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Morehouse College class will teach Black history in the metaverse

Students have toured the Underground Railroad, a slave ship and other artifacts using virtual reality technology.
A virtual slave ship used in a Morehouse College class.
Students at Morehouse College are able to experience a virtual slave ship through virtual reality technology.Morehouse College

This spring, Ovell Hamilton, a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, will guide students through a first-of-its-kind course in which Black history is taught entirely through the metaverse, a virtual 3D space where people can interact with one another using avatars.  

During class, students will don virtual reality headsets to see firsthand the brutal reality of enslaved Africans lying in chains on top of one another in a slave ship and see an enslaved person standing on the edge of the vessel, facing the harrowing choice between life in bondage or freedom in death.

“It definitely evokes emotions of sorrow,” said Morehouse sophomore Jerad Evan Young, 41, who is Black and is majoring in cinema, television and emerging media studies. He virtually toured the Underground Railroad and a slave ship in Hamilton’s world history class. “Also, there’s a sense of pride because not everybody made it through the slave trade. You know, you had to really be a strong individual. So, that let me know that my ancestors were strong enough to last that grueling journey across the sea.”

A virtual slave ship used in a Morehouse College class.
The depiction of a slave ship in the metaverse used in a Morehouse College class.Morehouse College

When Morehouse College made history by launching its first class in the metaverse last spring, Hamilton was one of 11 professors to teach students using virtual reality technology. Partnering with the VR tech company VictoryXR, Hamilton is creating his first full course in the metaverse on Black history. Through the metaverse, students will be able to experience what it was like attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, or see the Little Rock Nine as they entered an all-white high school in Arkansas in 1957. They can also tour a slave ship.

The new course, titled “History of the African Diaspora Since 1800,” falls under the Virtual Reality Project, which uses VR in teaching about Black history while fostering a sense of community. Inspired by “Journey for Civil Rights,” a Black history course Hamilton taught in the spring through VictoryXR separate from the university, his new course will start from the Haitian Revolution leading up to the civil rights movement.

It will use much of the same content to recreate important moments and artifacts in Black history, including La Amistad slave ship, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (where King preached), and battlefields where students can see Black soldiers during the Civil War and World War I. Teaching students in the metaverse, he adds, gives his students a better understanding of the material he’s teaching while making them more engaged and excited to learn.

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall during the "March on Washington" on Aug. 28, 1963.
In a new class taught in the metaverse, students will be able to virtually experience Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. AFP via Getty Images

“That is an experience that they would not have if they were sitting in a classroom, if they were sitting in a lecture,” Hamilton said. “When you go there and see the bottom of a slave ship, see the slaves packed in together … you will have a new appreciation and you have a greater knowledge of how the events took place.”

Through 3D creation tools, Hamilton created worlds to teach his curriculum in the metaverse, like Dinosaur Island, a virtual world he designed where students can view dinosaurs and a primitive landscape “to see the true experience,” he said. Hamilton says he also took students to the Roman Colosseum and other landscapes in time periods like the Middle Ages.

Morehouse College history professor Ovell Hamilton.
Morehouse College history professor Ovell Hamilton.Courtesy Ovell Hamilton

Kade Davis, 18, a freshman majoring in sociology who is also taking Hamilton’s world history class, said that the metaverse allows him to engage with others and “join different rooms to get to see what other classes are talking about.” He also said that one of the experiences the metaverse has given him is the ability to travel, like to the Mayan pyramids in Mexico. 

Students viewed “each part of the pyramid,” Davis said, and were able to ask questions on what they saw. “It was impressive to see that … like, outside of a textbook and be able to articulate and immerse in the environment and actually learn more about it,” he added.

Muhsinah Morris, an assistant professor in chemistry at Morehouse and director of the Virtual Reality Project, said the initiative was introduced in the fall of 2020 to counteract the increasing number of students who were withdrawing after classes fully transitioned to remote learning. Determined to find an innovative way to engage students, Morehouse partnered with VictoryXR to help teach courses on a virtual “metaversity” campus.

“In the traditional classroom setting … we can’t all just be transported to the Great Wall of China or back in time or into some futuristic event,” Morris said. “You can do that in virtual reality.”

Muhsinah Morris, Ph.D, director of the Virtual Reality Project at Morehouse College.
Muhsinah Morris is the director of the Virtual Reality Project at Morehouse College.Muhsinah Morris

Morehouse College offers 10 courses in the metaverse in topics across departments of journalism, English, biology, sociology and more. Since its launch, almost 500 students have taken classes under the program, with over 170 students enrolled in the current fall semester. Aside from taking courses in the metaverse, students also participate in hands-on training to develop real-time 3D worlds through creation tools called Unity and Unreal Engine.

Morris said the goal of the program is to “overcome 20 generations of what could not be.”

“Young Black men and Black people in America for 20 generations were kept from becoming educated,” said Morris, whose husband and two of her sons work in tech. “And the only thing that I think can overcome those 20 generations is having ownership and autonomy in a space that is technologically moving things forward.”

While the metaverse serves as a unique learning environment, it also is expanding as a regular communal space. In February, the college launched “Meditation Mondays,” so students can meet in the metaverse and talk about “issues that plagued them,” she said. The university has also hosted a series of other events in the metaverse, including an annual gala and a commencement ceremony.

Morehouse College students attending a “Meditation Mondays” event in space within the metaverse.
Morehouse College students attending a “Meditation Mondays” event in space within the metaverse.Morehouse College

Young said that the metaverse offers a sense of community. 

“I got the chance to interact with everybody in class and then get to know people,” Young said. “My other brothers, I’d see them on the quad, and they’re like ‘Hey Evan,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’” Once he learned their names, Young realized they’d already met — in the metaverse.