Entering A Brave New Metaworld: VR and Education

By Rachel R. Tatro-Duarte

In 2017, a colleague introduced me to virtual reality (VR). I got an email from him that said, “You have to come to my office and try this VR set!” There was a clear tone of enthusiasm in the email that intrigued me, and while I wasn’t too sure about what VR was, as soon as I could, I went to meet him at his office to try out this exciting new VR technology.

When I put on the goggles riddled with cords connected to a high-end gaming laptop, I was instantly teleported and transformed into a wizard. I was blown away. It was like walking into a world I imagine J.R.R. Tolkien saw as he wrote Lord of the Rings. But this VR world was not imagination; everything I touched was real in that fantastic world; I could interact with the objects in the room just like we do in our physical world. I could also manipulate the objects in a way we can’t do in our physical world. I could make myself as small as a mouse and roam the room as a tiny wizard slipping through cracks in the walls. 

It didn’t take long for me to start thinking about the potential of VR to enhance teaching and learning, especially at the college and university level. It became my mission to get this technology into the hands of our students. 

So, I set up borrowed VR goggles in my office and invited students to come to play VR games with me during my office hours. I had interested students spilling out of my small office and into the hall. My office became a popular place for my students to gather together and explore the limited VR experiences I had to offer.

Together we went to museums to see the Mona Lisa; we teleported to Italy to visit the Sistine Chapel in all its glory and to see what it was like to live on a scaffolding like Michelangelo. We assembled robots and explored the complex human body through CT medical scans. Sometimes, when we just needed to get away from the stresses of finals week, we would teleport to the top of a mountain to view the sublimity of nature and remember that life is big.

Then the pandemic closed my office door. I left my VR goggles to sit still and gather dust for the next two years. 

Today, three years after the pandemic began, as the world eagerly transitions back to face-to-face, the momentum of using VR in the classroom has arrived, and I dare say, it’s here to stay. My office is no longer a rare hub that carries VR goggles for students; the potential of VR caught fire and has made its claim in education. There are now metaversities that offer most or all of their curriculum via VR, such as Moorehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta. In fact, data suggests that VR has higher levels of engagement, retention, and deep learning in universities and business training.

Let me share a few of my favorite VR experiences I have discovered and plan to use in my classroom:

The Book of Distance

The Book of Distance is a 30-minute animated virtual experience that is both the first and second perspective of a young man leaving Japan for America, hoping for a better life. The experience also uses archival documents and photos to bring the event to life. The experience is also a family folktale shared with the player in story-telling form. Players follow the young man’s journey from Japan and end with his grandson retelling and recreating his grandfather’s life and experiences of being taken from his family and home to living in the Japanese internment camp.

The Key 

The Key is a 15-minute interactive short film/narrative in a first-person perspective with many interactive moments. The poem and the VR experience both focus on journeying into the unknown, the plight of a refugee, facing challenges, and making difficult decisions. Participants will experience a virtual journey from danger to safety in a beautiful yet eerie, dreamlike animated world.

The VR Museum of Fine Arts

Players can get up close and personal with the Mona Lisa (without the limitation of a glass case), Michelangelo’s David, The Quinn Dynasty Terra Cotta Army, Monet’s Water Lilies, etc. 

The Lab

The Lab invites players to test out a variety of VR experiences showcasing the vast potential that VR has to offer, such as virtual travel to various locations like Italy or even the solar system. It allows users to look closely at the human body via CT scans.

Perhaps it’s time for us to — not say goodbye to what learning in the classroom used to look like pre-Covid — but welcome VR, the newcomer, into our brave new post-Covid educational world. As a professor and researcher in VR, I have learned that VR provides a way to bring experiential learning into the classroom in ways we have never been able to do before. It allows users to connect to experiences, build empathy, and enhance learning through knowledge transference. One student described after playing through The Book of Distance that in the VR experience, it felt as though they were “taking on the heaviness of the situation,” and that helped them “start to connect the dots” and better understand poems relating to life in a Japanese internment camp. The VR experience enhanced their ability to empathize and better understand the readings. 

Rachel Tatro-Duarte has a BA and an MA in English Literature and an EdD in Higher Education Leadership. Her dissertation research focused on using learning technologies, specifically Virtual Reality, to enhance deep learning in the higher ed classroom. Rachel has also developed the VR Learning Model, which articulates concatenated stages by which participants experience Adaptability, Transitionality, Fusion, Enhancement, and Knowledge Transference. As a student, Rachel had the opportunity to study Sappho in Greece. As an NEH scholar, she traveled to southern Switzerland and Italy to learn about the Etruscans and early Italy. These immersive experiences allowed her to learn at a deeper level. Rachel hopes to recreate this kind of immersive experiential learning in her classroom using VR.