Teaching African American Literature in Virtual Reality

A professor at Morehouse College has transported African American literature to the virtual classroom, a recent example of how higher ed has embraced the metaverse.
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  • Dr. Tanya Clark discussed African American literature in a virtual reality classroom. The XR Women event took place on Morehouse College’s virtual campus.
  • She explained her method of teaching by relating Morehouse College’s mission, culturally responsive pedagogy, and virtual reality to each other.
  • Clark, who still believes in face-to-face instruction, says these tools for teaching can enhance immersive learning.

It looks like a bright August day on the campus of Morehouse College, a private historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Atlanta. But you don’t see students rushing to summer classes or playing Spikeball on the quad.

Instead, you see a crowd assembling in front of the statue of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, getting ready for a special event.

Karen Alexander, co-founder of XR Women, and Dr. Tanya Clark, an assistant professor of English and Africana studies, stand in front of the statue greeting attendees.

This might seem like any other day of campus programming on the grounds of the historic men’s college, except for one thing: It’s happening entirely in the metaverse.

On Aug. 3, XR Women hosted Clark at Morehouse to speak about experiencing African American literature in a virtual reality classroom.

Once informal networking ended among the lifelike virtual avatars, Clark teleported all attendees to her literature lounge, where she hosts lectures.

Rich bookcases lined the walls next to ceiling-to-floor windows. The atmosphere was smokey and lounge-like, with rich leather chairs and loveseats. Next to the doors was a fireplace crowned with the letters of Delta Sigma Theta sorority

Before handing the presentation to Clark, Alexander reviewed XR Women’s mission.

XR Women is an organization that supports women in education in virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. The goal is to create a community for women in extended reality (XR).

Alexander, Sarah Klein, Sophia Moshasha, and Julie Smithson founded the organization in 2020. They hosted their first meeting in November 2020 on the Immersive Learning Research Network's Virbela virtual campus.

The organization decided to take a field trip off Virbela to Morehouse.

Settled in her chair, between the windows and two life-size Google Slides, Clark was ready to begin the day’s lesson.

Trailblazing a Virtual Reality Classroom Literature Experience

Clark began the seminar by presenting the curriculum for her first-year experience course, “Blacks in Wonderland,” an honors course at Morehouse College focused on Afrofuturism and other literature.

One of her favorite modules in the class is the comic “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” by Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil. Students build a museum over four weeks on Muhammad Ali and how he would interact with a modern athlete of their choice who is vocal on political and social justice.

She got the idea from a planned school trip to the Muhammad Ali Center — which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When Clark discovered the center didn’t have a 3D museum tour, she gave her students a task: Create one.

Students brought in self-made 3D objects. And on stressful days, they would even pretend to box in the virtual boxing ring in the museum during the semester, said Clark.

This wasn’t the first time Clark had worked in virtual reality.

Clark’s first virtual reality role at Morehouse was teaching the English portion of inorganic chemistry, men’s health, and an English interdisciplinary class focused on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Cells from Lacks, a Black woman diagnosed with cancer, were taken without consent and led to one of the most important cell lines in medical history, called HeLa cells.

In the classroom, they visualized Lacks’ transformation from woman to cancer patient to HeLa cells. They used graphics on the wall, manipulating the science to enhance immersion into Lacks’ life. The virtual classroom solved the issue of an intersectional STEM and English course by integrating the two distinct environments into one.

In a later module of “Blacks in Wonderland,” the class focused on the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred.”

Clark found another way to enhance students’ connection to history and Dana, the main character.

The novel is about a girl named Dana who is inexplicably transported back and forth between the era of slavery and her current time, the 1970s. Clark said that a big theme of Dana’s experience is displacement and discomfort, a loss of control over one’s body.

Clark asked the VR platform Engage to build La Amistad, a slave ship named after the old Spanish ship where enslaved people revolted.

The ship would be an immersive environment with enslaved people in inhumane conditions similar to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

She had to do a lot of prep work for their students since being immersed in a slave trade ship could be traumatic. She constantly surveyed and checked in with students on their mental well-being.

“It would be weird to say they enjoyed the experience, but the students said they really appreciated the experience and being able to interact with history,” said Clark. “The students explored the question: How does slavery continue to impact who I am?”

Integrating Virtual Reality With Student-Centered Pedagogy

“Our mission, student body/demographics, and geographical across history necessitate culturally responsive pedagogical practices to support learning and growth,” Clark wrote in her presentation.

Clark was one of four professors to first teach virtual reality courses at Morehouse College. Initially, they received a donation from Qualcomm Technologies to create a virtual campus and infrastructure for classes that they asked VictoryXR to create.

Students would have the benefit of an in-person class with remote technology integration. They would be able to move in virtual space to have private conversations. And they could work in groups at virtual tables and desks using 3D proximity voice.

In the Engage platform, students can create surveys, take tests, display videos, and use avatars with bodies and clothes customized to look like them.

To begin her VR content, Clark highlighted culturally responsive pedagogy and the Morehouse College mission: “To develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service.”

Culturally responsive pedagogy is “a student-centered approach to teaching in which the students' unique cultural strengths are identified and nurtured to promote student achievement and a sense of well-being about the student's cultural place in the world,” according to The Edvocate.

Clark used an equation to explain her approach to virtual reality and culturally responsive pedagogy:

The college’s mission

The need to support students in their social-emotional health, racial, cultural, and sexual identities Virtual reality for hands-on, experiential, and scaffolded teaching practices Interdisciplinary real-world problem-solving, critical thinking, cultural immersion, global lived experiences, multimodal increased engagement, cultural vibrancy, excitement for learning technology competence.

Are Virtual Reality Classrooms the Future of Education?

“I’m still old school; there’s still value in face-to-face interaction," said Clark. "As far as possibilities, students appreciate other cultures quicker in virtual reality than just reading about it.”

She emphasized how students would become exhausted with flip-flopping between different modes of virtual/in-person instruction over the past semester.

Incoming teachers and professors need to learn this technology for an enriched classroom experience, said Clark.

Dr. Muhsinah Morris, the academic program director and assistant professor of chemistry, closed the session by saying Morehouse will have 10 metaversity courses this fall.

Virtual reality courses are not discipline-specific nor only for the pandemic, but they are the future of instruction, said Morris.