SDSU joins the Metaverse

Bailey Juhl, Reporter

Two weeks ago, it was announced that South Dakota State University has been selected as one of seven “Metaversities” created by the company VictoryXR and funded by Meta. 

Students can participate virtually, from hundreds of miles away, in classes using an Oculus Quest headset provided by the university.

“We’ve all watched zoom remote learning and seen the inadequacy,” VictoryXR CEO and founder, Steve Grubbs said. “We know we could create a better way to learn remotely that was fun, engaging and dramatically more educational.”

 So far, there is only one class at SDSU using the virtual reality headsets announced for summer 2022, and that is organic chemistry. 

Sara Madsen, a senior lecturer for chemistry and biochemistry, will be teaching the organic chemistry class this summer. She has many ideas for how she hopes her course will run, but has not decided whether to do the VR part of the class as a pre-lab or the lab itself. Both would have their individual benefits, she said.

“They get to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes,” Madsen said about the program.

She is supportive of an environment that lets students experiment on their own without the danger of chemicals and with the potential to learn and absorb more information. 

Fall 2022, however, has significantly more potential. Other classes in the science departments and other areas of campus may also see an integration of VR learning. 

“Now we’re at the early stages of this,” Greg Heiberger, associate dean in the College of Natural Sciences said. “Two months ago, I couldn’t have told you these things, we didn’t have the agreements in place and what does this look like in two more months? It could be we’re seeing pharmacy, vet science, engineering, [communications and journalism], and all these other spaces.”

 Class availability has not proven to be the only aspect of the new technology the university will have to work out. There is also the training of the staff on how to teach the new curriculums, build their own shapes and events in the VR format, as well as technological troubleshooting. 

There will be virtual seminars and in-person classes over the summer about teaching practices and how to navigate classrooms in this format.

“They have curriculum already built for faculty, so our faculty will be able to engage in asynchronous training,” Heiberger said. “Then there’s some synchronous pieces, so they’ll actually get some live time with a trainer at VictoryXR in VR. They’ll be in Iowa or wherever the VictoryXR staff might be.”

All this training and building of new classes, programs, headsets and even the virtual campus itself, costs quite a bit of money. The virtual campus is funded by Meta, the social media company previously known as Facebook, at a cost of $50,000. 

When asked about the involvement of Meta in the actual educational environment, Heiberger said, “that’s one of the benefits of this Victory relationship; is that they’re at arm’s length.”

Currently, SDSU has around 75 headsets spread between the people helping with the technical troubleshooting, as well as the professors who are being trained and those working in the outreach programs. 

At the start of classes, the headsets will be distributed differently. One to a professor teaching the class, and one to each of the 24 students enrolled in any particular class. 50 of these 75 headsets were provided by VictoryXR and the rest are being paid for by free-will donations to this program.