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Students from 10 universities around the country can visit historical settings or perform surgery on cadavers, all from the comfort of their homes, after an Iowa company that specializes in virtual reality created digital campuses.
During the pandemic, students at Morehouse College in Atlanta reported struggling with online learning. The university came to VictoryXR, a company based in Davenport, Iowa. CEO Steve Grubbs had the solution: build a virtual replica of the campus.
Students and instructors wear virtual-reality headsets to access a three-dimensional, computer-generated simulation of real-world places and events. Users immersed into the virtual reality, known as the metaverse, can move through the simulation and interact with others.
Within 10 weeks, teachers at Morehouse developed coursework for the program, and VictoryXR built the metaverse. At Morehouse, inorganic chemistry, world history and biology courses have used the program.
“Next thing you know, their students are taking classes in the metaverse,” Grubbs said. “The first college in the world.”
Meta, the company that owns Facebook, connected with VictoryXR to expand “metaversities” after the implementation of digital classrooms at Morehouse College and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Morehouse is one of 10 higher education institutions to qualify for virtual classrooms through a grant from Meta. According to a public records request filed by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the universities will receive more than $500,000 and virtual-reality headsets under their contracts with VictoryXR.
Grubbs said virtual-meeting programs like Zoom can’t recreate the student experience that virtual reality can.
“In a metaversity, you are all together and you are in a classroom together where you can fist bump, you can work on projects together, you can break into small groups,” Grubbs said. “A teacher can take a human heart out of a cadaver and hand it to another student. That is the bottom line. It is almost exactly like the brick-and-mortar classroom, only better.”
Grubbs said students working in the metaverse will get the same education they would receive on campus, and in some ways better.
Grubbs said health science majors will benefit the most from the virtual experience, but history classes can also be enhanced through the metaverse. As on-campus enrollment declines and remote learning increases in demand, Grubbs said learning needs to be kinesthetic, or hands-on.
One simulation VictoryXR developed was the courtroom from the classic Harper Lee novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” As students discuss the book in class, they can sit with the jurors or in the judge’s chair.
“You can understand the book from the perspective of those who sat in the courtroom,” Grubbs said. “That’s what we are trying to achieve, is an understanding that can only being gained by being there. Students get to go stand on the Great Wall of China, they can go to Iceland and they can go to the Redwoods Forest once they are learning with our virtual reality.”
Grubbs served in the Iowa House from 1990 to 1996, including as chair of the House Education Committee. He said he has always had an interest in developing new ways to improve education. Buffalo Elementary School in Buffalo, Iowa, was the first school to use VictoryXR’s virtual reality education program. Now schools around the world use VictoryXR’s product. Saint Ambrose University in Davenport will be the first higher education institution in Iowa to have a metaversity.
“They will be right alongside the University of Kansas, West Virginia, Cal State, and a lot of other great schools in the country,” Grubbs said.
Meta will provide each university with Oculus Quest 2 virtual-reality headsets, which can collect data while in use.
All contracts in the public-records request from The Chronicle noted the universities retain the ultimate ownership of data generated in the partnership. Data collection will depend on the brand of headset students use, according to Grubbs. Technology from the grant could come from Meta, Pico Technology or HTC, all with their own privacy data opt-in policies.
Currently, Grubbs said no information is being gathered from users. VictoryXR won’t collect any data other than an email and name to set up an account.
Users will be required to create a Facebook account to access the virtual classroom. Under Meta’s data policy, Oculus products can collect information about physical features and information from third-party apps. Passing information between third-party apps allows the company to pair users with friends also using the app, according to Meta.
Environmental, dimensional and movement data will also be recorded to alert users if they approach a virtual boundary. Hand size estimates will be collected to enable the hand tracking feature.
VictoryXR hopes to expand the business so that every school in world will have a metaversity in the next five to seven years, Grubbs said. The company has been in conversation with multiple universities in Iowa. He plans to meet with the University of Iowa soon to talk about the future of virtual classrooms at the university.
VictoryXR is opening its first metaversity in Europe in August and Grubbs plans to bring on a business development aid in India in September. The business also won a global award for the best education innovation last September.
Grubbs expects the industry to expand to augmented reality. In virtual reality, students are completely immersed and are typically working remotely. Augmented reality creates virtual objects visible in the real-world classroom.
“They don’t have to fly across the country and live on a campus because the metaverse is a campus,” he said.
Questions regarding the metaverse and VictoryXR can be directed to the VictoryXR website.
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