As Brian Sassano, BBA ’08, scoured the online course catalog for the spring 2020 semester, one class caught his attention. The topic of Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption was appealing, but the course piqued his interest for another reason.
“When I went to register, there was kind of a disclaimer on the course itself,” says Sassano, a current Fox online MBA student. “In order to register, you had to reach out to get help. It noted that this is going to be very different and a portion of the course will be taught in virtual reality (VR).”
Offered this past spring, the seven-week accelerated course is one of the first MBA-level courses to be offered in a VR format anywhere in the U.S. It was built by the Fox Online and Digital Learning Department with the help of the Glimpse Group, a virtual and augmented reality platform company headquartered in New York City.
The 20 students who enrolled in the course were able to take it from anywhere in the world. All they needed was the Oculus VR headset that they received in the mail.
Sassano was familiar with using Zoom and WebEx, both for online coursework and in his career as a risk and insurance manager for Public Service Enterprise Group. He thought this course might be similar to that.
“To me, the biggest difference between a Zoom session and a VR session were the discussions. It blocks out everything else going on around you. You were just really locked in,” Sassano says.
The course was held in two VR classrooms; one mirrored a traditional auditorium-style lecture hall, while the other was an outside park. The details, down to the simplest of things, were meticulous. For example, benches in the park had iron fittings embedded with the Temple “T.”
Students were represented with virtual avatars. The instructor, Associate Professor of Finance Bora Ozkan, was live streamed from the Video Vault on the fifth floor of 1810 Liacouras Walk into the center of the virtual classroom. He could see the virtual classroom while lecturing. He was aware when a student avatar raised his or her hand.
The Oculus headsets also forced students to focus. There was no scrolling of Facebook feeds. iPhones could not be accessed. If students did divert their attention elsewhere, the instructor would know as their avatar’s head would bow.
“You had to be engaged because there were no distractions,” says OMBA student Katie Coperich, who also enrolled in the course. “Everybody was very focused on what they were doing, so I think that encouraged collaboration. You were able to look at somebody in a setting that was similar to real life just as if you were really turning to look at someone in class.”
For Ozkan, who also serves as the academic director of the Fox Online MBA and Online BBA programs, the course provided an answer to a question he had been looking to solve for 18 months.
“When I first put a VR headset on, I saw that the experience is so unique and different,” Ozkan says. “I immediately started to think, ‘How can we use this to benefit our students?’ and that’s what we spent a year and a half researching.”
Building the course was no small undertaking. Ozkan and the Fox Online and Digital Learning Department worked diligently, traveling across the country to meet with experts in the VR field.
“There was no PowerPoint or Microsoft Word template for what we were doing. I never thought I would have the opportunity to work on a VR project, and it was a huge learning curve in many, many ways,” says Tom Lennon, senior video production specialist at the Fox School.
The course’s influence could even be more significant than Ozkan or the team originally thought. Its launch in March coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators across the world were suddenly tasked with being more agile than ever with regard to online learning and technology.
Given the current environment, many students will be relying on online education for several months, and potentially years, to come. There is a need to bring online learning outcomes closer to those seen in a classroom environment.
Could the VR Fintech, Blockchain and Digital Disruption course provide the blueprint for how to do just that?
“The VR headset provides an absolutely different experience for online students. This may be what’s needed for online education to take off more broadly, especially for programs that really want to mirror what we expect from an in-classroom experience,” says Coperich, who had never tried on a VR headset prior to this course. “I do think online education will run in parallel with VR technology advancements. As that technology evolves and costs come down, I think you’ll see more and more universities invest in it, especially for specific curriculum and specific programs.”