going to the student union and sitting in class with your peers. To me, that’s paramount,” she said. “If we can create that same space for our online students, then I think they’d love it.”

NC A&T will begin its pilot VR courses with four classes within the computer technology department this summer, Sowell-Boone said.

She said she is just as excited as her students.

“I look forward to teaching on the beach,” she laughed.

A student-favorite

Morehouse College Professor Ovell Hamilton’s “History of the African Diaspora Since 1800” is one of 13 virtual reality courses — part of Morehouse’s Virtual Reality Project.

Hamilton said the university implemented VR to prevent students from dropping out. 

So far, he’s noticed more classroom participation since incorporating the technology in his course. Students are eager to sign up for his course before the semester, he said.

“What I’ve seen is that you have ones who hate that they have to leave,” he laughed.

In his course, students virtually visit Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, the Dred Scott decision, and the Tulsa Race Massacre, among other historical locations and events. 

Hamilton said he teaches in-person lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays, but students can log onto the metaverse from their dorm room for class on Fridays, he said.

“They’re not just learning the lecture in the classroom, but actually going to experience what we lecture,” he said.

People have had negative perspectives towards VR, he said. As more people experience it, the more they might understand its benefits.

He said he believes there will become a point where every class will be taught in the metaverse, eventually bringing an end to traditional in-person lectures.

“It’s very likely, but I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime,” he said.

Evan Young, a sophomore in Hamilton’s Black history course, told Axios Atlanta that experiencing things like a slave ship in virtual reality was “transformational.”

He said he believes the technology can benefit all students and age levels throughout the education system.

“I think that it’s going to be the future as far as learning is concerned, not just at the college level but in K-12 too,” Young told Axios Atlanta.

The future of VR

Monique Dorsainvil, director of public policy at Meta, said VR was not created to be “narrowly segmented” but to offer a range of uses. 

It helps in the classroom setting and provides a space for professionals like doctors and engineers to perfect their craft. 

“The hope is that people of education spaces and people across sectors will be able to work with developers to build out different use cases to display the technology and use it for different educational purposes,” she told QCity Metro.   

Each school works with developers to create customized metaverse environments for each course they offer.

Meta donates the initial headsets, and the schools pay a fee to VictoryXR for using their virtual environments, assets, training and technical support, Dorsainvil said.

The organization plans to expand access to VR in communities across the country, specifically high schools, she said.

She said it would also allow high school students to take college tours without worrying about the cost of travel. 

Dorsainvil said she acknowledges that many parents may be skeptical about the technology but believes it will eventually become the new norm for learning.

“The Metaverse and virtual reality is the future of digital connection,” she said. “The internet has already transformed the way we learn today. The Metaverse is the next big thing.”

The following institutions are participants in the program:

  • Morehouse College (GA)
  • New Mexico State University (NM)
  • South Dakota State University (SD)
  • Southwestern Oregon Community College (OR)
  • University of Maryland Global Campus (MD)
  • University of Kansas School of Nursing (KS)
  • California State University – Dominguez Hills (CA)
  • Alabama A&M (AL)
  • West Virginia University (WV)
  • Northern Illinois University (IL)
  • Clemson University (SC)
  • Luna Community College (NM)
  • Arizona State University (AZ)
  • Wake Forest University  (NC)
  • Columbus State University (GA)
  • Florida State University (FL)
  • Loyola Marymount University (CA)
  • Cal State Northridge (CA)
  • Indiana Wesleyan University (IN)
  • MSU Denver (CO)
  • Florida A&M University (FL)
  • Lorain County Community College (OH)
  • Jackson State University (MS)
  • North Carolina A&T State University (NC)
  • Northern Virginia Community College (VA)
  • University of Montana (MT)

Jalon is a general assignment reporter for QCity Metro. He is a graduate of North Carolina Central University and an avid sports fan. (jalon@qcitymetro.com)

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