Morehouse College in Atlanta has emerged as a leader in virtual reality education among historically black colleges and universities. EdTech: Focus on higher education spoke to Muhsinah Morris, Morehouse’s Metaversity Director, Associate Professor and Principal Investigator at the Morris Research and Innovation Lab, about VR’s unique ability to empower Black students and reinvigorate their joy in learning.
EDTECH: What is Morehouse in the Metaverse?
MORRIS: Morehouse in the Metaverse began as a proof of concept that a VR campus could come to fruition. Our partner VictoryXR has been the secret ingredient throughout. It helped us develop a digital twin of Morehouse that is accessible through various VR headsets. We started with three courses and now we have 10 courses that are entirely in VR. Students can join from anywhere, but some classes have students bring their headsets so they can experience the metaverse together.
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EDTECH: How have students responded to learning in VR?
MORRIS: Seniors who took advanced inorganic chemistry felt they would have made better chemists if they had learned it in their freshman year. In this course you must be able to visualize molecules and molecular geometry and understand complex chemical reactions. VR helps students visualize the molecular world in ways they were unable to do throughout their chemistry majors. You experience molecules blown up to room size. They were able to carry out problem-based learning activities. Many of them want to go into healthcare to explore the inside of a body and look at anatomical structures.
EDTECH: How is VR particularly valuable for HBCUs?
MORRIS: As HBCU, much of our pedagogy is based around culturally responsive spaces, ensuring our students can relate to content that doesn’t typically feel like it’s for them. We create an attractive space that you want to live in and in which you feel comfortable.
In creating our digital twin of Morehouse, we augmented the space with artifacts from the actual campus. In our hallways, students see African artwork and elements of the history of African Americans who made amazing contributions in their fields. We’ve created a world they’re familiar with using cutting-edge technology.
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EDTECH: How can VR expand inclusion and representation in ways that traditional learning cannot?
MORRIS: I now teach in the education department and have taught in the chemistry department throughout my career. In my Exceptional Learners course, we talk about differentiating instruction for people with disabilities and using technological strategies to ensure teachers make the right accommodations.
Our students are given the opportunity to create scenarios in VR that accommodate learners with physical disabilities or neurodivergents. How do we develop technological tools and solutions to meet their needs? How can we create experiences that provide a sense of belonging? Being aware of this helps teachers find ways and be more creative in the types of activities they bring into the space.
EDTECH: How can the versatility of VR help personalize learning?
MORRIS: I call this offer “opportunistic reality” for our students. Extended reality technologies help them hope, persevere and persevere through complex materials and challenging aspects of their disciplines. Being exposed to this technology at this level gives them a perspective that others may not have, which is critical for young Black men, especially those we serve at Morehouse.
Young black men make up just 2 percent of the education workforce. It is critical that they come into the workforce knowing how to use XR technologies and create curriculums in XR. It is important to have experienced it as students and as aspiring teachers. It offers opportunities that our students often do not have. You are given the opportunity to evolve, create and have autonomy over a space that is state of the art.
EDTECH: What results have you seen at Morehouse?
MORRIS: In our history course, we saw a 10 percentage point increase in the number of participants compared to traditional face-to-face classes. We have seen an increase in student engagement and a significant improvement in student final grades. Not only do students want this type of technology, but the numbers show that it has made a difference.
EDTECH: How else are you using VR to serve the campus community?
MORRIS: We had opening services at the Metaverse and a virtual gala to accompany our annual A Candle in the Dark Gala, which celebrates African American achievement and raises scholarship funds. We have meditation montages and we have fitness initiatives this fall led by our kinesiology program. We are working hard to give more students the opportunity to use this technology.
EDTECH: What excites you most about VR?
MORRIS: When I see students understanding their subject in a way that arouses curiosity – where they are not limited to antiquated learning conditions but are optimized in that area – I see their joy. In many cases this part of the educational system has been lost. When we’re young we ask questions because we’re really curious, and when we go through the system we lose that and part of our mind gets destroyed in the process. It’s really good to be back in a space of joy and opportunity for students who didn’t think they still had it. This is the “opportunistic reality”, not only for students but also for faculty.
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