Using Social VR to Teach an Emerging Technologies Class at UNC Chapel Hill

Steven King is an associate professor of multimedia journalism and emerging technologies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, holding a joint appointment with the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and the Kenan-Flagler Business School. In his work, King combines computer science concepts, human-centered design and storytelling to create new ways to present information through emerging technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and other interactive media forms, such as interactive data-driven graphics.

Steven King uses AltspaceVR to deliver a virtual course (image source)

When the university was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Steven used both Mozilla Hubs and AltspaceVR to create a virtual classroom for his students:

If you ask a UNC student what their remote classroom experience has consisted of, they will likely tell you about video lectures through Zoom. But for students in Steven King’s class, they are experiencing remote learning differently — through virtual reality.

“I’m always trying to figure out a better way to teach and communicate,” King, a professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said. “I know virtual reality is an immersive experience.”

King built a virtual 3D version of his classroom, which allows his students to walk around in the classroom and break out into groups. 

He said he has tested out a lot of different platforms for hosting 3D classrooms. The first experience, he said, was through Mozilla Hubs. But King said his class will likely stick to AltspaceVR because of how pleased the students have been with it.

A virtual classroom in AltspaceVR (image source)

The Raleigh News & Observer reported:

“When you’re faced with a crisis, these are times to step up and figure things up and make new discoveries,” King said. “We don’t need to limit ourselves to the tools we have. We need to develop new tools to move us forward.”

King sent Oculus Go Virtual Reality headsets to his 28 students to use at home. King and the students built their own avatars, and they are all attending class together in a virtual world as robots, panda bears, ducks and other characters. King chose the superhero Ironman as his avatar.

The emerging technologies class was tailor-made for this type of experiment, King said. Students had become familiar with the technology throughout the semester while learning about artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

Steven wrote about his experience developing and delivering the course in a four-part series of Medium posts (here’s a link to part one). He described how he acclimated his students to AltspaceVR:

To help the students prepare for class. I gave the students an assignment to be completed before the first class hosted in AltspaceVR. I asked every student to signup for an account, go through the tutorial in their home space, and to go to the InfoZone, which is a tutorial in the form of a social fair about going to events. The final step of the assignment was to send me a friend request. I also recorded a video on how to enter the room/event…

This assignment was critical to the success of the next class. I needed the students to work through any technical issues on their own and to feel confident in another social VR environment. Once I got a friend request, I added them to the group so they could see the private event…

Most students arrived early and were ready to go. I let them spend several minutes interacting and exploring the space. There was lots of personal chatting, like I would see before an in-person class, which has been absent in my Zoom class.

The pandemic provided a golden opportunity which professors like Steven used to good advantage to provide their students with an introduction to social VR used for educational purposes. You can find out more about Steven and his work via his personal website.

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