How virtual worlds are reshaping the Ivy League education

Mark Fielding
October 5, 2023
“The future of education at Harvard is brighter than it would have been without the pandemic”— Provost Alan Garber, Harvard University

When a Harvard Senior Fellow told Mark Fielding that every university dean was a fan of the metaverse, he had to find out how they're using extended reality to reinvent university education. What he learnt was how classrooms without walls can transform the university experience.

“I studied from Lima.” “I studied from Melbourne, Australia.” “I studied from the Philippines.” “I studied from New Orleans.” The list of destinations from the 2020 Harvard graduation video is a whistle stop tour demonstrating just how far remote learning has travelled. Is it the new blueprint for university education?

Having your hand forced is rarely the best way to prepare, but as Professor Julio Mario Ottino, Dean of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, tells me, “When every university had to go digital, the system worked.” Harvard’s Provost Alan Garber goes further: “The future of education at Harvard is brighter than it would have been without the pandemic.” 

In the United States, your average Dean is 47 years old. Many grew up reading Neuromancer and Snow Crash. (Harvard Senior Fellow Chris Dede reliably informs me by email that ‘Gibson originated the concept, but Stephenson perfected it.’) They’ve had the metaverse and virtual worlds on their bookshelf for almost 40 years. Is it any surprise then that every Ivy League university has an innovation lab dedicated to virtual worlds and the advancement of education within them?

Students at Harvard University have been visiting sites in ancient Egypt virtually since 2016; they can also pick up and use individual objects, and even print 3D physical replicas.

One of the products of Harvard’s Innovation Lab is a virtual twin, not too different from MIT’s Omnichannel Education Lab, “pioneering innovation and practice in the new era of education.” The use cases are diverse. To help students learn the gallic shrug with more authenticity, Harvard lecturer Nicole Mills uses virtual reality 3D videos of Paris in her French classes, whilst her colleague, Professor Peter Der Manuelian, uses the Harvard Visualisation Lab Observatory to take his Egyptology students inside the pyramids. The latter uses 3D recreations that “allow researchers to view items online, rotate them, and zoom in on specific features.”

Outside Massachusetts, Stanford’s Virtual People course has taught students almost entirely in virtual reality since 2021. The university’s Digital Education Lab, like Northwestern’s Digital Learning Strategy, demonstrates the widespread enthusiasm for the digital realm; Arizona State’s partnership with virtual reality company Dreamscape led to Dreamscape Learn, where they combine teaching and storytelling to “redefine how we learn in the 21st century.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Cambridge’s Digital Innovation Centre does much the same, whilst students at Oxford go to the Digital Innovation Lab to learn subjects from ancient history to biology in virtual reality. “After the lecture, the students commented on the educational benefit of virtual reality,” was the university’s classically underwhelming review.

Yet some of these experiments are not new. Der Manuelian’s Egyptology class has been using extended reality since 2016. I don’t know what subject Ms “I studied from Lima” graduated from, but even if it was Egyptology, I still think she would prefer to be Ms “I studied in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” Greg Kestin runs the Visualisation Lab which hosts Der Manuelian’s virtual pyramids. “I don’t think anything can replace the IRL college experience,” he tells me.

What I found most compelling about Greg’s Visualisation Lab was where the traction was coming from. If you are a Harvard lecturer with an idea for an immersive experience for your students, Greg and his team can turn your idea into (virtual) reality.

Arizona State University's partnership with virtual reality company Dreamscape is designed to reinvent how education happens.

Want to imagine a university experience that puts collaborative education and the co-creation of knowledge at the front of the lecture hall? Professors can do that at Harvard. Want to run a biology class that, rather than using textbooks and diagrams, is an immersive exploration of life from every angle, with students exploring cell mechanics inside the cerebellum, inside the stem of an orchid, deep under the epidermis of a tree frog? This is the educational future Harvard is preparing for. 

How about a history class that replaces a list of dates with a rich, interactive 3D experience where students are fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, debating in Ancient Rome, or walking the streets of Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. And you can take it further: through greater immersion, extended reality can help blend disciplines that might have been easier to teach separately when limited to just a textbook. Watch European History and the evolution of music unfolding in ¾ time from Mozart's apartment in Vienna. Feel Politics and Philosophy combine on the streets of Washington as the War of Independence rages. What were once ideas can now be educational reality.

“How might we recreate the university experience, not the university.”

— Prof. Elizabeth Strickler, Georgia State University

But what does it mean to go from something physical to something virtual? Education can be better with extended reality, but there are challenges. The transition isn’t as simple as transposing a physical environment into a headset. To build a virtual learning environment, says virtual architect Pico Velasquez, we have to ask “What parts are consistent in a virtual school, what needs to be added, taken away, ignored? Designing space is not the same as designing virtual space.” 

Environment is powerful. Sometimes you are ‘where you learn’ as much as you are ‘what you learn.’ Why should your grandchild be sitting at a desk for an astrology lecture when they could be on the rings of Saturn? 

There is a ‘culture of space’ at university. You have classrooms and corridors and waiting areas. Life often unfolds outside the classroom. “How might we recreate the university experience, not the university?” Elizabeth Strickler, founding Director of the Media Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at Georgia State (yes, the university departmental names only get longer) asks. “You've got to have a space that’s familiar enough for students to know what to do – the purpose – but that doesn't have the same physical constraints.”

“The missing piece,” Julio Ottino tells me, “is anything that has to do with haptics. Sensations. Texture. How can different people work together virtually but experience the physical objects they are dealing with?” During the pandemic, Harvard had to post science kits to students so they could feel physical objects. Is the biggest obstacle to a virtual education a biological one? As Julio puts it, “how do you make a gradient of hardness, virtually?” 

Education isn’t better in a headset, but across the world’s leading universities, the virtual is quickly becoming a critical weapon in ensuring learning evolves with the times. Whether it’s immersing yourself in historical moments, human anatomy or the grammar of culture and language, extended reality is a new and powerful addition to any classroom.  

The universities I spoke to aren’t interested in replacing real life just yet. What they are interested in is a complementary approach that enhances engagement, facilitates complex understanding, and fosters collaboration. It's about reimagining the university experience, of merging the physical and the virtual. A classroom with walls. But within it, a classroom without walls.

“The future of education at Harvard is brighter than it would have been without the pandemic.”

— Provost Alan Garber, Harvard University

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Driven by an acute awareness that the internet experience of his children will be vastly different to his own, Mark writes about emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence and blockchain, with one eye always on the future. As an independent writer, he explores web3 for LVMH, metaverse events of RLTY, and writes gaming stories and lore for the highest bidder.