Q&A: Muhsinah Morris leads Morehouse College in the Metaverse

Morehouse College in Atlanta has emerged as a leader in virtual reality education among historically black colleges and universities. EdTech: focus on higher education spoke to Muhsinah Morris, Director of Metaversity at Morehouse, Assistant Professor and Principal Investigator of the Morris Research and Innovation Lab, about the unique ability of virtual reality to support black students and rekindle their joy of learning.

EDTECH: What is Morehouse in the Metaverse?

MORRIS: Morehouse in the Metaverse started as a proof of concept that a VR campus can come to fruition. Our partner, VictoryXR, has been the secret sauce all along. This helped us develop a digital twin of Morehouse accessible through various VR headsets. We started in three courses, and now we have 10 courses entirely in VR. Students can participate from anywhere, but several courses require students to bring their headsets to class so they can experience the metaverse together.

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EDTECH: How have the students reacted to learning in virtual reality?

MORRIS: Seniors who took advanced inorganic chemistry courses felt that they would have been better chemists had they had this in their freshman year. In this course, you should be able to visualize molecules and molecular geometry and understand complex chemical reactions. Virtual reality helps students visualize the molecular world in a way that they haven’t been able to in all their time studying chemistry. They discover molecules swollen to the size of a coin. They were able to do problem-based learning activities. Many of them want to go into health professions, so they can explore inside a body and examine anatomical structures.

EDTECH: How is virtual reality particularly useful for HBCUs?

MORRIS: As HBCU, much of our pedagogy is based around culturally appropriate spaces and ensuring our students can relate to content that typically doesn’t feel like it’s for them. We create an engaging space they want to live in and feel comfortable in.

In creating our digital twin of Morehouse, we expanded the space with artifacts from the current campus. In our halls, students see African art and pieces of history by African Americans who have done amazing things in their fields. We have created a world that is familiar to them, using advanced technology to do so.

READ MORE: How emerging technologies are helping HBCUs retain students.

EDTECH: How can virtual reality expand inclusion and representation in ways that traditional learning cannot?

MORRIS: I now teach in the education department and have taught in the chemistry department for my entire career. In my Exceptional Learners course, we talk about differentiating instruction for people with disabilities and using technology strategies to ensure teachers create the right accommodations.

Our students will have the opportunity to create, in virtual reality, scenarios that will adapt to learners who have a physical disability or who are neurodivergent. How do we develop tools and technological solutions to meet their needs? How can we create experiences that will instill a sense of place? Being aware of this helps teachers create pathways and be more creative in the types of activities they bring into the space.

EDTECH: How can the versatility of virtual reality help personalize learning?

MORRIS: I call this an “opportunistic reality” for our students. Extended reality technologies help them hope, endure and persist through complex materials and difficult aspects of their disciplines. Being exposed to this technology at this level gives them insight that others may not have, which is critical for young black men, especially those we serve at Morehouse.

Young black men make up only 2% of education professionals. It is essential for them to enter the job market knowing how to use XR technologies and how to create an XR curriculum. It is important to have experienced this as students and as teachers in initial training. It provides opportunities that our students often don’t have. They have the opportunity to develop, create and have autonomy in a state-of-the-art space.

EDTECH: What results have you seen at Morehouse?

MORRIS: In our history class, we saw a 10 percentage point increase in attendance compared to traditional face-to-face classes. We have seen an increase in student engagement and a significant increase in final student grades. Not only do students want this kind of technology, but the numbers show that it has made a difference.

EDTECH: If not, how do you use virtual reality to serve the campus community?

MORRIS: We had opening services in the Metaverse and a virtual gala to accompany our annual “A Candle in the Dark” gala, which celebrates African-American achievements and raises scholarship funds. We have meditation Mondays and fitness initiatives coming this fall, led by our Kinesiology program. We are moving full steam ahead to give more students the opportunity to use this technology.

EDTECH: What makes you most excited about virtual reality?

MORRIS: When I see students understanding their fields in a way that sparks curiosity – where they are not confined to antiquated learning conditions, but rather optimized in that space – I see their joy. In many cases, this part of the education system has been lost. When we’re young, we ask questions because we’re really curious, and as we go through the system, we lose that, and part of our mind gets crushed in the process. It’s really good to be back in a space of joy and possibility for students who no longer thought it existed for them. This is the “opportunistic reality”, not only for students, but also for faculty.

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