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UMGC Journeys to the Metaverse, MARS and Beyond

Some Students Will Wear VR Headsets to Attend UMGC

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten

As the fall semester approaches, University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) prepares to take its first step into the “metaverse.” For the first time, a group of students will put on virtual reality (VR) headsets to attend class on a virtual campus modeled after UMGC’s actual facilities.

Students will “gather” to study speech, human resources, education, biology, journalism, astronomy, and criminal justice, among other offerings, as part of a new UMGC Virtual Campus Pilot program conceived by Daniel Mintz and David Johnson. Mintz is the chair of UMGC’s Department of Information Technology. Johnson is the university’s program director for Web and Digital Design. Both work in the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology. 

UMGC is partnering with immersive content developer VictoryXR and Meta (formerly Facebook) Immersive Learning. Meta is donating Meta Quest 2 headsets for students to use.

Among other benefits, Mintz believes that the Immersive Learning program will help build social cohesion among students, something often lacking in online learning. “VR technology will allow students to interact and get to know each other better, which, by itself, will have a tremendous impact on learning,” he said. 

The project has garnered wide attention in the media. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted UMGC as one of the leaders in addressing the data privacy implications of immersive learning. Recent articles in the Washington Business JournalBett Global, and the online publication Protocol also described UMGC’s plans for immersive learning and its benefits. 

The first phase of the pilot will include 15 courses—five per semester—beginning this fall. Courses will meet synchronously once per week in what the university terms a virtual hybrid format. Half will add immersive asynchronous content to the classroom component. In two courses that teach crime scene investigation and examination, a virtual crime scene will allow students—individually or in teams—to interact with pieces of evidence, conduct investigations, and make judgments and decisions to improve their skills. 

For up-to-date information on the initiative, Mintz and Kate Goldberg, collegiate assistant professor of data analytics, have created a monthly newsletter detailing the latest developments with the pilot. 

UMGC Enhances Cybersecurity Learning with a “Mission to MARS”

For years, UMGC has provided a Virtual Security Lab to help prepare its students for careers in cybersecurity. But, as technology advances, so do cyber threats and the need for more cutting-edge training tools. To stay ahead of the curve, beginning in 2020 and continuing through most of 2021, UMGC’s School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology (CIT) embarked on a mission to procure and implement a new virtual learning platform that would provide a technical space for students and faculty to demonstrate applied and hands-on capabilities. 

The result of that initiative came in winter 2022 with the debut of the Multi-Dimensional Applied Relevant System (MARS).  The new platform is now available to the entire UMGC graduate Cyber Operations program and other graduate cyber courses, among them the introductory course for many graduate cyber programs, “Communicating, Problem Solving, and Leading in Cybersecurity” (CBR 600), “Cyberspace and Cybersecurity Foundations” (CST 610 and DFC 610), “Prevention of Cyber Attack Methodologies” (CST 620), “Digital Forensics Technology and Practices” (CST 640 and DFC 620), and “Digital Forensics Response and Analysis” (DFC 630), with a wider strategic rollout slated to continue through fall 2022.

A recent post on the UMGC blog noted how MARS helps cyber students build essential career skills by giving them access to a simulated world driven by artificial intelligence (AI) in which they learn by doing. Specifically, MARS digitally replicates the internet—including websites, servers, businesses, social media, and over 15,000 AI-driven personae—to allow students to develop their competencies and apply principles and methods from the classroom in a real-world environment. 

According to Chad Whistle, senior director of academic projects for the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology, who oversees the project, UMGC plans to expand the reach of the virtual learning environment to include programs within the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Business. 

“MARS has simulators that address national emergency threats, natural disasters and crime scenes,” he said. “It also has simulators for marketing, human resources and project management for students to practice their skill sets using industry-standard educational technology tools and applications.” 

Journeying to MARS and stepping into the metaverse are two new ways UMGC is augmenting traditional online learning to help students gain real-world experience. Whether navigating cyber threats through realistic simulations or enhancing social cohesion through virtual reality, UMGC aims to redefine what “access” means in the classroom.