During the spring semester of 2023, Professor Ovell Hamilton of Morehouse College will lead students through a groundbreaking course in Black history. All of the lectures and classwork will take place in the metaverse. It is a shared virtual 3D space where students and teachers can use avatars to talk to each other and work together.
Wearing virtual reality headsets in class will allow students to experience the harsh reality of African slaves stacked in chains on the deck of a slave ship. Students will also witness a slave standing at the ship’s edge, contemplating the agonizing decision between continued servitude and the release that comes with death.
Jerad Evan Young, a 41-year-old Black man, studying film, television, and new media at Morehouse College, shared that the experience undoubtedly conjures up emotions of sadness.
“It definitely evokes emotions of sorrow,” Evan Young told NBC News.
In Hamilton’s global history course, he had the opportunity to virtually visit the Underground Railroad and a slave ship.
“Also, there’s a sense of pride because not everybody made it through the slave trade. You know, you had to really be a strong individual. So, that let me know that my ancestors were strong enough to last that grueling journey across the sea,” he said.
Hamilton was among the eleven professors who used virtual reality technology to teach students at Morehouse College’s first metaverse class last spring. He is creating the first in-depth Black history course utilizing the VR technology of VictoryXR.
Students can use the metaverse to experience significant events in American history, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963 or the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas’s public high school, by nine African American students in 1957.
Furthermore, they can go on a tour of a slave ship.
The Virtual Reality Project, which includes the new course “History of the African Diaspora Since 1800,” utilizes VR to educate students about Black history while also cultivating a feeling of belonging.
The new course will follow the same general outline as “Journey for Civil Rights,” a Black history course taught by Hamilton this past spring through the independent VictoryXR organization rather than the university.
It will begin with the Haitian Revolution and progress through the development of the civil rights movement.
The La Amistad slave ship, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. King preached, and the battlefields —where students can see Black soldiers during the Civil War and World War I — will all be recreated using much of the same material.
Hamilton believes that his students gain a deeper understanding of the material and are more invested in its mastery by using the metaverse in a classroom.
“That is an experience that they would not have if they were sitting in a classroom if they were sitting in a lecture,” Hamilton shared.
“When you go there and see the bottom of a slave ship, see the slaves packed in together … you will have a new appreciation, and you have a greater knowledge of how the events took place,” the professor continued.
To teach his lessons in the metaverse, Hamilton used 3D innovation tools to build environments like Dinosaur Island, a virtual world where students can observe dinosaurs and a prehistoric landscape “to see the true experience.”
Hamilton also showed his students the Middle Ages and the Colosseum in Rome.
Freshman sociology major Kade Davis, 18, who is also enrolled in Professor Hamilton’s world history class, has found that the metaverse has increased his ability to interact with others and gain insight into the discussions in other courses.
He said that thanks to the metaverse, he has traveled to exotic locations like the Mayan pyramids in Mexico.
Davis added that the students were given a guided and detailed tour of the pyramid and were encouraged to ask questions then and there.
“It was impressive to see that … like, outside of a textbook and be able to articulate and immerse in the environment and actually learn more about it,” he expressed.
Director of the Virtual Reality Project and assistant professor of chemistry at Morehouse, Muhsinah Morris, said the program was launched in the fall of 2020 in response to a growing number of students dropping out left and right following the institution’s shift to a fully online curriculum.
Morehouse joined forces with VictoryXR to use their virtual reality technology in the classroom, creating a “metaversity.”
“In the traditional classroom setting … we can’t all just be transported to the Great Wall of China or back in time or into some futuristic event,” Morris said.
“You can do that in virtual reality,” she said.
There are 10 different metaverse courses offered at Morehouse College, spanning subjects as diverse as journalism, English, biology, sociology and more. Nearly 500 students have participated in the program since its inception, with over 170 students enrolled in the current fall semester alone.
In addition to studying in the metaverse, students are given hands-on experience with game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine to create real-time 3D environments.
Morris has noted “overcoming 20 generations of what could not be” is the program’s ultimate goal.