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The VictoryXR Show – Steve Grubbs Sits Down To Discuss VR and Indiana Wesleyan University’s Digital Twin Metaversity with Robert Jesiolowski and Laura Matheny

Steve Grubbs: Welcome, everybody, I’m Steve Grubbs, your host of the VictoryXR Show. And today, we have Indiana Wesleyan University with us because in the world of immersive learning, in the world of Metaversities, they are doing some really ground-breaking work, and so I’m excited to first introduce you to Dr. Robert Jesiolowski, who’s really the driving force behind the content creation on Indiana Wesleyan’s Metaversity campus. 

So, Dr. Jesiolowski, thank you for joining us, and tell us a little bit about, why are you driving this? Why are you investing time and making this happen when you could be doing something else with your time?

Robert Jesiolowski: First, thank you, Steve, for having me. I appreciate being able to speak. So, in higher education, every couple years, we pull out classes and we review them and revamp them, kind of refreshing them. And we had actually done Social Work 150, which was Introduction to Sociology a couple years ago and it did come around for the rotation, just to take a look at it. 

Now, at this time when I was coming up to revamping it, my daughter who’s 16 was also in college classes and she was taking Introduction to Sociology, and I got to see how my numbingly bored she was with the class, a new generation approaching this type of subject and she just found it exhausting: read a book and take a quiz, read a book, write a paper. 

And so I was thinking: oh my gosh, we’re going to revamp this class, and it’s not going to make it better for people. So, I thought, how can we truly engage? How can we use education to immerse people in this topic? Because sociology can be pretty dry. It’s considered to be a general education, and it’s not really something that people look forward to taking. But the reality is that sociology is the study of the individual in their society. So, it’s them within their community. And that’s really interesting and timely stuff for today, because we live in a world where our social connections are growing exponentially. 

So, I was thinking about how can we make…I was really thinking about my daughter, and how would I connect with someone of her age and that mindset and make this material come to life. And what I came up with was this idea of having a student immersed in a community and having them learn about the concepts of sociology in the course and apply them to a simulated community that grows and thrives from their actions. 

And therefore, it makes sociology, the concepts, come alive, and it makes it a hands-on course that they feel like they have fun with. And when a person has fun, then the learning becomes more meaningful for them. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, well, so first of all, let me tell you this. Sociology was one of my favorite courses at the University of Iowa. I can remember one of the books I just loved as a child was a book called Cheaper by the Dozen, written by some early—well, industrial engineers, but really sociologists. 

And so I’m opening my sociology book, and there is an entire chapter about this husband and wife team who really redefined manufacturing in the United States. And there were other chapters on the Westinghouse Effect and all these really cool things. 

But there was one actually about a study of kids in Iowa that had blue eyes and brown eyes that was sort of very famous. But I love sociology. Thinking about how you pull that off in a synchronous, meaning multi-student, virtual reality world, how does that work? 

Robert Jesiolowski: Well, first place, our online course is not synchronous. It’s asynchronous. So, the only synchronous courses we have in our program are the field courses, when they kind of get to the boards at the end of the program. So, this was an asynchronous class. 

So, what we wanted to do was, instead of having the traditional learning management system, where you go in and you look at your learning modules and you click on and you read stuff and you submit assignments, we wanted the student to be an avatar that they’ve created that reflects who they feel they are moving through a city, and the city becomes really the learning management system. 

There’s an ancient technique called the Method of Loci. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. But it basically is like this memory palace idea that if you want to remember some type of material, you go into your mind and you visualize yourself like moving around. I might move into a castle, and I go up and I open the door and I go to a chest. And I open the chest and I find the material in the chest. And the fact of the visual spatial imagination aspect of that helps you have a deeper retention of the learned material. 

So, we wanted to capture that as also part of this bill. So, we wanted to make it so that the students would travel around the city. They would find the different locations. And each location would have different aspects of the class. 

So, if you want to learn about inequality, you go to the welfare department, you go into the welfare department and you learn about inequality there. You go through simulations and experiences that help you learn at an emotional level, at a deeper level than just cognitive. 

If you want to learn about homelessness, you travel to the park. And in the park, when you enter the park, you enter into a simulation where you become a homeless woman called Rocky. And Rocky is in this park and she’s got all this clutter around here and she lives there. 

And each one of the items is interactable. So, she can pick up items around her and every item keys into a flashback. And so you get the emotional connection, what does this mean to me? What does she remember about it? And then the park is raided. And then you have to decide as Rocky, which items you’re going to grab and take with you. And as you leave the park, you go into a deliverable. So an educational deliverable, where you write about how you felt about that. And so the material about homelessness that you’re learning becomes something that you’ve experienced firsthand. 

Steve Grubbs: That’s awesome. So, the immersiveness is making an impact, which I love. I want to come back to that, but before we do, I want to talk with Lauren a little bit. Now, Lauren, as I understand it, and you can introduce yourself, you were a student in this course. 

And for our audience, Lauren has some challenges that are different than other students. I’m going to let her talk about that. But this was a particularly effective solution in overcoming some of those challenges. So, Lauren, go ahead and introduce yourself and talk about your experience in this course. 

Lauren Matheny: I’m Lauren, and I absolutely love this course. Some of my challenges include I have a diagnosis of ADHD and I also have epilepsy. So, sitting down and reading chapter after chapter and focusing is quite difficult. But the interactive experiences definitely did help me focus and be able to retain the information and get through the course a lot better than I would have if I just had to sit and read and write the paper. 

And definitely, I still remember the experiences and I was able to go through it at my own pace and at my own speed and in a more beneficial way to my learning style than I would have been able to in a more typical learning experience than you would usually get. 

Steve Grubbs: Lauren, break that down for us a little bit. You went into this course and you would go into specific classes to learn whatever. What are some of the things that you did that you either interacted with or that were immersive that made the content more memorable but easier to learn? 

Lauren Matheny: So, there was one interactive one that was an Anne Frank experience. So, you would go in and you would do a walkthrough of where Anne Frank hid with her family. And then after the interactive walkthrough and you saw some of Anne Frank’s writing and some of Anne Frank’s belongings and read through some of her diary and some of her living space, after you would go through that experience, you would see a memo from her and you would fill in some of the blanks and the information based on that learning experience instead of reading chapter after chapter after chapter and trying to retain that information and then fill out the memo. 

You would instead have that interactive experience and then fill out that memo. And that was very helpful for me because I was able to retain that information a lot better than I would have just reading chapters in a book. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. If it’s true that a picture is worth 1,000 words, then an interactive, immersive environment must be worth 10,000 words. And the research that we’ve seen at Morehouse College, for example, you know, Morehouse launched their metaversity during the pandemic. And they taught the exact same course, history, world history. They taught it in a brick and mortar classroom. They taught it through a tool like Zoom, 2D, sort of what we’re doing here. And then third, they taught it on their metaversity campus. 

And then at the end of each of those courses, they measured three things. They measured student engagement, measured by class attendants. They measured student satisfaction, which was surveyed. And then third, student achievement, which was measured through grades. And in all three of those measurements, the metaversity campus was head and shoulders above the other two. And so, that was really good data for us to rely on as we moved forward in visiting with other universities. 

And Dr. Jesiolowski, talk to us a little bit about when you’re constructing these courses, what are you thinking about pedagogically that you want to achieve to be able to deliver the content, even though they may not be reading as much as they would in a traditional setting. 

Robert Jesiolowski: Yeah, that’s a good question. I do want to also note that we do have a text in the course, but we used an open educational resource for our text, so it was a free textbook. It was online, so there was no textbook costs for the students to access that. And that would serve as—It would serve as a resource for them to refer back to. Especially, as we got farther and farther into the build, we realized we had to make a choice of if we were going to stay with traditional classwork or if we were going to deconstruct the concept of a higher educational class.

And so in doing that, we got rid of several things that are kind of core components of traditional classrooms like rubrics and linear study and those type of things. We don’t have workshops in this class. You don’t have a weekly due date. It’s an open environment and the students sets their own pace. They decide how they want to learn and what they want to learn first. One of the things we really focused on—and back to your question about pedagogical, the kind of underpinnings of this—one of the things we really wanted to focus on was removing the fear of failure and allowing students to learn from their mistake.

So, on a traditional course, Week One, you may write a paper about what is sociology? Now, Week Two, you may write a paper on Social Stratification that builds on what is sociology and then Week Three, maybe social status, and they all build off of each other. And that’s a good system, but the problem is that if the student got a poor grade on what is sociology, then they have a shaky foundation as they’re moving forward. And there’s so much pressure to get it right the first time.

Then we introduced this idea that the students turn in these grades and they either get a pass or a try again. And if they do that, they can learn from my input or in the future, another instructor’s input and resubmit grades or assignments or deliverables until they get it right.

Now, they have a time frame to do that, so it’s all based on their own motivation and how much work they want to put in, but they can learn from what they did wrong the first time and kind of get better and better and better. And that was something that came through in our end-of-course surveys. We did a series of surveys with this. We taught the pilot course as a VR course at the same time as we’re teaching it as a typical online course. So, we got to do some data between the two.

Now, starting in November, we’re going to run three different sections of the course. We’re going to run the regular class, normally how it is online, we’re going to run the VR course like we just ran a pilot, and we’re going to run what we call a 2D course, which is we’re going to try to take all the material and put it into a class so they don’t actually have to have headsets on, they can watch others. And we’re going to do comparisons between the three of them.

But one of the things that came out really strong in the surveys was students like the idea love not having all that pressure to get it right the first time. Trying and failing and then learning from your mistakes and trying again, seem to have a huge impact on success ratios. Our students scored dramatically higher in the VR course than they do in the regular class. And I believe that’s one of the core components of why that was so successful 

Steve Grubbs: Interesting. And so when you say “dramatically higher,” are you able to define that anymore, drill down on that a little bit? 

Robert Jesiolowski: Well, we already have one class to compare, but the classes we’re teaching, our students scored A’s and B’s in the VR class, and we had one student who literally just kind of gave up on the class right at the beginning, and I couldn’t engage her to kind of come back in. So, we had our all our scores were ranking above B’s and A’s. 

In the regular class, it’s a tough class for students to start off with. We have a lot of C’s and below. So, I don’t have direct numbers on that because the population of that would be so, so low, because we only had seven students in this VR class right now. Now as we go forward in a year from now, ask me the same question. I’ll have a better answer for you. 

Steve Grubbs: And I will do so. And your early results are very similar to what they found at Morehouse. And so our hope is that we…and it makes sense, when you are in an immersive metaversity VR world, you’re focused. And so Lauren, what type of headset were you using in this class? And was it a headset that you owned or is it one provided by the school? 

Lauren Matheny: It’s one that I owned. I had a Quest 2. 

Steve Grubbs: Excellent. And tell me what your experience was with the Quest 2. Did you like it? Did you not like it? Or what did you like about it? 

Lauren Matheny: I liked it. It’s one that I had. I didn’t really play it much before. Actually, I had bought it for my daughter because she like Beat Saber. So, it was just one I had at home that my daughter like to play on, so I just used it instead of getting one from the school. Because I figured if I have one, why risk breaking one that I was borrowing. So, it was just one that I had at home. I liked it. 

Like I said, I’d never really used it much. I’m more of a PS5 player, so PC gaming, but I liked it. It was easy to navigate. I like the smoothness of the controls. So, really, I enjoyed the class, you know?

Steve Grubbs: And let me ask you this, the learning curve. So, like thinking back, when somebody learns to drive, and I can remember my dad took me out in a parking lot and I sort of got my feet wet and then I took driver’s ed and that was a full semester. But learning to drive a VR headset, it’s a little bit the same, just, you pick it up pretty quickly. Talk to us about your journey from first putting it on to really becoming comfortable using the headset, knowing where the buttons are and navigating around in a headset. 

Lauren Matheny: It was honestly pretty easy because when you look down, it had on-screen guides. It was really, really easy to figure out pretty quickly. It had menu button. I mean, it was very, very user-friendly. It was very easy to navigate. 

Steve Grubbs: And were there any environments that you went into that you just said, wow, that blows my mind? Or was it all just sort of standard? 

Lauren Matheny: It was really pretty, a lot of them. Like, there were the science ones and then there was one that we went to, because there was an orientation and we went into like the forest and there was some really, really pretty scenery that we ended up going into. It was very, very nice. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, one of the studies I saw from a Taiwanese university, they put, I think it was an EKG on the brains of these Chinese students that were learning in class, learning online, and then learning in a VR headset, and then they measured the electrical activity that was going on in their brain. And in class, there wasn’t much electrical activity. In the online class, there’s a little more, but then in the VR headset, it just lit up because they were getting so much information coming in, and they were so engaged with it that the electrical activity was just working all over. 

And I think that’s sort of the physiological piece of why students learn, because their mind is completely engaged. Is that the experience you had, Lauren, or something different? 

Lauren Matheny: It was very engaging. I really enjoyed it, especially the walking through and being able to like navigate and you could teleport and you could go up and you could actually interact with different things on the screen and you could build and you could pull things in and you could just all of a sudden have a shark in your road. And I mean, it was a lot of fun, honestly, just creating your own world within a city that was created for you. So, I enjoyed it. 

Steve Grubbs: Last question for you, Lauren. So, you’ve been diagnosed with a particular type of epilepsy. And what is it that you have to be aware of, trying to avoid, and how did it work out for you with this condition inside a virtual reality headset that’s got a lot of stimulation coming your way? 

Lauren Matheny: I have to be aware of like strobe effects, flashing lights, certain things. I have to just make sure I’m very, very aware of fast changing, things like that. But honestly, there wasn’t any. The way that I normally know that I’m having a seizure is I’ll get a strong smell disturbance and I had absolutely none. 

So, I don’t have—what people know is like dropping on the ground seizures, and I don’t have anything like that towards like, oh, this is, you know, terrifying for everyone around you. I know when I’m having a seizure, because I’ll get like strong smell disturbances or I’ll pause and I’ll freeze and I’ll stare blankly. I didn’t have any types of those. 

I’ll know that I’m having a seizure. I’ll have a very, very severe headache and I’ll know when to avoid the headset because even the one day I woke up and I told Dr. Rob, like, “Yeah, today is going to be an offline learning day. I’m going to read through the book. I’m not going to have the headset on today because I know I need to call my neurologist. I woke up with a strong headache. I’m going to have my offline learning. I’m going to read through the chapters. Tomorrow I’m going to do my online headset stuff just so I don’t risk anything.” But I honestly didn’t experience any type of seizure activity while I was in headset. I just wanted to take extra precautions, but there were no flashing lights, no effects. I had absolutely no ill effects at all during any of the classes in headset. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s great. For us, building this product and this world, those are the things you want to hear. And so I appreciate you sharing your perspective on that. Dr. Jesiolowski, let’s talk a little bit about what our—first of all, talk to me about the mechanics of how you deployed your program. You had a certain number of headsets you were able to share and how did that work out? Or did you have to ship those headsets or did students come in and pick them up? 

Robert Jesiolowski: Right. Well, okay, so in our pilot, we shipped all the headsets out with a kind of a prototype contract that just indicated that they were being provided for free for the use in the course and that at the end of the class that there was an expectation that they send them back, we provided the postage free of any kind of damage or anything. And that if there was damage, then there would have to be a fee involved with that. 

Moving forward, because we’re trying to figure out how to set this up so that we can continuously offer this. And we offer Introduction to Sociology constantly, two times a term. So, we’re trying to get enough headsets and stagger it so that there can be a set out, and the set being whatever, revamped after they come back, reclaim maybe new cushions and all that put on. 

And they’re working on redoing the contract as well. There’s been more of a push that the headsets might be charged to financial aid upfront, but then refunded back when they receive them back. And that’s all being dealt with. Levels above my head sort of, speak, but they’re trying to figure out…Because our next go is going to be in November, so they want to figure out the contract and all that by then. 

Steve Grubbs:  Let me ask you this about that particular issue. Was Lauren your only student who had her own headset or did others maybe have it? 

Robert Jesiolowski: This first run, she was the only one. So, we worked with our enrollment team. And when they were enrolling students, there was a question they asked them: would you be interested in this type of class? And if so, here’s kind of the parameters of the class. Here’s any concerns if you have any kind of these disorders, you might not want to. And as part of that kind of question process, they said, do you have your own headsets or would you need one sent to you? So, our enrollment team really handled all the preliminary of getting people brought in. Yeah. 

Steve Grubbs: So, first of all, when they came back, did any of them come back damaged or were they…? 

Robert Jesiolowski: The only issue we had is one came back with a heavy smoke. It must have been a smoking house, a house with a smoker because it came back kind of smelling of smoke. So, they replaced—they took it apart, they cleaned it with a special cleaner that removes the scents and then they put new cushions on it. And that takes a little bit of time, but we’re developing those systems so that we can have it running. Since this is a pilot program, if we can get it going, then I can kind of gently push for more classes to be done in this way. That’s my goal. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And what’s interesting to me is really, first of all, these headsets are built to withstand 14-year-old boys gaming in them. So, they can withstand a lot. But I would also say that if you spend $300 per headset and you get six semesters out of it, three years, which one should be able to, essentially, you could charge students $50, $60 per semester and break even on the headset. And I wouldn’t think that for most students, $50 or $60 would be too much, especially if they’re able to bypass the textbook charge. 

Robert Jesiolowski: Oh, yeah, textbook will cost you much more than that these days. So one of the things we put in that we haven’t touched on was our Boss Battles. I wouldn’t mind just sharing that with you real quick if that’s possible, Steve. I didn’t know if Laura was going to mention them before, but since we did it as a nonlinear study where students can go any direction they want, right? There were different neighborhoods in the city that they could complete. 

There were five different neighborhoods, and they could choose to just work on one neighborhood, like Downtown Square or Campus Town or whatever, they can work on that one thing and finish it or they could jump around, like Lauren had told and she’d like to jump around to the different areas. 

But we wanted to make sure at the completion of each neighborhood, that there was like basically the effect of a final exam for that neighborhood. And how we designed it was, so students are walking around in the immersive city. We call it a Curios City. And so they’re walking around Curios City and if they find key persons, there’s one key person in each of the neighborhoods. So, in Town Square, it’s the mayor. In Campus Town, it’s the dean. In Downtown, it’s the social worker. 

So, there’s one key person, and when you find the key person, you’re able to go into a dialogue with this person. And what it is, is you sit down in their office or whatever and you talk to them and they ask you questions and the entire dialogue between you and this—not AI, because it was recorded. But it’s being recorded and then sent to me. So, what we’ve actually done is taken an essay exam and we re-envisioned it as a dialogue. And students seem to react really well. 

Now, this is the point where in the pilot, we really had to keep tweaking it and going back and making sure it’s working right. If anybody’s freezing up or anything, but it seemed like there was a lot of really good reaction to doing the exams as just discussions that you have. 

And then if you’re going through the discussion and you’re like, “Boy, you know, I don’t really know what social stratification is.” You’re able to stop and go, “You know what, I need to reschedule this appointment for another day and go back and research it and then come back again and try it again.” So…

Steve Grubbs: Interesting. And as you may know, Dr. Jesiolowski, we are folding in AI, conversant tutors, instructors and historical figures. In fact, this morning, I went into Edison’s lab and had a conversation with Thomas Edison. 

It was a little bit funny. We’re still tweaking what’s in his brain, but at one point I asked him, I said, “Dr. Edison, it’s great to meet you. How are you feeling today?” And he basically said, “Look, I’m dead. I don’t feel anything.” 

But we have a lot of hope for how you might be able to integrate AI characters. And we’re going to give you the ability to build your own AI characters for your classes. So, thinking about that, what are some of the things you might like to do if you have that ability? 

Robert Jesiolowski: Well, okay, I have a lot of ideas. And I will tend to like, okay, hold back a little at a time. But one of the things they do, and Lauren went through this exercise in the Introduction to Sociology course, they do a thing called the Poverty Project. 

So, they have a certain amount of money that they are allowed to spend every day and rules to live in their real life, right? So, I think… I can’t remember what it is, like $10 a day they have to live on, right, Lauren? 

Okay. And so then they have to keep track of that experience. Like I’m only allowed to shower with a cold shower for five minutes a day for the seven days, and I’m only allowed to spend this much money on food. And I’m only allowed to drive this far. And after that amount, I have to pay money out of my 10 dollars. So, there’s this whole poverty project that we have them do in the real world. And then they talk about it. 

I’ve been talking with our…We have kind of our own team here that, you know, the built instructional team, what I would like to do is add in, take out the concept of that they get $10 a day. And I’d really like to add in an augmented reality piece where they have to go out into their community and get the money, beg for the money, ask for the money. But what they’re doing is that we have AI capable on their phone. 

So, they’d walk around and there’d be an AI character there and they’d have to approach the AI character in their own neighborhood, and ask them, “Hey, do you have any money?” In experience, what it feels like to beg, and then that AI would have the choice of how they’re going to respond. 

Do they give them money? Do they tell them to get out? Do they tell them they’re going to call the police? And so it would be a safe way, I think, to have that experience and to get a deeper understanding of people who are really struggling with abject poverty, and I think it’d be more meaningful than just following a set of rules. 

So, I pitched that idea and like a lot of my ideas, it’s like, okay, well, let’s come back to that. And so maybe as this pilot goes forward, I’d like to see us add that augmented reality piece into it as well with some AI components. 

Steve Grubbs: I can say this, the augmented reality piece for us is probably a year away. I mean, we could do it now, but just on our roadmap. But we could do something very similar, take that same city scene, and put the conversive AI in there. You can build your own character. So there’s a lot of flexibility there. 

Robert Jesiolowski: We might be able to undo the Poverty Project as your avatar because they’re guiding them around Curios City. It’d be nice to add in some AI characters in there because as you’re in the city, if there’s other students, you can actually bump into other students and converse with them or myself if I’m walking around. But it would be nice to have like an AI population that’s moving around, to make it a little bit more, even more real. 

Steve Grubbs: Well, that’s where we’re going and you could probably start that next semester if you work with our team. So, Lauren, before we wrap up here, we’re at the end of our time, but any last thoughts that you want to convey to this audience trying to figure out this whole immersive learning component to higher education? 

Lauren Matheny: No, I’m just interested to see how far it’ll go. It was definitely a really good experience to have and I’m glad I got to be a part of it. 

Steve Grubbs: Well, wonderful. And I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us here today. Dr. Jesiolowski, any wrap up comments for our audience today? 

Robert Jesiolowski: Just that, I mean, I think education should be fun. And learning should be meaningful to us. If it’s just concepts or vocabulary that we’re learning, it needs to be broken down so that it becomes real and we see the applicability to our lives. And I think that using a game setting in a VR is a perfect way to kind of make these things come alive. And I think there’s a wide range across the behavioral sciences that haven’t been tapped into, haven’t tapped into this technology and this modality of education yet. But I think if we can and move forward with these ideas and take chances, we can create an educational system that not only transfers knowledge, but also inspires students to love learning. 

Well, my final remarks are right in line with yours. You know, for most of human history, we learned in the real world, out in the wild, if there’s only a small slice of human history where we have domesticated education and required students to sit in rows and at desks and to learn that way. 

And there’s a lot of value to that, but this gives us the ability to allow humans to learn like we’ve always learned, out in the wild, out in the world, even if initially it’s a 3D immersive world. It’s much closer to how we know to learn. 

So, Dr. Jesiolowski, Lauren, thank you so much for joining us today on the Victory XR Show. We appreciate it. And to all of our listeners and watchers, we appreciate you checking in to see what we’re doing and feel free to reach out to us. Again, I’m Steve Grubbs, your Victory XR host, and you can always email me at steve@victoryxr.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thank you.