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Gym Class in the Metaverse. How Gym Teachers Teach in a Simulated Gymnasium Classroom – Zach Wahl

Steve Grubbs: Welcome to the VictoryXR show. This week we are talking with Dr. Zach Wahl, a professor educator at Northern Illinois University who is doing some really great things, amazing things, not just at the university, but also in the prison system. So, we’re going to cover all of that here. And Dr. Wahl, thank you for joining us.

Zach Wahl: Steve, I appreciate you having me here today.

Steve Grubbs: So let’s talk a little bit about you and your role at NIU. So, you teach teachers, is that correct? 

Zach Wahl: Yes. So, this is my 8th year at Northern Illinois. I am like an associate professor and I train physical educators. So essentially, any college students at NIU that want to go and become future physical education teachers, they would enroll in a series of classes. And essentially, I’m in charge of a lot of the higher-level clinical experiences where we’re teaching like lecture content, but we’re also going into the schools to teach as well.

Steve Grubbs: Okay, so Zach, let me just say, you have the look of a PE teacher. Not just stereotype, but I like the look. I think a lot of people who would listen to this today would say to themselves, the metaverse, the metaverse education, virtual reality would be the opposite of PE or Physical Education. Can you talk to us a little bit about how they can intersect?

Zach Wahl: Yeah, absolutely. I think for me personally, when I train my students, a lot of it is about getting practice and getting really high-level practice. So kind of like how I’ve gotten started in this whole kind of the metaverse rabbit hole is a couple of years ago, I was doing some research, looking at visualization.

So, prior to my students going into, whether it’s like an elementary class or middle school or a high school class to teach, I would say, okay, I want you to sit in your car, sit in your room, and I want you to visualize how you want this lesson to go. You all know, like, the space you’re going to go into, you know students like what they’re going to look like and you know, what your plan is. So I want you to really, like, sit there, close your eyes, and just think about exactly how you want it to go. 

And the reason why I do that or have them do that is because a lot of the research says if you’re practicing things, if you’re visualizing how you want something to go, typically the result is going to go more like the way you prepared for it. So whether it’s Olympic athletes or fighter pilots or surgeons, a lot of them are usually using that visualizing technique to just basically get a sense of what their plan is prior to going into teaching. 

And I definitely can’t make the argument that PE is life or death, as maybe like fighter pilots or surgeons. But the thing that I want my students to get a sense of is you basically have the lives of these students in your hands. Whether their experience in your classroom or your gym could kind of make or break their enjoyment of physical activity or sport for the rest of their life. And a lot of what my teachers do can kind of dictate how students enjoy PE and physical activity and sport.

So, in terms of how I kind of got started is I wanted my students to have this opportunity to kind of get the best, most realistic practice that they could. So maybe about four years ago, I partnered with an undergrad student here at NIU, where we actually created a virtual reality gym space of the elementary school gym that my teachers were going to be going into prior to teaching. 

So essentially, instead of having them just, like, sit in their car, sit in their room and visualize their success and visualize their plan, I forced them essentially to go to this virtual reality space immediately prior to their teaching in the physical space. And we had a lot of success with that. And the students that went through that process had some really positive things to say. And I saw some drastic improvements in their success when they actually taught, like when they pre- utilized the virtual reality versus when they did not. 

Steve Grubbs: Got it. And so, I think you would describe yourself as not a particularly deeply technological person, but you still embraced this new technology. How did that go?

Zach Wahl: Yeah, so I’m not the most tech savvy person. I have an iPhone 6. It [inaudible 04:50] everyone that it’s better. I’m typically in a lot of iPhone group chats, so typically the Android people might not like that. But usually, I struggle with certain things from a tech standpoint. And I think for me, a lot of it is just personally trying to figure out the kinks of making sure everything goes smoothly.

But I’m teaching and working with a lot of Gen X or Gen Z students that tech is just part of their day-to-day life. And fortunately, or unfortunately, we taught classes on zoom for a full year. And you have to be able to embrace kind of what are the norms with the students that you’re working with. And it would be a disservice for me to not utilize something that I might not be as comfortable with, if I know that it’s going to actually lead to better higher levels and better levels of training of my students. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, great. So, both Zoom and virtual reality can be remote online learning. How would you compare and contrast Zoom and education in the metaverse?

Zach Wahl: Yeah, of course. I personally think it’s really challenging to get. I think there’s nothing different—there’s nothing that replicates kind of like that in-person, face-to-face with a student. When I taught on Zoom, it was really challenging because a lot of students, they wouldn’t put their video on, so God only knows if they’re even there behind the screen. Or if I ask a question in class, it’d be easy for people to put their head down, but I can sit there long enough and stare at somebody or use my body or proximity to get someone to finally answer a question.

But on Zoom, you really can’t do that. It’s really easy to hide, and it was really challenging as a teacher, I felt more like a comedian, like I was trying to put on a performance than actually trying to teach the information. And I think in the Metaverse, it is face-to-face, but it’s not quite that same experience as when you’re in person, but it’s as close to that as possible, and it really does replicate kind of the authenticity of being in the same physical space where you can actually go and touch somebody in real life. 

So, I prefer it, teaching in the Metaverse and VR. I think it’s a better, more authentic experience for the students that we have, and I think it’s a lot easier to disseminate the information that you’re trying to teach kind of in that context versus Zoom, where it’s really impersonal. Like, the virtual world is so much more personable than Zoom.

And a couple of people have asked me this, and hopefully we don’t go back to a pandemic anytime soon, but Zoom is definitely easier. You click a button, boom, everyone’s there. Sometimes there’s some kinks you have to work through with the VR, but once you kind of figure that out, I’d much prefer teaching in this environment to Zoom. I would not go back to Zoom, having done this.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I think that’s what most professors who try, you know, probably not 100%, but it certainly the vast majority come to conclude. So, there are a number of tools that you can use once you’re inside, you know, in with NIU, we built sort of a fun digital twin replica metaversity. But there are a lot of other classrooms as well, and I think you’ve probably even developed some of your own. But once you’re in there, there are various tools you can use. You can show videos. You can pull in 3D objects. You can there’s some classroom management tools as far as student speaking or 3D sound, and all of these various tools. Talk to me about some of the tools that you utilize and why you utilize those.

Zach Wahl: Yeah, so we have the Anderson Hall gym space. It’s basically a gym that replicates where we meet face-to-face a couple of times throughout the semester. So predominantly what I have my students do is they go into that gym space, and they will prep lessons that they’re going to actually teach in person, and they get a sense of how it’s going to go, how the spacing, how they kind of manage the students that they’re going to have in that space. 

So, we use a lot of those IFS objects. So the students—I’ll do it as well, but the students will actually put the physical objects that they want to use, like whether it’s soccer balls or tennis balls, or they’ll actually put cones out exactly where they want to go. I think for me, personally, I like to see the students actually use the gym lines that we have.

When I say it’s an exact replica, it’s an exact replica. Where the gym space, like, if there’s a black line in the spot, that’s exactly where it is. And in PE, we use those floor markers quite a bit, or we use wall markers quite a bit. And our students have the opportunities to practice in that space, utilizing those items, which is really helpful. 

Personally, I’m a big whiteboard person. So, I love having the whiteboard and even posing questions. And then I can kind of put that pose a question on the whiteboard and then replicate it or copied a bunch of times and then spread those out and have my students use their own now personal whiteboard with the question that I posed. I do that quite a bit.

I always just think, like, for whatever reason, when we go in there, I always try to have a laugh. I’ll always start like the Apache helicopter at the end or T-rex and be like, you’re going to be teaching a bunch of kids and you’re going to have to sometimes have, like, there’s those students that are tricky, but they’re never going to come in. There’s never going to be a T-rex in there.

So, trying to throw things at them that they’re not going to expect, but also to make it light because again, it’s not life for death. But I do feel like they get such a good practical experience kind of walking through the lessons that they’re going to teach in that space. Those are really the way we, I think, use the tools.

Steve Grubbs: Do you ever use any of the classroom management tools where you can silence everybody or draw everybody into the same space? There’s a number of those.

Zach Wahl: Yeah. It’s funny. So it’s actually one of the labs that we do. The focus of this class is effective teaching practices. So essentially different effective teaching behaviors that my students can do and use as future teachers that are going to help manage their students. 

So one of the things that we use in the schools is something called a Stop Go protocol. So if the teacher wants to get everyone quiet, they would say like, freeze. Then everyone in theory is supposed to stop, look at you, and put your equipment down. So I’ve used that, like, the Mute All, I think it’s called, or whatever the function in the metaverse and then kind of use that as like, hey, like in this realm, this is like what my Stop Go protocol is. And then I’ll turn that off and then try to utilize my personal ones to make sure that they are using it correctly. But yes, I’ve used that stuff all the time.

And then we also—I think you spoke to the videos, so we have some 360-footage of some of my previous students teaching effectively. So that stuff that we’ve used as well, so they can get a sense in that metaverse. You’re basically in this—I like to call it like a huge IMAX. It’s like the 360 IMAX or the video is everywhere. So they really get a sense of what it’s going to be like teaching in the schools, and they get fully immersed, which is such different experience than just watching a class. Either observing live or even watching footage on a screen. It’s such a better experience for them.

Steve Grubbs: So that’s really interesting and just so that our listeners all understand a 360 video. Unlike true VR, where you can move around, you can pick things up with, the 360 video, you’re going to be able to watch it, but it’s video that if you look up, you’ll see the sky, you look down, you’ll see the ground, you look all the way around. You can turn all the way around 360 and see the room as it was at the moment that it was recorded. So that’s actually a really interesting use case that I had never thought about before, where you actually record a class and let students see and experience what an actual class looks like.

Zach Wahl: Yeah, absolutely. So, it was kind of challenging to get the footage. So, I actually had one of my…When we go into the schools, we’ll have the teacher, my students, that’s an NIU undergraduate student that’s leading the instruction, teaching maybe 15 or 20 kids. I’d also have another one of my undergraduate students sitting in the middle with the camera. So, there was definitely some like, you know, the kids, of course, will dance in front of it and those types of things. It also was a little shaky at times. We tried to figure out a way to dangle the camera from the ceiling, but it didn’t quite work.

So, we’re still trying to figure out the kinks there. But the crux of it is, just like you said, Steve, they got a sense of—they can get a feel for actually being engulfed in the space that you just can’t get.

What we would do is we would pause at certain times and be like, “Hey, the teacher was looking at this thing over here. They didn’t have eyes on this side of the gym and, like, look what’s going on. This is an opportunity that they missed.” So, it’s really cool where when you’re observing the class in real speed, like, you can’t just stop everything and pause it. Then to see like, hey, he missed this. Let’s see what happens. And then not, the fight broke out, but this would be an example of, hey, they missed this opportunity to give some feedback and look like they continue to do the skill incorrectly. These are just opportunities to just really teach our students and get a sense of what they can do differently.

Steve Grubbs: That’s brilliant. So funny. My favorite 360 field trip I’ve ever shot was actually on a dairy farm, and I was able to put the camera down right in the middle of the herd, and they acted just like the kids.

Zach Wahl: It’s crazy. They’ll do the TikTok dances. To be honest, typically, we’re used to filming and it’s basically just like an iPhone in the corner. And they’ll like, in the beginning of the lesson, they’ll do a little dance or say something to it, but usually after a couple of lessons, they just basically forget it’s there. 

The 361 is tough because you have, like, a person in the middle of the space, so that makes it a little trickier. But my hope is that kind of moving forward, I’m going to continue to—that’s going to be more of a norm for the students to be more used to it, or we just figure out a better way to film it so there’s not, like, a real person in the middle of the class. 

Steve Grubbs: That’s funny. You can dangle them from the ceilings and then the 360-video will be fine that way, if you figure that out. Which camera are you using? Is it one that the department purchased? Roughly how much are you spending on it? 

Zach Wahl: I have it right here. It’s the Insta 361. I think it was maybe 500 or $600. I don’t know if you recommend it. I run a summer camp in Pennsylvania in the summers. I’ve been doing it for the last ten years. And one of my former colleagues up there, Clara, she actually is a film director and she’s won a couple of Sundance Awards. She does a really good job and so she uses it. And this was the one that she ran recommended based on price point and based on just ease and the ability to upload it. And the university funded it. We got a couple of them and just the tripods and just a couple of sections just to see if we can mess with it some. And it’s been fairly easy. Again, as like a non-tech savvy person, it’s fairly easy for me to do. 

Steve Grubbs: We use the same camera. So it’s a great camera. It’s affordable. And for me, it travels with me wherever I go, so I can just pop it out and do some recording in a new location.

Zach Wahl: They’re cow proof as well, I guess, right? 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s right. So, let’s talk a little bit about your role with incarcerated youth. Because that sounds like, first of all, a very important project, but also very interesting when it comes to education in the metaverse. 

Zach Wahl: Yeah. So, I started a program, in  t’s called Project FLEX. So a little shameless plug. If you Google it, NIU, Project FLEX or go on our Instagram or LinkedIn, you can kind of see some of the work we’re doing. But essentially, we started it in 2018 and it’s a physical activity and life skills program for incarcerated youth in the state of Illinois.

So, when we started, we had got just little small seed grant to fully fund just like one graduate student. But over the last five years, we’ve been able to expand to three of the five state facilities. We’ve got a pretty sizeable budget with the state and we are in…Of those three facilities, we work with about 80% of the youth in those facilities. A lot of them are in for some violent crimes, a good bit are in for murder. And we do a lot that revolves around sport, but we also have an educational component as well.

So, we do one-on-one mentorship with our graduate students. And then each semester at each facility, we bring a group of four to five youth to campus, to NIU, and we do what we call a college readiness like leadership experience. And essentially, we’ll bring them to campus. They’ll go to college classes, they’ll take tours, they’ll meet with different student organizations. They’ll sit in the dining hall, take tours of the dorms. And we really try to engulf them and provide them with the real, true experience of what being on a college campus is like. 

Steve Grubbs: So, if you had a virtual reality option that students could enter in synchronous VR, you could have guest speakers come in and potentially athletes or other people they might look up, come in, and speak to them. 

Zach Wahl: Yeah, absolutely. I have a lot of really good—I think, at least, they’re really good ideas. About 80% of my ideas are usually pretty good. And this is the VR. And integrating this into our program is something that I definitely have a passion for and think there’s a lot of practical applications. So some of the applications that I see right now would be just doing, like, visits.

So, we actually brought—this past Thursday, we had a couple of youth come to NIU and speak to students, and their family was able to come, and it was actually after the panel, the state allowed those youth to come out to eat with us. We were able to pay for a meal, and the mile of one of the youth said, “This is actually the first time that I’ve eaten a meal with my kid, my son, in five years.”

So just having more. Obviously, the face-to-face meetings are important, but being able to see their kids in VR in, like, a shared synchronous space would be really life changing for the families and also the incarcerated youth. That’s a practical application. But also, it’s really tricky to get people into the facility for meetings or for guest speaking or for any sort of event. 

So, like, an example is we’re actually in talks right now to try to get the owner and the general manager and the coach of the Chicago Bears into the facilities. We have to connect with the Bears, and it’s been really challenging even to get them in for a 30 minutes little guest spot to get them to talk. 

So being able to basically pop into one of those lecture halls and then have the general manager or the coach of the Bears come in, that would be a really cool, practical use that would basically be able to circumvent a lot of the limitations that come up with getting people inside the facilities. 

Steve Grubbs: I’ll make an introduction to Austin Carr, who was former Big Ten wide Receiver of the Year with Northwestern and then played four years with the Saints. Caught Drew Brees last touchdown pass. He’s doing work like this in Chicago, so he’s doing another event for us. So, he would be the type of speaker who could come in. And he’s the kid who had zero offers to play football coming out of high school, walked on at Northwestern, and the rest is history.

Zach Wahl: That’s amazing.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah. I think we would love to work with you on a project like this. I love what you’re doing. I think it’s so important. There are very few things that are more important than trying to reduce the recidivism of incarcerated youth, because not only does it affect them, but it affects all the rest of us as well in the neighborhoods that we live in. So, I would love to be helpful there.

Why don’t you take us out with your thoughts on and hopes for the future of how we can use these technologies to improve education and life in general.

Zach Wahl: Yeah, before I kind of get into that, you said recidivism rate. In Illinois, the five-year average recidivism rate is 93%. So, it costs about $180,000 to incarcerate one youth, and essentially within five years, 93% are going to end up reincarcerated. So essentially, what we’re doing is extremely costly, has a lot of societal costs, but it’s just not effective right now. 

In terms of kind of like my future, I think that there are two avenues, I think, specific to physical education, I really like to integrate this tool to not only train my teachers, but provide them with the most realistic teaching experience as possible. So, whether that’s practicing their lessons prior to going into the physical space or being able to engulf them with as many high-quality teaching experiences where they’re actually going into the VR space, watching that 360 camera and being able to essentially quiz them on these teaching behaviors that are really effective and not….

I’m starting to build out a bank of 360 lessons. I did a lot of hours like youtubing 360 physical education lessons, and not a lot popped up. So, it’s essentially like me trying to bootstrap it myself. And as you can imagine, time and money play a large factor in this type of thing. And it’s one of those things that as we continue to utilize the technology, I think we’ll have more luck ones to be able to watch them, my students be able to watch. 

In terms of the prison work, obviously, I think there’s twofold. I love the opportunity just to allow the youth to be able to see NIU’S campus prior to those educational leadership retreats. Essentially like, I don’t know the stat off hand, but it’s like 85% to 90% of the youth that are incarcerated have never stepped foot in a college campus. And then there’s like, I think it increases the likelihood of them applying to college by 70% if they actually stepped foot on a college campus. So, you know, if we can’t get them to, like, the physical decal dirt where they are stepping foot on campus, I do think the virtual space, whether it’s here, anywhere else, would be really applicable. 

And then the other piece that I’m kind of in the works on is looking at practical job practice. So essentially trying to prepare the youth that we work with for opportunities to basically get real hands-on experience with some sort of an occupation and get job training so that once they leave the facility, that they can basically go back to a different life than what they were used to. 

The reason why there’s a 93% recidivism rate is because the youth are, you know, they might be housed in the facility, we might be doing good stuff in the facility, but if we’re not giving them the tools to kind of basically get themselves out of a crappy situation, like, they’re going to end up right back there. 

So, whether it’s teaching them or providing them with certificates or college credits or something that’s going to give them an opportunity to go back and improve their education or have a job, essentially the hamster wheel is going to continue to go. We’re not going to be able to kind of break that cycle. So that would probably be, from an educational standpoint, specific to training of teachers and then also from the incarcerated lens.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I love that. And Zach, you are pioneering this space, which is why there are very few YouTube videos on it, because somebody has to be the first. So, on behalf of VictoryXR, and frankly, everybody, thank you for what you’re doing, and I look forward to continuing to work with you as we move forward. 

Zach Wahl: Yeah, absolutely, Steve. I appreciate the time. And again, for anyone that’s listening that wants to reach out, I’m more than happy to talk through what I’m doing. I actually have had a couple different physical education educators that want to use the space reach out to me already. So, whether it’s that or with the work of the incarcerated, please don’t hesitate. Shoot me an email, or you can look us up on Instagram. It’s NIU Project FLEX.

Steve Grubbs: NIU Project FLEX. That’s awesome. All right, well, Zach, thank you. And for everyone listening, thank you for giving us some time today.