How real is a lecture in Virtual Reality? My experience in teaching a class in VR*

As much as the Corona pandemic limits the possibilities for lecturers, it also opens up opportunities to discover new teaching methods. The current winter semester at Karlshochschule International University has given me the chance to gain experience with different forms of teaching. What I found particularly impressive was my course in virtual reality. But first things first…

Alter VR-ego of Thomas Zorrbach
My Alter VR-ego taking the stage to run a slightly different lecture.

In the beginning of the semester, face-to-face teaching was still possible at Karls for a few weeks. As pleasant as it was to be able to physically meet the students again, even if only for a short time, I experienced the special conditions created by the necessary hygiene regulations as disturbing. For example, I became painfully aware of how much is lost in interpersonal communication by wearing a mask. Rhetorical figures such as irony are difficult to decode when the lower half of the face is covered.

The majority of courses in the winter semester were held in the form of video conferences. After Karlshochschule had already succeeded in switching smoothly to digital classes during the first lockdown, running lectures via screen has long since become the new normality. However, I still find it difficult to get used to the fact that most students prefer to deactivate their cameras. Without any feedback at all, verbal or non-verbal, you sometimes feel a bit lost.

A strange excursion into the 3rd dimension

So, having made experiences with face-to-face and on-screen lectures during the pandemic, I decided to conduct a teaching experiment as part of my course “Marketing Elective – Exploring the immersive Future of Marketing”. Following on from the topic, I invited the students to a trip into virtual reality in order to explore the opportunities and limitations of teaching in this immersive environment. Prior to the lecture, each student received an Oculus Quest 1 All-in-one headset on loan, delivered directly to their home via courier service.

Thomas Zorbach with VR headset
VR headset – The travel equipment for our excursion into the virtual space.

As for the learning environment I chose the social VR app AltspaceVR, which was preinstalled directly in the headset. Apps like AltspaceVR enable communication in the virtual world in real time and without latency. Combined with the spatial vision and hearing mediated by the headset, this technology gives the impression of being in the same room with other people represented in VR by customizable avatars. Companies like Facebook consider social VR, as the next evolutionary step of social networking. According to Mark Zuckerberg, who acquired Oculus back in 2014, social interaction on the two-dimensional wall will shift more and more into three-dimensional space in the future [1].

Roundtrip to Burning Man

Based on my own experience as a frequent traveler in the VR multiverse, I divided the course, which spanned two days, into several blocks. The first block focused on onboarding the students, i.e. familiarizing them with the technology, consisting of the equipment and the virtual environment. Even though moving around the avatar with the controllers is largely intuitive, it usually takes a while to get along with the basic functions. It was striking to see how quickly most of the students found their way around the new world. This is presumably due to the fact that the control of the avatars has clear parallels to console games, with which digital natives are socialized.

Black Rock City in VR
One of our destination: Black Rock City, the home of the Burning Man

In the second block I took the class on a nearly 60-minute exploration tour of the AltspaceVR community. One of our destinations was Black Rock City, the location where the Burning Man Festival is held every year. This example perfectly illustrates the benefits of teaching in VR. While in classroom or on-screen I can only tell stories about Burning Man or show a video, in VR I am able to open a portal and visit the venue. Even though the festival ground is only a simulation, as a visitor you gain a much better understanding of the unique atmosphere of this annual event, held in the Nevada desert. Therefore, VR provides a much more immersive, sensory, and emotional experience and allows for experiential learning.

A lesson from the future of learning?

The second day started with a video conference and a critical reflection on our first steps in virtual reality as a class. Afterwards, I asked the participants to put on the headsets again and invited them to a second excursion into AltspaceVR. To give an example of how a lecture works in VR, we visited the conference world AREA X, and I gave a 60-minute keynote on the art and science of immersion. Just like in the physical world or in a video conference, it was possible for me to share a presentation and show clips on the VR stage. For this, I had a large screen available on which I shared my slides in the background. The operation was very simple and is done using the controllers and a panel for presenters that was only visible to me. Interaction with students was also possible at all times. Anyone who had a question could use the “hand raise” emoji what gave me the opportunity to conduct a Q-&-A session following my lecture, just like in the real world.

Playing basketball in the VR world
Why not playing some basketball? No problem during a VR break!

What central insight did I gain from the VR lesson?

After a short phase of uncertainty in the unfamiliar teaching environment, I got used to the form of communication surprisingly quickly. Of course, it is irritating at first to see a group of colorful avatars rather than real people in front of you when teaching. But compared to faceless video conferences that only show the initials of the participants, the lecture in VR felt far more personal. It also seemed to me that, unlike in a video conference, I had the full attention of the students. Not surprising, since under a headset you have far less room for “polite detachment.” After I had shown about half of my slides, I had a memorable moment. I was so deeply immersed in my presentation when I suddenly realized that for a moment, I had completely forgotten that I was not in a physical place, but in a simulated environment.

Lecture in the virtual reality
The very moment I got lost in immersion during my presentation.

What were the main differences for me compared to face-to-face or on-screen teaching?

Unlike on-screen teaching, social VR applications convey a sense of presence and proximity. Similar to the physical world, I had the impression of being in the same place as the students during the session. Beyond the specific advantages of social VR, virtual reality offers almost unlimited possibilities for experiences to expand one’s horizon. Single-player experiences and 360° videos can help students learn about foreign cultures and empathically think and feel their way into other people. Currently, the opportunities are still limited primarily by the equipment. For example, seeing through VR glasses is a challenge for the senses and quickly causes dizziness also known as “motion sickness”. Wearing the headsets is also exhausting in the long run due to their own weight, so that regular breaks are necessary. 

What potential do I see for teaching in (social) VR?

After we have left our ordinary world of face-to-face classes due to Corona and face the challenges of online courses, the implementation of VR in my opinion represents the “New Frontier” in education. Particularly for universities with an international orientation like Karlshochschule, it makes sense to expand hybrid forms of teaching also in post-pandemic times and to include VR in addition to presence and 2D screen. For teachers like me, this would expand the possibility of preparing lessons in such a way that the learning environment is ideally suited to the content taught and the learning objectives. Multisensory, experiential learning, and meeting people from other cultures is possible beyond going abroad. All you need for the trip is a VR headset.

Read the article about the VR excursion from the perspective of a participant …

Article by Thomas Zorbach, Lecturer of the Master Specialization New Media.

[1] Zuckerberg, Mark (2020): Facebook Connect 2020 | Full Keynote with Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Bosworth + more, YouTube Channel “Facebook Developers”

*Karlshochschule is an educational institution and a non-profit organization as well. We want to encourage individuals and young people to take responsibility, find their own voice and initiate change in a sustainable and tolerant way. Listening to different opinions not only promotes different perspectives, but also discourse. The content of this blog is characterized by the diverse experience and opinions of the authors, which may not be the majority opinion of the university, but provokes reflection and discussion.

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