Students and faculty discover some of the possibilities for the future of education through the University’s first course delivered in virtual reality.
When Emily Nunes arrived in class recently, she found herself in a serene outdoor arena near the ocean. Triangular transparent panels formed a roof over her, as Nunes stood in a manicured courtyard facing a large rotating Buddha statue. Contemplative flute music played in the background, while her classmates placed candles around the statue. The teaching assistant floated around the arena, guiding a discussion. Nearby, two classmates wore astronaut costumes, while another appeared as a frog.
Obviously, Nunes wasn’t taking a typical college course. Wearing an Oculus Quest 2 headset, she walked into “Zen Oasis,” a final 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,” 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 Media interactive; 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 people can enter using virtual reality headsets.
“Every Thursday we would hop and go to this different place,” said Grinfeder, who also leads the university’s XR initiative. “It was a wild ride, and we had a lot of fun in this course discovering new ways these immersive technologies allow us to connect with each other and learn.”
While the inaugural version of the class was conducted over Zoom last spring, every class this semester was conducted in virtual reality. This meant that the 15 students and the three professors attended the class as an avatar they had designed themselves. And almost every week, the group would meet in a different virtual setting. A class was held around a campfire, with stars twinkling overhead and crickets chirping in helmets. Another took place in a corporate conference room, and yet another took place in a virtual theater in Pompey, with a huge semi-circle of seats (so neither avatar felt cramped ). Students also designed their own classrooms as homework, reimagining learning spaces in the metaverse.
“It was a surreal experience, and it was often difficult to take in all the wonderful things we were learning and experiencing every week,” said junior Samantha Clayman, who is studying biochemistry and nutrition, as well as Judaic studies.
Students and faculty members said the increased sense of presence felt in virtual reality meant the classroom was much more engaging than learning on a video conferencing platform.
“It’s different from watching something on a screen because there’s a sense of being somewhere else,” said Green, who also serves as the Fain Family Chair of Judaic Studies. “For example, when 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.”
Although the university class may not be the first to be held in virtual reality, the practice is still rare. Developing the class, Grinfeder reached out to colleagues across the country and couldn’t find another example of a semester-long course taught entirely in virtual reality.
At the start of the semester, the students said that the technology was a bit difficult and that they needed to take breaks from wearing the headset. But within a month, every class longer than two hours went by at full speed, said Matthew Rossi, a math and computer science student who served as the course’s teaching assistant.
The freedom to easily change class locations kept things interesting and allowed everyone to notice the impact of the different spaces. While conversations in the conference room were terse, discussions flowed more freely in outdoor settings, Rossi, Green and Grinfeder agreed.
The university management also supported the class. The provost’s “Classrooms of the Future” initiative provided faculty members with a grant to purchase the headsets before the spring semester. Additionally, 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 provide our students with diverse perspectives and ways of thinking that can lead to deeper understanding, creative problem solving, and innovation,” Duerk said. “Part of what we want to determine is how these technologies might 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 before, but he’s 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 this.”
Build from scratch
During the first few classes, students and faculty members learned to navigate virtual reality (they can walk or teleport) using hand controls and headsets. Then the student teams were given their final project: to create a sacred space with a ritual in the metaverse that the class could visit together. Since this required some technical expertise, the teams included an Interactive Media student, an Architecture student, and a College of Arts and Science student, who merged different strengths.
The Nunes team created a multi-sensory meditation experience where 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 feel so immersed in the meditative ritual.
“It’s not real life, but our brain perceives it that way,” Nunes said.
Despite the learning curve, students relished the opportunity to immerse themselves in virtual reality. Many also commented on how refreshing it was to take a course where they learned how to harness new technologies with faculty members.
“It was all just an experiment. And we were all learning together, which was so amazing,” Clayman said. “We were also starting this base of designing spaces that don’t deal with the normal laws of physics.”
Students noticed significant differences regarding taking a course in virtual reality. First, only early entrants can display their full avatars, meaning most students in the class simply had a floating head, torso, and hands (missing legs are a common issue in the metaverse). Additionally, when avatars appear in class, they all enter in the same place and on top of each other, often causing virtual claustrophobia.
“It’s an unsettling feeling, even though 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 feature.
A blank canvas
Regardless, nearly everyone involved in the class said the experience made them recognize the endless possibilities for learning and working in the metaverse.
“Right now, [wearing the headset] it’s like putting a brick on your face. But in the future, they will become smaller, more accessible and easier to use,” said Clayman. “And at this point, 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,” added Rossi. “And as this technology becomes more ubiquitous and the quality of graphics improves, it will start to look even 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 it one day to show people how climate change will affect 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 will do to their communities, it’s a way to show people how their lives can change.”
In the more immediate future, students and faculty members said the use of virtual reality could improve lessons in other subjects, such as architecture, art history, foreign languages , healthcare, and other disciplines where being in a certain space could enhance the learning experience.
But students can also create completely new spaces.
“The ability to expand and reflect your imagination in the metaverse is greater than in the three-dimensional world, simply because you can make structures in ways that would be impossible to build in real life,” Green said.
Allan Gyorke, the University’s deputy provost for instructional innovation, agreed and applauded faculty members for tackling the first all-VR classroom.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do in virtual spaces,” he said.
“If we’re not exploring this technology, we’re not doing our job as forward-thinking educators in higher education.”
Sana Paul, a political science graduate, found the virtual classroom to be more welcoming to people with social anxiety. She said she thinks virtual reality classes could also improve access for students with disabilities.
“It’s not as intimidating. So in a VR classroom, more people are expressing themselves than they would in a traditional classroom,” she said.
Paul, who hopes to become a lawyer, also considers the Metaverse as part of her future career.
“For the 80% of people who cannot afford legal services right now, 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.”