23 May 2022

Building campuses and communities in the learning Metaverse

Building campuses and communities in the learning Metaverse
This fall, for the first time, a group of students at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) will don virtual reality (VR) headsets to attend class on a virtual campus — modelled after UMGC’s actual facilities — and study speech, human resources, education, biology, journalism, astronomy, criminal justice and more.
It’s all part of a new UMGC Virtual Campus Pilot, conceived by the chair of UMGC’s Department of Information Technology, Daniel Mintz, together with the program director for Web and Digital Design, Dr David P. Johnson — both in the university’s School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology — in partnership with immersive content developer VictoryXR and Meta (formerly Facebook) Immersive Learning. Meta is donating Meta Quest 2 headsets for students to use.

The pilot, and the partnership supporting it, align with UMGC’s public mission, which dates back 75 years to 1947 and focuses on the needs of adult students in the workforce and the military. At the same time, it is rooted in the university’s historic embrace of innovative approaches to learning, which have included remote instruction via mail, radio, closed-circuit television, voicemail, e-mail, and more recently, the internet and the World Wide Web.

Recognising its importance and potential impact, Dr Douglas Harrison, dean of the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology, greenlighted the pilot for rapid development, outside of the university’s usual processes and procedures. The project has generated widespread excitement among faculty and staff, despite adding to their existing workloads, and many have expressed how much they value the opportunity to be part of the effort, which has the potential to transform higher education.

While asynchronous online courses, with their accessibility and flexible scheduling, have represented the most practical mode of instruction for many adult learners, they are not perfect, nor are they suited to every learning style. They have never fully replaced the value of “presence” that learners experience in face-to-face environments, which offers immediate access to learning materials, faculty and the institution overall and thus opportunities to exert more control over one’s educational experience.

Similarly, asynchronous online classes can present challenges for students who wish for more personal interaction or miss the sense of community they might find on a brick-and-mortar campus. And educators have found that some students prefer to be represented by an avatar when they interact with faculty or peers, particularly if they are struggling or in need of assistance.

male using virtual headsetFor these students, VR offers new and tantalizing opportunities, and the UMGC Virtual Campus Pilot will explore VR’s potential to augment the online learning experience, both academically and socially, increasing “touch” via weekly synchronous classes and the physical presence of participating in a classroom face-to-face—albeit in a virtual environment.

The first phase of the pilot will include 15 courses—five per semester—beginning in fall 2022. Courses will meet synchronously once per week in what the university terms a virtual hybrid format. Half will add immersive asynchronous content to the classroom component. In two courses that teach crime scene investigation and examination, a virtual crime scene will allow students—individually or in teams—to interact with pieces of evidence, conduct investigations and make judgments and decisions and again repeat the process as necessary to improve their skills. 

In one biology course, for instance, a required dissection kit—which contains a cow’s heart and eyeball—will be replaced with a virtual dissection lab that offers additional flexibility, including the opportunity to repeat the exercise multiple times.As the pilot continues into its second phase, the university will add additional courses, experiment with offering financial aid or academic advising virtually and extend the immersive experience to the university’s overseas divisions to assess its appeal and fit for active-duty military personnel and their dependents.In all cases, student response and learning outcomes will be tracked, with two objectives in mind: first, to assess VR’s efficacy as a learning environment and instances in which it offers advantages over asynchronous online or face-to-face instruction, and second, to identify and mitigate obstacles to innovation, ultimately integrating experimental findings into UMGC’s regular approval cycle.

Members of UMGC’s analytics team will work closely with pilot faculty to produce qualitative feedback and, as appropriate, quantitative analysis to best evaluate these two objectives. At the same time, the university will assess privacy concerns to ensure compliance with Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations and guidelines.

UMGC has also reached out to potential partner institutions to explore opportunities for additional funding and collaboration on immersive efforts going forward.

As an institution that seeks always to level the playing field for adult learners who may have struggled in more traditional academic environments, UMGC remains keenly aware that technology’s hardware and bandwidth demands—and their associated costs—can themselves become obstacles for students from underrepresented and underserved populations. However, these costs tend to decline over time, and this partnership with Meta and VictoryXR represents an opportunity for UMGC to learn, adapt and become an early influencer in this exciting new space.

For almost 30 years, asynchronous online instruction has offered many adult learners the best available combination of flexibility, accessibility and affordability. Now, the metaverse invites those institutions that are open to innovation and exploration to further enrich and expand that learning experience for adult learners—and perhaps find new ways to open the doors of higher learning to broader populations going forward.

Daniel Mintz, Chair of the Department of Information Technology, School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology at University of Maryland Global CampusMr Mintz serves as the Department Chair for IT Technology within the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology at the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). In that role, he manages Graduate and Undergraduate Programs in Computer Science, Management Information Systems, Data Analytics, and Digital Media and Web Development. He also manages UMGC’s Virtual Campus pilot program.

Dan brings his experience as a former US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) departmental CIO from 2006 to 2009 and business acumen from serving as a CTO and a COO in the federal business marketplace.

Dan is a former Federal 100 winner and is a speaker at conferences and events on the impact of technology, management challenges in Government and commercial organizations, and cyber-security issues.
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