November 13, 2023 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business
Studying sea life from the bottom of the ocean.
Learning about the laws of the cosmos from a seat in space.
Touring a manufacturing facility and experiencing a state-of-the-art assembly line.
Each of these scenarios would be impossible in a traditional classroom. But with the help of extended reality (XR), teachers and students have the ability to engage with subjects in ways never thought possible.
That’s why the Merage School is continuing to be at the forefront of the digital world by being one of the first schools in the UC system to offer a class taught within a virtual classroom. Taught by Professor Larry Wilk, with help from Keri Albers—Technology Teaching Lead, “Into the Metaverse” is a groundbreaking cross-disciplinary course that includes students from a variety of majors like Business Administration, Art History, Biomedical Engineering, Game Design, Psychology, and Urban Studies.
“This is an exciting opportunity for the Merage School to engage with a budding new technology that will benefit our students and faculty,” said Dean Ian O. Williamson. “We have always been leaders when it comes to adapting to the evolving digital world.”
Keri Albers, Digital Innovator, came up with the idea for the metaverse class in collaboration with Tom Andriola, Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Data and Chief Digital Officer at UCI. Albers started putting the project together in February, when she connected with VictoryXR to land UC Irvine a spot in an initiative called the Meta 15.
Meta is partially funding the project as part of Meta Immersive Learning, a program that seeks to cultivate the use of simulated environments in the classroom. The Meta 15 initiative enables participants to learn the Engage VR metaverse platform. Albers also collaborated with T-Mobile, which is connecting the headsets by providing 5G hotspots for the class to support internet accessibility challenges.
“We are trying everything out for the first time, so we need to be agile and stay flexible,” Albers said. “This technology is so new and the people who have been working in extended reality for many years have differing opinions on what the technology can offer now and in the future. Taking part in this program will help us begin to find those answers.”
Since the beginning of this quarter, 40 students have been taking part in the course. They are using the Meta Quest 2 headsets to explore business use cases across numerous virtual worlds, including Merage's own digital twin campus in the metaverse. The students are also learning from guest speakers from companies like Unreal Engine/Epic Games, Meta, Nike, Siemens, TRIPP, and Nvidia. The students will learn the VictoryXR Engage platform and ultimately present their group project together in the 3D immersive learning space known as the "Metaversity.”
“We have a chance to be pioneers in figuring out the challenges and benefits of this new mode of immersive learning,” Professor Wilk said. “There’s so much potential for this technology and our students are on the front lines of the digital evolution of the classroom by being some of the first in the country to use the metaverse to learn.”
During the first weeks of the program, students have been learning to use the immersive technology and heard from guest speakers about the ways companies are incorporating VR and XR into their businesses.
Jarel Sayles, an Urban Studies major with a double minor in Management and Regional Planning, has enjoyed creating his avatar and learning to organize events and navigate within the immersive world.
“It was also really eye opening to hear how big companies like Nike are using virtual reality,” Sayles said. “I didn’t realize all the different ways businesses could use this technology until now.”
Sayles and Yen Chi Nguyen, a Game Design major taking part in the metaverse course, are excited about the potential of XR and how it can benefit their learning experiences. For example, Sayles believes the technology improves distance learning because the environment is more engaging than a Zoom lecture. He and Nguyen both hope there will be a hybrid use of in-person and XR learning in the future.
“It’s really cool to be at the forefront of innovation in schools,” Nguyen said. “It’s been a great experience to get to take advantage of a really cool technology and take it home and experiment on my own. There aren’t many limitations on what you can do with this, so I’ve just been exploring and learning more about it.”
Potential of Extended Reality
While this emerging technology is still in its infancy, it holds vast potential for application within academia, including generating substantial cost savings for educational institutions. For example, students could convene in a virtual laboratory to dissect various species without the need for schools to acquire and maintain animal cadavers. This reduces financial and ethical costs, allowing for a more sustainable operation while offering students a humane and immersive dissection experience.
VR also empowers professors with new ways to teach and offers students unique ways to learn. For a business class, students can learn to present and negotiate in simulated boardrooms, experience inclusive immersive leadership training, or enhance their public speaking skills in the digital twin of the Merage auditorium. An astronomy course could be held in space, with students learning about the ins and outs of black holes and other cosmic phenomena.
The technology can also help eliminate some unnecessary risks in the classroom. Chemistry labs could have dangerous consequences for mixing the wrong chemicals. But with VR, students can learn what causes harmful reactions without any health threat.
“This class presents us with an opportunity to meet students where they are at and provide truly immersive experiences,” said Andriola. “In a world constantly reinvented by technology, we are pioneering new ways to interact, learn and grow through virtual and extended reality.”
Albers highlighted that extended reality also opens up avenues for guided meditation applications, offering students access to immersive 3D well-being experiences. These tools can be instrumental in helping them navigate the everyday stress of student life.
“Students who are digital natives and went through the pandemic may struggle with in-person learning and the social aspect of the classroom,” Albers said. “Giving them the confidence to attend class with their avatar can provide a more comfortable and confident experience. We are currently seeing student avatar relationships that are initially built in the Engage metaverse platform, spilling over into in-class relationships.”
While UC Irvine is one of the only schools in the UC system to use VR headsets for learning in the metaverse, Albers believes other schools will follow once more data and funding are available. As more schools test the metaverse and document the challenges and benefits, it will be easier for other universities to get on board.
“It is very new and that really makes it difficult to get started, so more research is really needed,” Albers said.
This research will also help colleges secure funding for expensive VR headsets. Government funds should become more readily available as the benefits of VR are discovered in programs like the Meta 15.
“There’s so many applications for this kind of technology and I fully expect a great deal of interest from other schools once we find out more about what extended reality can offer teachers and students,” Albers said. “The Merage School is playing a vital role in developing this new tool for the modern classroom.”