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The VictoryXR Show – Sherman Toppin Joins Steve Grubbs To Discuss Teaching & Learning Law in VR

Steve Grubbs: Welcome to the VictoryXR Show. I am your host, Steve Grubbs, and today we have an extremely fascinating guess. especially if you’ve ever gone to law school. I know most people have not. 

And so, I think this will still be fascinating, but we have professor Sherman Toppin with us today, and he teaches at William & Mary, one of America’s oldest universities, if not the oldest, it’s right up there. 

And he is doing some amazing things with legal education. And I went to law school myself, so I understand, A, why some changes are needed, and B, some ways that perhaps it could be improved. So, Professor Toppin, thank you for joining us today.

Sherman Toppin: Steve, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’m glad to be talking to you. It’s just so interesting when you’re talking. I know that you’ve had the experience of being in law schools, so you’ll know everything I’m talking about. I’m a 25-year practitioner. I went to law school 25 years ago, so I’ve been a lawyer this entire time. I’m now teaching a course at William & Mary Law School entitled Law and Business in the Metaverse.

And just to let you know, William & Mary is the oldest law school of record, so we have that. We claim that it’s 244 years old. We’re going into our 245th year next year. And this class that I’m teaching is the first class that William & Mary Law School is endeavoring in the metaverse, or with using good old VR technology. 

It’s an interesting experiment in law because you and I both know, and perhaps the audience that’s watching and listening, in education, there’s been not a lot of innovation, and that’s even been more pronounced in legal education. The way I learned law 25 years ago is how many of the professors are still teaching it today.

And that should tell you—and that’s not a surprise for William & Mary, that’s pretty much across the board. With the exception of just PowerPoint, I think legal education has been a form of education delivery viewed as not really needing of technology. We’ve changed that. We’ve changed that and what we’ve done with this particular course and by design, I explored the course with the metaverse as it should be, as it was designed to be, a visual medium, an auditory, an immersive medium. 

And let the course materials speak to what environment we use. Of course, we use Victory Academy—wonderful partner. We’re so excited about how that has helped us to craft and the way I’m doing modules and course instruction with the different scenes that are available in the Victory Academy catalogue, with the objects that are available in the IFX catalogue, students have been able to really explore all types of different ways in their presentations, in our speeches and even the class pedagogy. 

We’re really taking everything that the Metaverse offers and putting it into the instructional experience, really forcing the limit to make sure and really test it. Is it working? Is it better? And is it more engaging? We already know that. But is it helping augment the educational process? Are students learning complex legal concepts easier, faster? Are they able to embody legal persona while discussing legal concepts easily? And we have found that to be true.

Steve Grubbs: Let’s break that down and get into some more specifics.

Sherman Toppin: Yes.

Steve Grubbs: That’s a good high-level overview. I’m thinking about use cases for virtual reality, augmented reality, and the metaverse. Frequently I find that history is a great use case because you can go back and experience history, or you can actually be in an experience, which is, I think torts, which if people don’t know what torts are, that’s sort of legal jargon. Just means lawsuits for accidents or other things that went awry. But what are some of the ways that you’re able to deploy virtual reality learning so that you’re maximizing the use of this hands-on approach inside the metaverse?

Sherman Toppin: Well, let’s just begin with one of our sessions. We talked about trial preparation. So, in VR, I can create a scene where it’s the conference room, and then the client comes in and meets with the student. We have the prep, now we’re going to court, at the click of a button, now we’re in the courthouse, my client is seated to the left, there’s a jury in the box, and there’s a judge on the bench. And we can simulate the experience of trial prep directly when we could not have done it just that way, in that pace, in that speed, in a class, we would have to. 

There’s one loss, there’s one courtroom at William & Mary, and it’s booked, and it’s basically an environment that’s great— the traditional courtroom, but it’s only available when you’re in the courthouse, when you’re in the school, in the class and book then. It allows us to experience assets at the school and with no limitation. 

Well, I don’t teach products liability, let’s think about that particular type of case. And if I’m teaching product’s liability, we can with an IFX object, put the object or the product in front of the student, dissect the product, talk about what happened, what harms took place, that would help the student analyze how to approach litigation based on what the product did to the victim. 

Look, criminal cases, if we’re teaching criminal law in that particular concept, we can go to the crime scene. We start there, we can talk about where things were, and as an attorney prepping a student for how to prep a case for trial, we can go right from the environment to the conference room, to the courtroom 1, 2, 3. And that’s what I have found. 

And the second thing that we do is, certain cases lend to sites. One thing that’s great about the metaverse is that you can go to the different places, you’re not restricted by the four walls of the classroom. So, there was a case that we dealt with A.M General versus Activision Blizzard. It was about the Humvee case and the company. The game Call of Duty is basically a battle royale type of game that takes place with Desert Warfare. 

Well, we started the class in the desert, and it immerses the students in the place where it took place. I have all the screens and the objects that relate to the case in that environment and we’re able. Students, they’ll never forget that case. They’ll never forget how we’ve approached the instruction because we approached it immersively in the site where it took place in the place where the issues manifest. We can go, we can click a screen, and now we’re watching the Call of Duty game, seeing how the infringing, the allegedly infringing Humvee in the Call of Duty game is deployed. We see all of that. 

And this helps students if they were an attorney prepping for a case, now they can go right from the product, right from the object of the litigation, the subject of litigation to the legal principle and it all integrates in the mind, in their right, visually, in their eyes, in their ears before rather than just looking at a flat book in a piece of paper. 

So, that’s what I have found to be the greatest tool—just the transportation of the legal experience and where we’re out of the classroom and we’re in the world where these issues are happening in the metaverse world.

Steve Grubbs: Yes. I often think that all the law books I read, probably the reason I’m wearing glasses today. So, first of all, what hardware are you using?

Business conference in VR in an office

Sherman Toppin: We’re using the Meta Quest 2. So, that is our hardware device, and of course, [inaudible 08:41]. And students like that. Some of the students already had the Meta Quest 2 so it was easy to actually pick that and select and use that as a device. It was no difficulty for them. I have found that students are doing other things beyond the class.

Once they have the Meta Quest 2 on their heads, they’re not able to do other things when they’re in engaged VR or in Victory Academies platform. But when class is done, they’re gaming, they’re doing the other things. They’re using the device as they would a cell phone. It’s an extension of the—so the teaching tool has become a household electronic, and I think that’s the beauty of it.

Steve Grubbs: So, in your model, and a model that we see across many universities, students check out a headset, is that correct, and have it for the semester?

Sherman Toppin: Even better than that. Our students have been given these, it’s theirs. They don’t return these headsets. The university does, are aware of the numbers and the tracking of it, and our tech department has gone in and made sure that there’s no data exchange between the university’s platform and the actual, but we’re exploring what the idea of—this is just like the student’s laptop, this is just like the student’s cell phone. 

We want them to take ownership of it, because I think I have found that as a tool, they’re able to use it beyond, so they won’t be checking them back in. Now, in the future, there might be a quantity of units that the university will keep and check out and return, but that’s not yet the case at William & Mary.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I really think it’s the future. I remember when I was first at school, at college I was the only student who had a computer in my dorm room. Everybody else had to either, A, use a typewriter—a lot of people don’t even know what that is. Or B, they had to leave the dorm, travel over to the computing center and reserve a computer and do their papers or their research there. 

So, me and my Commodore 64, we sort of were kings of the dorm for a time, but then slowly, everybody ended up getting a computer, and then slowly everybody got a laptop. And then over time, the phone for many students today became the computer. And I sometimes explain to people, they complain a little bit about maybe they have all these expenses or they don’t feel as wealthy as previous generation. I say, “Look, that phone you have in your hand, that would’ve cost a million dollars in our day or more. The amount of computing it can do, so count your blessings.” 

But I think that the next step in this evolution of technology is spatial computing. And we know that Apple’s come out with their very expensive glasses. Meta’s new Quest 3 is an amazing device. HTC vibes XR Elite is a really sweet device that pass through learning, and the PICO 4, and then Lenovo just came out with their VRX. 

So, you’ve got all these companies investing all these dollars, and I just read this week that Google is reviving their augmented reality glasses. So, I think what you guys are doing is really the case study for law schools all across the United States, so I’m excited that you are getting there. Talk a little bit about the reaction of students and what was the adoption? Was it difficult? Do they love it? What are you hearing?

Sherman Toppin: So, here’s what’s interesting. Before the class began, we had a session where everyone was in the room. We sort of did the out-the-box experience together. Everyone opened the box, put it on, got it configured. And every class has almost been an exploration in a journey. Most of these students are two or three Ls, so they’re in their second or third year. So, they’ve already had a year or two of just traditional legal education. And they’re expecting, how is this going to be different? So, every class is an adventure. 

I can tell they don’t know what to expect, they don’t know where we’ll be, they don’t know what will be when I load up the scene, what it’s going to look like. So, there’s this idea of expectation and adventure with every class. There is a learning curve because half the students were techies and gamers, and half the students are interested in exploratory. 

So, you have a wide spectrum of capabilities coming to the table. So, I’ve had to, in some instances, pair them. In our particular class, they work in groups. So, that lets the techies and gamers work with the interested in new technology folks, and everyone gets to the same place. So, that workgroup model has been great—that’s helped us. They’re not working in silos against each other but they’re working together towards joint projects. And I think that’s been helpful. That’s something that we learned after week three was going to be vital. 

The other thing is the experience with the headsets itself. Gamers, they automatically take to it, being an avatar, being in a virtual world, manipulating the device with the hand controllers, all that second nature. For those students who aren’t, there’s this feeling of, I’m not as adept as this other student, so we’ve had to create a situation where we’re still talking about legal education, I’m not grading you on how well you move your avatar or how cool your avatars looks this day, or how many of the gadgets within the Victory Academy profile of gadgetry that you can manipulate— that’s not where the education comes. 

So, we’ve had to really make sure students don’t feel insecure, who are less tech-oriented. They feel a sense of equality because the bar to getting to the experience of you’re in the room, you are an avatar, you get to the space where you’re going to be sited, you move with the group, and you work in your team, it has created a comfort level, and I think that that’s been good. As far as the overall enjoyability, there’s no question, students look forward to this. 

And here’s how I know at 6:00 when we start our class, there’re students who basically lined up before. At 6:00, all the students already with the waiting and already there. When I go in, they’re all clustered around me already. When the class ends at 7:40, they don’t leave. Students aren’t leaving because we’re doing things. Time seems to go quick when you’re in the metaverse. So they’re hanging around, they’re learning stuff, they’re doing different things, they’re communicating. They don’t let the experience go. 

I can tell you, in every law school class, they’re putting the books together 10 minutes before the professor is done. They’re crawling in, creeping in begrudgingly before the class begins. It is not the experience that I have, and I’m seeing students, so the enjoyment level is there, the comfort level is there, the education, so I do feel that. And I do feel… Go ahead.

Steve Grubbs: Well, so I was just going to break that down a little bit further. So, the way the experience rolls out, where are you when you’re teaching this class physically? Now, just to be clear, everybody should understand that in the class that Professor Toppin is teaching, he and the students are all in the same space in the Metaverse, but they’re not in the same space IRL, In Real Life, so talk a little bit about that.

Sherman Toppin: Okay, great. So, our first class was the only class we were all together in the same room, just to get through the glitches. That was the university wanted to be sure that “No, there was no student left behind there.” Now we begin in a Zoom, Google Meets environment. That’s just to take role, the school wanted to be sure that I’m physically seeing the students. 

We’re in that environment just to get teed up. We do some instruction there that might be note-taking heavy, because that’s when you have your controls you can’t take notes, so I’ll do some lecture, maybe 10/20 minutes, then we all take our first break and we’re in the metaverse from the rest of the class. I’m physically at my home, they’re physically in their dorm rooms. And for the remainder of the class, we are in the Metaverse environment. 

And check this out, Steve, not once do we use the typical teaching auditorium for our instruction. We don’t use it. Not once. My point is why use that? We’ve got a whole variety of better environments to use to disseminate this education. We have fun. We go, we’re in every environment but those two. We’ve never been.

Steve Grubbs: And yeah, because the auditorium looks like a traditional law school auditorium.

Sherman Toppin: Why would I go there? Why would I go there when we can do our instruction in a space center?

Steve Grubbs: Yeah. What are some of your favorite environments?

Sherman Toppin: Oh, well, one of my favorite environments is the movie theatre because I love the movies for one. So, we go into the movie theatre, and I have all around the movie theatre, all of the films that deal with technology and the metaverse around the wall. So, it’s like a room that’s devoted towards that. I also like the literary saloon. It’s quaint, it’s small, it’s got the grass behind us. 

And in that, on the glass door, the glass windows behind us, I will have different posters of whatever the content is. So, if we’re talking about this type of books, all the books will be icons behind me floating, and it’s quaint.

Steve Grubbs: Just for our listeners, I’m going to clarify. That’s the literary salon, not the literary saloon.

Sherman Toppin: Yeah. We don’t get our drinks there. We don’t get our drinks there. “Salon,” that’s right. The literary salon.

Steve Grubbs: So, what any others that you love? I mean, there’s a bunch that I love.

Sherman Toppin: I do like the traditional courtroom. We do go into the courtrooms, so we use both of them that are there. I think there’s a contemporary courtroom and of the How to Kill a Mockingbird courtroom. We like those two courtrooms because you have to put the jury in the box, you have to put the students in that feeling, in the feeling like they’re there so I do enjoy those two. 

And I’ve created a bunch of custom environments out of the void space. For example, one particular class we did—I’ll talk about another. We liked the TED stage. There was a TED stage, we used that because, on that particular class, we were talking about diversity and DEI in the metaverse. 

And all the students had to create a different avatar than themselves. And the whole course was about displaying the differences in the varieties that exist in . . . And we couldn’t do that in the real class, we couldn’t. 

So, to be who you are, and then to choose an avatar of a different gender, of a different appearance, and have to advocate from the position of that new avatar. And that was a very interesting class to see having to take on those issues bodily in the presentation of a person discriminated for having those features, that these are the kinds of things we can do in the metaverse in law.

Steve Grubbs: What I like about that is we always teach people, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Sherman Toppin: Yeah.

Steve Grubbs: If you really want to learn empathy and if you really want to understand what people are going through, I think the Native American saying with something about walking in somebody else’s moccasins, this allows people— maybe just for an hour— but allows them to understand what it’s like to be in a different situation, so that’s real positive. 

And they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but William & Mary is a pretty old law school and pretty good professor. Professor Toppin, we only have a few minutes left, so I want to get to a couple of things that we should cover before we wrap up here. First of all, before I forget, if people want to reach out to you and visit with you, what is the best way to talk to you?

Sherman Toppin: Oh, email. I’m still an email guy. You know sctoppin@wm.edu is my email address, that’s the easiest way. Maybe, I come from the Blackberry generation.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah.

Sherman Toppin: So, that’s the number one thing I use on my device. But I’m also in social media. My handle is Sherman Toppin, my name S-H-E-R-M-A-N-T-O-P-P-I-N on Twitter, Facebook, all of the different social medias. It’s the same. My name is the handle, so it’s easy to find there. 

And I’d love to talk to anybody interested in learning about this space and doing interesting teaching things within this very traditional space, especially in law. I’m going to be teaching ACLE to the Pennsylvania Bar Association in December about virtual land and digital twins and environments about nature. 

Lawyers want to learn, is there a practice area here? And I think that’s something that I’m telling the students that there is. It’s really extrapolated from various areas of law. But there is a budding practice area, just like cybercrime created a practice area in law departments around the country, I think that Metaverse law is going to be a thing. 

And all the laws concerning a digital space is going to crystallize very closely into an area that people study exclusively about it because of the differences and the connection between the terrestrial world and the digital world. That connection and what you do in one, and how it affects rights and responsibilities and enforcement in the other. I feel that will be an area of study that I’m really personally pursuing and we’d like to do more of it.

Steve Grubbs: I know you don’t teach criminal law, but have you seen our new CSI experience?

Sherman Toppin: Yeah. Yes, I have. I tell you, I wish I did teach criminal law.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah. We developed that in cooperation with the University of Maryland Global Campus because they’re a fully remote online school. And they need to be able to teach CSI where it’s a hands-on study. You can’t just learn CSI through videos. Even though that’s how a lot of schools try to teach it, so this is actually hands-on. But I also have thought what a perfect learning environment for Criminal Law One, Criminal Law Two, which I took both of those.

Sherman Toppin: And at the core, that’s a first-year core course. And if we can get instructors and faculty in law schools to see the benefit of using VR technology in the core course, the torts, the criminal law, the constitutional law, or contracts, crim-pro, civil procedure, in those areas, I think if we can break into the core body of first-year courses, I think there’s going to be no turning back. 

And I think that criminal law might be the first entree into that, breaking into that core body. And really trial litigation and trial preparation and the clinics that law schools have around trial prep, it’s automatic. There’s no question that VR technology and this platform would be great for that.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. And so let me ask you this, for example, at Morehouse College, Professor Hamilton did a great job of measuring his real-world class versus his online class versus his metaverse class, and in all, it measured head and shoulders above the other two and so that was really our first evidence that look, Metaverse learning works. Are you thinking about ways to measure the success of this?

Sherman Toppin: Well, I have, and what we’re going to be doing at the end of this semester is having a really intensive poll for students and more as feedback than would be typical because the college and the faculty and the deans, they want to explore expanding this to other areas, and they need to understand what the challenges were, what the risks are—I should say, risks as in dangers. 

But there are always students who have disabilities in learning, students who have certain things. And if we do classes that require students to use a medium that might disadvantage them, we have to account for that in some way. 

So, there’s going to be a lot of debriefing at the end of this semester to measure its results from a learning standpoint and from a safety standpoint. And I have not taught this course. The particular course I teach without VR, I’ve not taught it just online or live. 

So, the question is, can I do the two and see if it works? I don’t know if I’m inclined to with our class, but I do think that the deans feel that if this course shows the kind of results and promise that we think it’s going to show in the exit polls and the student surveys and whatnot, that we will expand the course offering perhaps in 2024 for three courses that play directly into the hand of the Metaverse experience, and then see how supply and demand works, how they play out and get other faculty on board. And so this is what our approach is at William & Mary.

Steve Grubbs: You know thinking about your dean, I don’t know your dean but I do know law school deans, and they’re generally a fairly conservative lot when it comes to change, because you’re right, law school has changed very little in the last 200 years. So, tell me a little bit about your dean and sort of how did this decision come about?

Sherman Toppin: Well, Dean Spencer, he’s an awesome dean. And he’s new in the sense he’s been in the job for about four years now. So, he has pushed the envelope on technology and exposing our students to new types of learning, new areas of study. 

Not only is there metaverse, but there’s a series of AI courses at the law school as well, all driven by his vision for not just innovation in subject study, but in innovation in how we prepare and craft our students. The dean looks at it from a student preparation for the market standpoint. 

How does this course and how do these areas of study help shape our students to make them more competitive in the job market and more effective when it comes to bar passage rates? I think those are the two analytics that they’re looking at. 

So, he’s been a 100% behind how this is, and what he wants to see is how can we, if what is the best way to scale from one class to three, from three classes to eight, and what is the timing? What are the devices? What are the softwares? He wants to understand the whole space. And I really feel that our class is a pilot to leverage a lot of those discussions that’s going to take place in the spring.

Steve Grubbs: That’s great. Okay, final question, Professor Toppiin. I’m assuming that some of our listeners, many of our listeners may be professors or law school professors thinking about how they might approach this. If you had one or two lessons learned that you would pass on, you’d say, “Hey, if I could go back, I would remember to do this. What would that be?”

Sherman Toppin: Number one, looking at the syllabus of study. I would look at what classes, even though we used Metaverse in every class, if I was a new professor looking at this technology and figuring out how to explore it, how to use it, I would look at the syllabus and really pick the types of classes and the type of subjects and the type of modules that would really lend and be augmented by the metaverse experience and consolidate those in two or three, if that is where that professor is thinking, and really prepare the students much in advance. 

And so, in other words, if we’re going to do a metaverse workshop—we call them lab sessions. If we do these lab sessions in week four, week two and three, we’re leading up to it. We’re already going in once working with the tools, making sure that there’s no technical glitch. So, when we do our full class metaverse lab that we go in, we can minimize the inexperience of going in and having technical challenges there and using a whole class to teach the tools. You.ve got to separate learning how to use a device from learning. And I think that’s really the number one thing that professors have to do. 

And two, the content that feeds directly into the metaverse, mapping that out, knowing exactly, “Okay, there’s going to be a mock trial in week 10 of the class.” We’re leading up to the mock trial. Students know they’re going to go into the court home. They know which room they’re going to be in. They know they have all of the tools. They know who’s going to be in the jury. They know where they’re going to stand. That kind of intelligence have almost like a fun low stakes, “Let’s just go in and play the last 10 minutes of class,” have almost a bit of class time arranged just for students to go in and explore. That has been huge. 

Because that exploratory time is where they do all of the things that they would do on a new cell phone or on a new laptop. If they’re in a new social media, they explore, they learn it all but to let the faculty actually lead them down that learning path and show them what—and if I use a third thing, I show the students what I do with the device and with within the context outside of the class content, so they could see that here’s a hammer to hit this nail. 

No, here’s a tool that I use for all this stuff. And that leads them into wanting to understand more my psychology towards the technology. And that is, it is a general-purpose technology. It’s a tool for all things, and it just happens to be one that’s immersive.

Steve Grubbs: Well, Professor Toppin, first of all, I feel very fortunate that you are working with our VictoryXR products. I think we’re blessed to have you. 

And second, you are a trailblazer who when they write the history of law schools in the Metaverse, you’re going to be chapter one, and I appreciate the fact that it’s not easy, you have to put in extra time. It’s easier just to do it the way it’s always been done.

Sherman Toppin: Yes.

Steve Grubbs: But a lot less fun, that’s for sure. So, thank you for coming on and we very much look forward to following your journey.

Sherman Toppin: Thank you, Steve. It’s been a pleasure. Look, man, I look forward to following yours.

Steve Grubbs: And to all of our listeners, we will be back next week with a very fun show that’s actually interviewing the developers and the curriculum specialists that work at VictoryXR to see we’re going to open up the hood and let you take a peek inside. So, thanks for joining us, and we will talk to you again soon.