Over a year into the pandemic and a return to pre-coronavirus activities like travel and in-person group gatherings are just as dangerous as ever.
Colleges have been working on ways to safely allow students to have quintessential undergraduate experiences like the campus tour and study abroad.
In Atlanta, Morehouse College and Georgia State University (GSU) have both been working to offer virtual and augmented reality programs.
Morehouse worked with Aetho using their program Beame to create an online version of the Morehouse campus that is three-dimensional and fully interactive. Prospective students can use their smartphones to enter the augmented reality space and have live interactions with the Morehouse admissions team through their photorealistic avatars.
“I think that this is the future,” said Michael Gumm, Morehouse’s Senior Recruitment Manager for Online Admissions. “I think we can use this new technology to bring in numbers of students we haven’t seen before.”
Beame’s augmented reality program allows Morehouse to tailor each campus tour to the specific interests of any given student.
Gumm told the Voice that a lot of students end up choosing Morehouse after getting an opportunity to see the campus. This fall Morehouse enrolled 973 new students, the largest incoming class on record.
By incorporating Beame into their admissions and recruitment process, students who cannot travel to the campus for any given reason will be able to interact and experience Morehouse in a brand new way.
This will also work to grow the college by attracting more students to apply and commit to Morehouse.
At Georgia State, the university is offering a virtual reality program for students who have already enrolled.
Through the GSU virtual study abroad program in partnership with Arthur Technologies, students can take an abroad class from their homes. The program is run by GSU professor of international business Dr. Evaristo Doria.
His class visited Panama and Costa Rica and worked on group projects, took exams and took tours all within the virtual space.
“Besides using V.R. to provide immersive visits aligned with the learning objectives, we thought it would add value to train the students on using V.R. for cross-border collaboration,” said Doria about why he wanted to have this program at GSU.
Dr. Doria reached out to Arthur after GSU had to cancel their study abroad programs in March of 2020 due to the pandemic. Doria worked with Arthur’s founder Christoph Fleischmann to build his virtual classroom.
Fleischmann founded Arthur in 2016. He told the Voice he was excited to work with Dr. Doria and Georgia State because it would be the company’s first foray into academia. Doria’s class visited Panama and Costa Rica during their abroad program.
“On a fundamental level we are trying to make us less dependent on geography,” Fleischmann said.
Arthur’s largest client, PricewaterhouseCoopers has offices in over 100 countries and primarily uses their programs to facilitate workshops and employee training.
“The use of V.R. in business is growing exponentially,” Doria said.
Fleischmann pointed out that students who are already familiar with this technology won’t be at a competitive disadvantage to their future colleagues.
Arthur also uses photorealistic avatars so users can interact with one another. For the GSU course, students were allowed to upload their photos.
“You didn’t know if the picture that they put on there was them or if they got it from a website. So— you were basically just talking to strangers,” said Ashton James, a GSU senior in the VR abroad class.
James said it took two VR sessions for the class to be comfortable with the technology, moving around and interacting in the virtual space.
According to Fleischmann, this was one of the benefits of working with undergraduate students.
“The younger generation has grown up with a lot more virtual interfaces around them,” he said. This allowed them to spend less time explaining and demonstrating the technology and more time in the virtual space.
Virtual and augmented reality removes barriers for students in many ways.
Students with disabilities can enter a digital environment that they can maneuver to shape their needs. Arthur’s VR programs also have real-time closed captioning for users who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Gumm told the Voice that most young students, regardless of socioeconomic status, have a smartphone. All they have to do is download the Beame app and they can tour Morehouse from anywhere in the world.
Arthur donated a full VR set to each student in Dr. Doria’s class and mailed it to the student’s home. Once they had access to the headset, they had full access to their virtual classroom and classmates.