Teaching Business Students Using Social VR at Temple University

Ronald Anderson, dean of the Fox School of Business at Temple University, using a VR headset (image source)

The Fox Business School at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is among the first business schools in the world to teach courses in virtual reality, using a custom-built social VR platform. University newspaper The Temple News reports:

As Divya Pawar sat in her Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption class listening to the lecture, she was able to get a good view of Pollet Walk from her seat. When class ended, she took off her Oculus Quest Virtual Reality headset and continued working at home in her off-campus apartment.

“It’s like you’re in a Temple classroom, like you’re sitting with your classmates,” said Pawar, a master’s of business administration student. “It was an amazing experience, it kind of transforms your space.”  

In March 2020, the Fox School of Business first held Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption, a graduate-level course that is offered once per year and is among the first MBA-level courses to feature a VR format among colleges and universities in the United States. Although the course operates virtually, it incorporates classroom discussions along with virtual visual elements from Temple’s Main Campus that create an environment comparable to the traditional, on-campus experience…

Students can participate in Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption remotely by wearing Oculus Quest VR headsets. With the headsets on, students sit at virtual seats in a lecture hall, surrounded by avatars of other members of the class, and can talk to one another through the headsets as they get views of Temple’s Main Campus outside the lecture hall’s windows…

Students receive the Oculus Headsets in the mail and return them to the Fox School of Business after they complete the course.

Bora Ozkan, a finance professor, teaches Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption and appears in the center of the virtual lecture hall as an avatar where he can see students raise their hands and actively engage with one another.

Zoe Rosenberg reported on the program for The Inquirer:

Before the pandemic made online schooling a necessity, Bora Ozkan theorized that students learning remotely would be more engaged in virtual reality. Ozkan, a finance professor at Temple University and academic director of its online MBA, has tested that belief since March 2020, when he launched the class Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption in a virtual reality, or VR, program.

It took 18 months to research the technology and build the course at a cost upward of $100,000. The finished product was completed with the help of Glimpse Group, a New York-based virtual reality and augmented reality company.

It’s an investment that Temple’s Fox Business School was excited to make because university officials hope it can become a model for higher education VR courses.

“When I teach classes on Zoom, there’s a disconnect,” Ozkan said. “When we asked students last year to compare their VR experience to Zoom, almost all of them said [VR] is better or much better. Which is why we decided to offer it again this year.”

The business school will continue offering this course in VR, and plans to incorporate virtual reality into other courses as well:

Stephen Orbanek, a Fox Business School spokesman, said it plans to offer the VR course every spring semester, as long as there’s demand. The university is also looking into expanding its VR offerings, with an eye toward creating courses in its departments of Strategic Management, Human Resources Management, and Legal Studies.

A March 2020 article on the project from the Fox School of Business website provides more details on the first offering of the course:

On March 19, [professor Bora Ozkan] will begin teaching Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption in the virtual reality (VR) format as part of the Fox Online MBA program. The seven-week accelerated course is believed to be one of the first MBA-level courses to be offered in a VR format anywhere in the United States. The 20 students enrolled in the course can take it anywhere in the world. All they need is the Oculus VR headset that they received in the mail after signing up for the course.

Once they put the headset on is when things get interesting.

The course takes place in two VR classrooms; one mirrors a traditional auditorium-style lecture hall while the other is in an outside park. The details are meticulous. For example, benches in the park actually have iron fittings that are embedded with a Temple T.

Students are visualized with virtual avatars. The instructor, in this case, Ozkan, is live-streamed from a video studio into the center of the virtual lecture hall. Ozkan can see the virtual classroom as he lectures. He’s aware of when a student avatar raises his or her hand. For students, the scene basically mirrors that of an in-classroom lecture hall.

Of course, Temple University will need to keep on top of ever-changing technology to run the course, as a reporter Paige Gross notes:

There are some caveats to the technology, like any other mediums. First, the Oculus VR headsets cost about $300 per set, and Temple currently is in possession of about 20 of them. They’re loaned out to the fintech students and eventually will need to be upgraded. And they’re subject to technical difficulties like any of the technology we lean on right now; I hopped into the class late because the headsets wouldn’t connect to Fox’s Wi-Fi for a bit.

Still, for all the technical hurdles that have to be overcome, the fact that the classes can be offered to students around the world opens up brand new markets for the Fox Business School. (One of the students taking the fintech course was in Vietnam!)

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