Inside South Dakota's Higher-Ed Virtual Reality Lab
An edtech partnership has made South Dakota State University one of the country’s first "metaversities.” Science education at the school may never be the same.
One of the defining characteristics of the Dakotas is the vast expanse. But students at South Dakota State University are about to enter an even more wide-open world: the metaverse.
In April, virtual reality education product developer VictoryXR chose SDSU to be one of 10 Virtual Reality Metaversities. The partnership between SDSU and VictoryXR will result in the construction of a virtual reproduction of the school’s Brookings campus, including its 165-foot Coughlin Campanile chimes tower, while providing students with 50 Meta Quest 2 headsets, courtesy of Meta Immersive Learning.
SDSU won’t be the first metaversity. Morehouse College, in Atlanta, claimed that honor in spring 2021. The eight other metaversities are: University of Kansas School of Nursing (Kansas City, KS), New Mexico State University (Las Cruces, NM), Florida A&M University (Tallahassee, FL), West Virginia University (Morgantown, WV), University of Maryland Global Campus (Largo, MD), Southwestern Oregon Community College (Coos Bay, OR), California State University, Dominguez Hills (Carson, CA), and Alabama A&M University (Huntsville, AL).
What sets SDSU apart from Morehouse and the other metaversities is the sheer size of its state, as VR will shrink the learning distance for faraway students in STEM fields. Those students are part of a school with a long tradition in agriculture and mechanical arts. VR will impact the training of veterinarians who can digitally learn about even the rarest animal cases hundreds of miles away, without leaving their classroom.
The Elective recently spoke with Greg Heiberger, assistant professor and Associate Dean for Academics & Student Success at SDSU's College of Natural Sciences, to learn more about what it means to be a metaversity, what students will gain from the experience, and how VR can help shape SDSU—and higher-ed institutions—in the future.
South Dakota State University College of Natural Sciences
How did SDSU become a metaversity?
I’m a Colorado State University alum, and in September 2021 I was there and toured some of their facilities. They have a VR anatomy lab that, I think, is the largest in the country. They have gaming computers mounted in the ceiling with 100 headsets hanging there. It was kind of an intense and exciting experience to put on a VR headset and walk through a beating heart and have that experience physically in the same space as some colleagues and faculty.
That kind of got us interested. We were thinking about how to do VR and anatomy after we opened a newly renovated cadaver lab in September 2021, which got the ball rolling. Honestly, we haven't been able to scale it at SDSU because of cost. If you're the Ivies, or the Ivy pluses, you're building this stuff in-house, you've got hardware and software development happening, you're at the forefront. We just don't have the resources to do that. Even the Colorado State model, where it’s $300 to $500 per headset and you’re talking gaming computers and high-end GPUs, isn’t really feasible.
But we started to explore, getting some headsets in faculty members’ hands and testing some software, testing some hardware. We started with the Oculus Quest 2 because it was at the price point of 300 bucks, and there was a developing software ecosystem. It's come a long way, even since September, in terms of the software that's offered there.
So most of our initial exploration was faculty testing the VR tools, and then we started to buy a few headsets to take on the road with us. At South Dakota State, we're in a rural state that’s 350 miles wide, 250 miles north and south, with fewer than a million people. It's a big state for 900,000 people, and we need to engage rural Indigenous communities. We have some local science labs we take on the road, and we were interested in mobile VR. The movement from a desktop setup to all-inclusive Quest 2 is, I can put 10 of them in a suitcase and take it to that rural remote high school that doesn't have access to some technology or some equipment that they could get engaged in science. So we just explored in those spaces. We weren't quite ready to build a lab on campus or launch in classrooms.
But then in a webinar, I met Steve Grubbs, the CEO at VictoryXR, and he started talking about the Virtual Reality Metaversity project. We already had some engagement with the Quest 2s and were really thinking about some science experiences. Anatomy and chemistry were the first two places where we found some traction on our campus with faculty, and it just worked. We started to talk with VictoryXR and look at the work they had done in K–12 and, obviously, the work they had done at Morehouse over the last year. We connected with some faculty at Morehouse to see how that experience went, and that's kind of what got us to this place to be in partnership with them as one of the first metaversities.
What will the fall 2022 metaversity curriculum look like?
It will be in two science classes. One is organic chemistry, where 24 students in that lab will get headsets checked out to them and they'll get them for the entire semester. Chemistry and biochemistry senior lecturer Sara Madsen is working through her summer to both train herself on hardware and software and to build that curriculum in organic chemistry in the fall. So that will be Organic Chemistry 1 in the fall and Organic Chemistry 2 in the spring, and it will function the same way both semesters.
The other class, we’re not quite ready to be public about. But what I can tell you is that it's an online science class. This will function a little differently. These are students that need hands-on science instruction, but they’re not on our physical campus, either because of geography or some other constrained reason, and they're not going to be able to take and do hands-on labs. So that's really our goal with this other class.
Another science class will launch in August that will serve our state. We have a nursing program 300 miles west of us where we only offer online prerequisite science courses. So this is our ability to do better than simulations, do better than 2D Zoom experiences.
What is metaversity training like for SDSU faculty?
There are a few different components. One is an asynchronous process of learning the technology and the software. This is kind of the base level. Everybody needs to understand how to manage the classroom, how to input new virtual items into your classroom, how to manage students, how to record—some of the logistics pieces. There's a synchronous component where the faculty who are now students are together with a master teacher and they're experiencing VR education. Then there's a final piece where they get some one-on-one time with a master VR teacher.
All three of those stages, I think, are really important. They really are sequential. You have got to know the buttons and the logistics before you can start talking about hosting a class. You have got to have some experience hosting a class before you want to have a one-on-one with one of the experts to really talk about your unique needs, and specific experiences and plans for VR education.
How steep is the learning curve for SDSU faculty going through that training?
When we opened our anatomy lab, we had lots of tours. I had alumni that were 80 years old that had never done VR before and they were able to navigate and engage and find value in it. There's a whole other level when you need to teach a class, when you need to manage other students. So I think there's always an initial learning curve, and understanding the technology, and then knowing what kind of questions to ask. Certainly, we have selected faculty that we know have been adaptable in the past, that have used technology in the past in these settings. It's a coalition of the willing. There are just some faculty that this is not the space they want to be in, and we have to allow that freedom for them to be able to meet the outcomes we need.
In terms of the training, specifically, I think we get 10 licenses for training. We've only had a handful of our faculty use it thus far. The faculty that are teaching this fall were kind of our first priority. Then we're bringing in these other faculty over the next few months. But the training so far has been really beneficial for those faculty. The learning curve is steep, but it’s also fast. As soon as you're in there for an hour, and then you put the headset on the next day for another hour, all of a sudden in three or four days you're a quasi-expert. You're able to teach other people how to navigate, engage, or manage the classroom.
South Dakota State University College of Natural Sciences
An elementary school student gets some (virtual) hands on experience with a strand of DNA.
How do you envision VR changing the SDSU learning experience?
I did work on Facebook in college student engagement 17 years ago and published some work in that space. We did a random control trial with Twitter 10 years ago in ways to extend the classroom walls, and that research came back to good pedagogy and how we can use technology to add value in ways that you can't in a face-to-face setting or because of the constraints that we’re given.
There are things you can do in VR that you can't do in real life. You can’t hold DNA, and magnify it 1000 times and have a tactile experience with an instructor about cellular molecular biology or DNA or something that's at that microscopic level. So there's that piece. Then there's extending the classroom walls. This comes down to distance learners, online learners, but also our traditional students on physical campuses. You can come into a teaching lab, and your time to be in that lab is Tuesdays from 3 to 6. But if you want to repeat that lab, if something goes wrong, it might be expensive, it could be dangerous in terms of chemicals. There are just these limitations that VR can help us to address so that students could do that lab a second time, or third time, or repeat it, or repeat a portion of it at 2 a.m. on Thursday when the lab isn't open, when there's not a TA or faculty member there that can do that.
Our faculty did an amazing job moving into Zoom and into simulations and ways to approximate hands-on lab and engaging teaching experiences through covid. But a 2D simulation is pretty unidirectional, in a lot of ways. You go through the cookbook steps. One of the things about VR is the hands-on tactile components, the ability to be in space, and with faculty, and with the materials that you're working with. But I think it's also the iterative nature of being able to potentially start over or move forward two steps and back one step. That's how learning works. That's how science works.
I think some people look at VR as a fad, that it’s big now but won’t last. It sounds like you have a different take on its staying power.
We can envision VR looking like Second Life in 20 years. There's a risk here that this is not where the future of education might be. But my thought about that is, no matter where this ends up—if in five or 10 years, it's a different hardware, different software—it's still going to be about engaging with each other and with new experiences through technology. I can't predict what that future technology might look like. Is it AR [augmented reality]? Is it XR [extended reality]? Is it something we can't even envision right now? Possibly.
Bringing it back to SDSU, has SDSU changed or is it the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago in terms of attracting students into science and STEM fields? I actually think it hasn't changed that much. The platforms may have changed, the billboard might have changed, but what's underlying it is hands-on engagement and a large-campus feel. We're a Division I school. We've got $100 million in research going on every year. We're still at the cusp of that large university. But we really provide that small, hands-on feel of what our roots were in 1862 when we were granted the land and the focus was about ag and mechanical arts.
The VR Metaversity piece is a part of that hands-on, land grant component. I've been talking with the vet science program here. There are some cases that happen in West River, South Dakota, that the vet students will never get to see because they're so rare. But if they can put them in the metaverse, if they can record them, if they can create them in a place that can be replicated—suddenly you can train your veterinarians on some really abstract or unique or hard to find cases that they might not see in their training, and you could build that into the process.
I think the future is that you may not actually be physically in the same space when working or studying. Robotic surgeons don't have to be in the same room. They might be in a completely separate space while they're conducting surgery. Or you might have a job that you're engaging with colleagues across the world in the metaverse. I think with hands-on in ag and mechanical arts, it's easy to say, "It's fixing tractors and growing food. How does that relate to the metaverse?" But I certainly think there are some practical applications.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.