Magazine Feature

A Window to the World

Virtual reality offers new possibilities for global learning

By B. Denise Hawkins

Winter 2022

Heading into the spring 2021 semester, Morehouse College in Atlanta was like many other campuses across the country—temporarily shuttered. The year before, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus forced classes online and upended campus life just as many seniors eyed the graduation finish line and other students looked forward to embarking on study abroad programs. When the historically Black, all-male college—with support from Qualcomm and VictoryXR—launched a pilot program to incorporate virtual reality (VR) into a handful of classes, assistant professor of history Ovell Hamilton jumped at the chance to bring his “Morehouse men” back together, at least virtually. Hamilton, who had long been interested in VR’s application in the classroom, was eager not only to meet with his world history students on a virtual, immersive re-creation of Morehouse’s campus but also to travel with them through space and time using VR technology.

Sound futuristic? Not anymore. Actually, VR has roots in simulation technology that dates back to the 1800s. University and military research centers conducted some of the first experiments with VR in the 1960s, and the “modern VR consumer revolution” that led to lightweight, less expensive VR headsets began in 2012 with an Oculus Kickstarter campaign, according to Maya Georgieva, senior director of the Innovation/XR Lab at The New School in New York City. Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic remains an unprecedented disruptor, educators like Hamilton see a field wide open for using VR technology to teach students and connect them with each other, wherever they are in the world.

Morehouse has continued to offer VR in some of its classes since the physical campus reopened. During some of Hamilton’s world history class periods, for a maximum of thirty minutes, students use VR headsets and handheld controllers to transport themselves to the places and events that they first learn about during class lectures. The students select 3D-rendered avatars of themselves before stepping into a virtual world made up of images and digital objects.

Morehouse College students can use VR to learn about world history or other subjects in an immersive, interactive virtual environment. Image courtesy of Morehouse College.

With VR, Hamilton’s lesson on the ancient people of the Americas, for example, takes on a whole new look and feel from atop the Aztec Pyramid of the Sun. VR tricks users’ brains into thinking they are inside digital landscapes, explains Hamilton, who constructed some of them after receiving tools and training from VictoryXR. With VR, his students have stood on a World War II battleship, encountered animals and artifacts in a tropical rainforest in the Congo region, climbed the Great Wall of China, and time traveled through ancient and modern-day Japan. Students even prepared class presentations that incorporated video and other media and delivered them in VR from an ancient Roman amphitheater.

These are the kinds of places and events students can see and experience using VR headsets, which strap over their heads and eyes. But VR is not just about what the user can see. Headsets outfitted with 3D audio make the virtual experience realistic and immersive, surrounding users with sound on all sides. Many headsets have microphones that allow users to talk to each other.

With handheld VR controllers, students’ avatars are free to walk and run, pick up virtual objects, and explore the simulated world. The controllers “help to make the VR experience interactive,” says an excited Hamilton in a show-and-tell during a recent Zoom call. Clicking on large round buttons located on each of the controllers “can teleport you to a place so you don’t have to walk to it,” he says. “Remember Star Trek? It’s like that but without the sound effects.” The controllers also have a “summons” feature that comes in handy when Hamilton needs to call students back to the group when they’ve wandered away to explore something in the scenery.

As Morehouse plans to expand its offerings of VR courses, Hamilton says he and his students are already realizing what some educators say is one of the technology’s biggest benefits for teaching and learning: “providing a platform to be creative and bring lectures to life.”

At Clemson University in South Carolina, the pandemic accelerated VR’s application in global learning. Kyle David Anderson, who at the time was Clemson’s senior director for global engagement and is now vice president of strategic programming at Academic Programs International, was among those who made the case for using VR to broaden access to global learning when most of Clemson’s study abroad programs were halted due to COVID-19.

“The pandemic has been a universal tragedy that, at the same time, has generated a rare and optimal convergence for global engagement,” Anderson says. During a time when travel was not possible, Clemson and other universities looked to technology to find new ways to meet their commitments to global learning. Also at that time, Anderson says, VR and similar technology were becoming more affordable and user-friendly.

It also helped that Clemson has been engaged in VR research since the early 2000s, according to Nate Newsome, a research associate in virtual reality and visualization at Clemson. The university, he says, was an early adopter of VR and is an emerging leader in its use in higher education.

Clemson University created 3D virtual models of sites in Paris through its Virtual Reality Mondi prototype. Image courtesy of Clemson University.

A small team of faculty, staff, and students at Clemson created VR Mondi (mondi, in Italian, means worlds), a prototype that allows Clemson students and faculty to visit virtual 3D environments and work with their global peers. In fall 2020, VR Mondi made it possible for a group of Spanish-language students to connect with students at the Universidad Blas Pascal, Clemson’s longtime study abroad partner in Córdoba, Argentina. The American and Argentinian students met up in a virtual re-creation of Córdoba’s Plaza San Martín, where they held bilingual conversations and gave presentations.

Anderson stresses the importance of exploring how VR can provide opportunities for students to collaborate and converse with international peers. When this happens, Anderson says, students “are doing more than learning about the things they see in their virtual environment. Students are learning from each other and acquiring intercultural understanding, foreign language and communication skills, cultural knowledge, and new perspectives that aren’t always possible through the textbook.” And although some people have perceived the value of global learning as being about mobility, it has always been about experiences beyond that, says Dawn Michele Whitehead, who leads the Office of Global Citizenship for Campus, Community, and Careers at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). “What matters most,” she says, “is that students have a chance to develop their interpersonal, intercultural, communication, and problem-solving skills.”

Those global learning skills represent what students need to be successful in their careers and equipped for whatever path they choose after graduation, according to AAC&U’s 2021 employer survey report, How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most. AAC&U found that 84 percent of employers would be either “somewhat more likely” or “much more likely” to consider hiring candidates who had completed an applied global learning experience in college that included exposure to diverse experiences and perspectives.

Faculty interest in integrating VR in teaching is growing at Clemson, Newsome says, but customizing content to keep pace with demand has posed challenges, among them time to build the virtual environments. For now, he says, Paris and Mexico City are serving as Clemson’s VR hubs for global learning. The Paris prototype launched in spring 2021, after senior lecturer of French Anne Salces Nedeo, along with staff in the Office of Global Engagement and the VR Mondi team, created 3D virtual models of sites in the City of Lights. Wearing VR headsets and using controllers, Salces Nedeo and her students have traveled to landmarks such as the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, Sainte-Chappelle, and La Conciergerie.

But the experience has been more than a virtual tour of Paris. “Entering those spaces gave the students a quasi-immersive experience in France, allowing them to navigate the streets and enter buildings as they consolidated newly acquired cultural knowledge through lectures, presentations, and joint assignments,” explain Salces Nedeo and coauthor Anderson in a fall 2021 IIENetworker article. They found that boosting students’ comprehension was another of VR’s tangible benefits: “Being able to virtually walk around and control one’s own view and learning in an interactive environment solidified information presented earlier through 2D, text-based methods,” they write. More than 80 percent of Salces Nedeo’s students enjoyed learning through VR, appreciated the technology’s educational benefits, and thought other instructors should use it in their teaching, the authors report.

For two other professors, one in Greece and the other in the United States, VR technology and two storied but heavily polluted bodies of water—the Gulf of Elefsina and the Chicago River—brought them and their students together. Enrolled in separate courses, the Greek and American students use VR and other technology to gain a global view of water pollution, confront environmental challenges, and get acquainted with one another.

Elena Douvlou, head of the School of Architecture at Metropolitan College in Greece, was already interested in pursuing a global collaboration when Kelly Tzoumis, a professor in the School of Public Service at Chicago’s DePaul University, extended an invitation in 2019. Tzoumis, who was in Greece on a business trip at the time, works with eight universities across four continents to provide global learning experiences in her courses.

The collaboration between Metropolitan College and DePaul University has now taken place during three different semesters and is planned for the upcoming academic year as well. For Douvlou, the collaboration is a chance to teach her architecture students “to be global citizens and active, informed practitioners” as they study water pollution in their own country and in the United States. Getting started meant that Douvlou had to learn how to deliver a collaborative, global experience using VR. Tzoumis provided weeks of intensive training, teaching Douvlou everything from how to use the technology to how best to engage diverse groups of students across continents. Douvlou and her team then created narrated content using a 360-degree camera on a tripod, capturing vibrant 3D views of waterways and archeological sites. They also packed the history of the town of Elefsina into a series of ten-minute videos, including interviews with local leaders, residents, and activists. In Chicago, Tzoumis created similar content.

Wearing VR headsets, the Greek and American students can explore the environmental challenges in each other’s communities. Students in both countries also meet synchronously on Zoom and communicate asynchronously using VoiceThread, a multimedia presentation and collaboration tool. In projects that span about three weeks, Douvlou says, the students are responsible for finding solutions to environmental problems in their own corner of the world: Metropolitan College students have developed a remediation plan for the Gulf of Elefsina and industrial sites in the town (with feedback from their American peers), and the DePaul students have conducted a site evaluation and analysis of the Chicago River.

With Tzoumis and others in mind, Douvlou says this type of global collaboration is made easier by forging relationships with those already using VR technology. But bringing such global learning opportunities to students, she notes, can still be a heavy lift. Challenges that might deter institutions from participating include scheduling around time zone differences, navigating language barriers, and accessing and learning to use technology, she says. But for Douvlou, the opportunity to involve her students in international learning and understanding in a new way has been worth the effort. “We are able to engage students in global projects and in practical challenges that teach them to be a part of solutions to problems that impact the world,” she says.

Tzoumis agrees. “The goal is to work interculturally on environmental issues before students go out into dealing with these issues as professionals,” she says. “We cannot solve global climate change, for example, if we do not understand each other globally.”

The end game should be using virtual reality to provide students, wherever they are, “with another channel to communicate and have intercultural conversations.”

Although COVID-19 has been a catalyst for using VR to engage students in global learning without traveling abroad, the technology was already gaining traction across higher education before the pandemic. A 2018 survey by Internet2—a nonprofit consortium that hosts a network of 350 colleges and universities—found that 46 percent of higher education institutions had partially or fully implemented VR or augmented reality, and another 32 percent were testing the technology.

The fields of engineering, manufacturing, and the health sciences have been among VR’s early, aggressive adopters. For example, some medical schools use VR instead of or in addition to cadaver dissection to teach human anatomy. But although practitioners in the global learning field see technology’s value, Anderson says, they’ve been focused for decades on delivering study abroad experiences, not on leveraging technology’s potential to help more students gain access to other cultures.

“Before the pandemic,” Anderson says, “there was little historical or financial incentive for those in global learning to focus on anything but study abroad, despite the fact that virtual modes of delivery are much more scalable and provide much greater access to global learning.”

In fact, there is a clear need to provide global experiences to students in different ways. Even before the pandemic, only about one in ten US undergraduates studied abroad during their degree programs, and students of color have historically been underrepresented among them, according to Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education. In addition, study abroad might present difficulties for students who have work-life balance challenges and/or disabilities, according to Tzoumis.

While VR has the potential to deliver global, immersive experiences to more students, Whitehead points out that “there are those in our field who continue to doubt the power of VR and other technology-enabled programs like Collaborative Online International Learning and virtual exchange to engage students in global learning.” She compares that sentiment to the initial pushback that came when short-term study abroad programs were introduced as a more affordable, manageable way to help more students have a global experience abroad.

“Some said short-term experiences weren’t worth doing and the only good study abroad is a semester abroad,” Whitehead says. “Well, research has shown the power of well-designed short-term experiences.” With more research over time, she says, “the same could happen with advancing the use of new technology like VR.”

When The New School’s Georgieva contemplates the future of VR technology, what she sees coming is “a game changer.” Says Georgieva, “We are at the cusp of a new era in the digital revolution, one where our digital experiences will not be confined to flatscreens but will be immersive.” She is excited about the possibilities for VR in education, including VR’s potential to change “how we tell our stories of our shared human experience.” It will let us “step into someone else’s shoes, where we can develop a better understanding and empathy about diverse experiences,” she says.

Still, Morehouse’s Hamilton acknowledges that VR is not a substitute for traditional study abroad. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I want my students to go abroad and see these places, but until they can safely travel, VR is helping them to do that, but without the expense, or the need to buy a plane ticket or deal with other barriers.”

As Anderson looks forward, he envisions how VR can help transform global learning, but he agrees with Hamilton that using VR doesn’t mean “replacing study abroad.” The technology’s ability to “immerse and stimulate” students as they learn is one thing, he says. But the end game should be using VR to provide students, wherever they are, “with another channel to communicate and have intercultural conversations. This is one of the best applications of VR in the future of global learning.”

Lead photo: Students experience a global business meeting from a first-person perspective during a cultural competency workshop conducted by North Carolina State University’s Global Training Initiative. (Courtesy of North Carolina State University)


  • B. Denise Hawkins

    B. Denise Hawkins is an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer who has reported from Cuba, Haiti, Africa, and the United States. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, NEA Today, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Currents, and university magazines.