“Teaching in the metaverse is much closer to being in the classroom than in an online session”

“Teaching in the metaverse is much closer to being in the classroom than in an online session”

Innovation & technology 24 February 2022

Esteve Almirall

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Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have a huge role in the Metaverse, one of the most trending innovations of this year. Education is no stranger to this new reality and the potential for teachers and students is unlimited.

In this podcast, Esteve Almirall, Esade Professor of Innovation and Data Analysis, talks with Frank Piller, professor of technology and innovation management at RWTH Aachen University, on the future of Education and its intersections with technology and innovation.


Esteve Almirall: Welcome to the Esade Innovation podcast. As you may know, Esade these days is hosting the EdTech vertical, and this vertical is about technology and education as part of the Mobile World Congress’ 4 Years from Now. So, today, we’ll talk about technology and education and how it has been evolving. The following is a conversation with Professor Frank Piller, who is from RWTH Business School at Aachen University and he is one of the pioneers in virtual reality, augmented reality and hybrid education. In fact, he discovered the metaverse well before the people at Meta thought the metaverse existed.

So, thank you so much and welcome, Professor Piller, and thank you so much for being with Esade and helping us in this podcast.

Frank Piller: Yeah, it’s my pleasure to be with you. Thanks a lot for the invitation.

Esteve Almirall: Thanks a lot and welcome to the Esade podcast. And we have a list of questions for you. The first question is about the history of these podcasts in the line of education. You indicate we use the imagination of the students and now we use imagination to create scenarios through cases and that this has been the method of business schools, these cases with the imagination of students to create hypothetical situations. MOOCs and SPOCs, small private online courses, appeared and then changed all this and so on. But these days, we’re thinking about the metaverse and the evolution of the metaverse in all these scenarios. How do you see this evolution from cases and imagination to making this imagination more real in virtual reality?

Frank Piller: So, I would say, in general, it’s always complementary, meaning we are always adding another alternative but still having the old established forms. So, for me, personally, in 2012, so almost 10 years ago, I got rid of lectures at Aachen. As I said then, it’s a waste of time to always give different students the same kind of lecture. But, I used this flipped-classroom format, so, first recording my lectures on video, giving these lectures to students via video beforehand, and then using the time in the class only for discussions and interactions. And I did it with large classes where there were 1500 students, you know, and small Master’s-level classes with 20 students and I think it worked perfectly. And, then, once we had the videos, we said, “Oh, we can also do it as a MOOC, you know, with edX and other platforms.” And, again, we saw that we could also actually use the same videos for in-house corporate education programmes, perhaps in a video setting.

So, by exploring these technologies, I just saw more abilities to customise the same content to different audiences and, perhaps, in the end, the same will happen with the metaverse. I personally discovered the metaverse not in a teaching context. But, already, back in the mid 2000s, I was on the board of a company in Canada, in Montreal, called Myvirtualmodel. And they were really pioneers in digital twins of humans and had wonderful solutions many, many years too early. They burned more than 100 million dollars as we were all much too early in this field, but this is when I got exposed to avatars and first life and second life and so on. But I never really thought about teaching; this just happened more recently. And so this is what I’m now exploring. It’s just another element, you know, in the repertoire of teaching.

Esteve Almirall: Oh, yes… And, in these years, particularly because of COVID, we’ve all been exposed and involved in online education, synchronous online education, recorded online education with a variety of tools and so on. But, you’re a pioneer in all these fields. If you had to compare virtual and augmented reality with these methods that many of us discovered because of COVID and that you and others had already discovered, what do you think are the main differences between these methods?

Frank Piller: I would say it’s very different. So, for me, a key change, and we’ll probably talk more about this and what I do in detail later on, but, for me, teaching in virtual reality, in the metaverse, is really not… I would compare it to classroom teaching, you know, in-person classroom teaching. I would not compare it to an online class. And, for me, doing something in the metaverse is much closer to doing something in the classroom than what you would do in an online deliverable, you know, on MOOC, or with teaching videos and so on. This is probably what is evolving in my landscape.

So, we have these in-person interactions, and they can be very rich discussions, very interactive things, where we have, either in a classroom, in a hotel room or in the metaverse. Or you have these totally self-paced online classes, which are perfect to deliver content, to deliver skills, competences and so on, but self-paced online learning where there is peer-to-peer interactions. And then we’ll probably have something in between like what we now do in Zoom, you know, that we have live meetings in Zoom with a larger group. But, somehow, the latter, live teaching in Zoom or even worse in Teams… They are not so good platforms. This is, somehow, something in between. And, then, of course, we have to think when, you know, we go to these really rich interactions, what we normally do in class, do we really have to travel or can we do it in the metaverse, in a VR environment?

Esteve Almirall: That’s fantastic. We were all surprised by a PwC, Price Waterhouse Cooper, study that was comparing virtual reality, what we now call the metaverse, avatars and so on with traditional training. The results were fantastic. They found that it’s four times faster in terms of training, particularly compared to in-class education, two times faster than online education, four times more focused, and this refers to engagement, our big problem, in classes, in particular with these new generations that have so many screens, so many screens everywhere. It was even more surprising because it was four times more emotionally connected to students than in traditional in-class experiences, and so on. What do you think? Is the metaverse the future of education?

Frank Piller: Well, it definitely is one future, you know, one of many futures. If I consider the numbers you just shared, I don’t know if it’s four times more, but I can agree with it. So, perhaps, let’s share a little bit with the audience what I’m doing, basically, in VR. At this moment, I use it for executive professional education classes. These are classes which are open-enrolment classes, typical for business schools. In my case, one is on Industry 4.0, the other on intelligent engineering, so the digitalisation of the innovation and engineering processes. And, before coronavirus, we had people stay in a suite for four days in a nice hotel, or on campus in our executive teaching rooms, and we had rich interactions, lectures, group talks, company visits, you know, factories of the future visits and so on.

Now we’ve changed this to virtual reality, and we meet with these people over a week, 5 hours a day in virtual reality. Before, these people get an Oculus Quest in their homes, they get half an hour of on-boarding so that they know how to connect this headset to their home or office Wi-Fi and learn to operate it, and then we, really, more or less, do the teaching there. So we spend nearly 25 hours in virtual reality over the course of a week.

And, here, I learned exactly what we can actually see in the PwC study that, first, on the feedback day, they all tell us, traditionally, you know, that all the content was vast, but now they often tell us, “Wow! This was like a spa. I really had to focus on one thing”. The biggest advantage of virtual reality is that you don’t have a second screen. You can’t multitask. You really have to focus, you know, on that one issue, and this is actually very, very demanding. So, therefore, after one hour, we always have to give people a break and say, “Take a screen break. Look out the window. Go for a short walk to relax your eyes”. But you really have to be focused.

Then, also, the way how you present slides and that really works with today’s technology is that you really need 40-point text with very thick lines, meaning that you really have to reduce your content. And this forces me as a professor to really think about the essence of my trainings, of my lectures. And, I think, in the end, it really helps us give the same message in a really much more focused time. And, what we also learned about is this emotional connect. And there are different platforms that we use. We have one platform, the one I mainly use in which all the students, all the participants, are generic avatars. They all look the same, but you can change your colour and at the top of your virtual avatar head is your name and your company or affiliation. And, actually, this is great because it reduces all the biases. Everyone is the same. We don’t think, “Oh, this person looks a little bit strange; I don’t trust her or him”, you know? And, you have this shared experience. Even if they all have these basic avatars, it’s still really, totally amazing for me after hundreds of hours in VR, how easily people connect to each other. We have these four people in a virtual break-out room and they really work very closely together, perhaps even better than if they were in a break-out room at a business school.

And, so, we have other teaching platforms where we have avatars and people wear their own skins and look like they’re real. And, this also works but probably more in a corporate context, in an in-house situation, where you’d like to see how your colleagues or the CEO of your company really look. But, yeah, I can totally underscore that. It’s definitely faster because you have to be more focused. You are more focused as you don’t have a second screen, and I also think you are 100% more emotionally connected than whatever you do in Zoom, you know, in traditional online where you just see people in 2D in a small stamp and that’s all the interaction. Probably the metaverse cannot substitute the beer or the wine in the evening that we normally have where you can also probably connect to people. That still, perhaps luckily, is still not possible yet.

Esteve Almirall: When we think about AR and VR and so on, we always think about engineering. We always imagine, this picture of you look at a machine, and then you have your iPad or smartphone, and so on, and it sees what’s inside the machine and how it processes that. And, so, the motor, it’s impossible to see that live. Or, if we think of medicine, you can see the human body, the different parts of the human body, things that you cannot do. So, many times, for us, I think like in engineering, it’s pretty clear. But then we go to technology, things that are more abstract, like programming, maths; it seems more complicated. Then, finally, let’s say you go to executive education, and, we talk about the stats, everything is abstract. How do you see this difference and how do you manage these different levels of abstraction that you go through?

Frank Piller: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Let me share the experience, not my own, but of a close colleague, Heribert Nacken. He’s doing a lot of VR here at Aachen University and he’s a civil engineer. And he pioneered this and he’s teaching his students about water treatment and making gates for the water, and some of his classes are also if there’s a flood and then engineers, water engineers, have to react to that flooding. So he said, “We really can use VR for physical training”. So, people, students, are in VR and learn how to build these emergency measures, barriers and water gates and so on. But then he realised, “For my water engineers, civil engineers, their biggest problem later on when they start working is actually not managing water; it’s managing the people”. And then he said, “For engineers, perhaps the best way in VR is that they can learn how to talk to citizens”. And this is what these engineers also have to do if a flood is coming. They have to go to a village and convince everyone to leave their houses. But people don’t want to leave their houses, you know? They don’t see the emergency. And this is where, he told me, actually VR is the most effective. He can simulate angry citizens, and the students, in a very safe environment, can really learn, you know, how it is to have this debate with an angry crowd of citizens. We have our own teaching platform for VR at the university, and you can really set up, as the coach, the level of annoyance. And, at one point, the citizens can throw tomatoes at your workmen and so on; they really get angry. So, it’s really a great way… I think it’s a really great example, you know? It started with very practical engineering teaching but then realised that the real threat is simulating angry citizens in role play.

Esteve Almirall: That’s fascinating. That’s really, really great. So, we see that online education and, in particular, integrative education, is conquering the world. Now, the metaverse and all these experiences with virtual reality, and so on, really seem to be much better for many situations, probably not all situations, or maybe not all, but for many, they look much better. What is left for the future of face-to-face education? Is there anything left? Or will all of us be avatars any time soon?

Frank Piller: Well… I would say that there are different kinds of executive education programmes. So, for the ones I just mentioned earlier, I see them working very well in the metaverse. At the moment, we just use virtual classrooms for these kinds of interactions, but I see that in the next 1 or 2 years we will have virtual factories.

And the factory tour that we normally did by going to BMW or Porsche or Audi and getting a really good treatment from the Plant Director, going and walking through the plant, I think in 1 or 2 years we can actually do this in the virtual world, and you will not only be able to observe the plant; you’ll actually be able to mess around with it. There are many, many ideas, and this is not realised yet. But, I see a lot to come.

For the first Bachelor students of my class, they already today, and, actually, since seven years ago… The teaching is actually done through a serious game. So the students manage a car manufacturing company in these typical online situations, but they are the managers of their own car companies and they compete against hundreds of other students to see who has the best car company. And, then, whenever, they have to do something they don’t know, they get the teaching video to solve the task. And, I see this also at a much higher level for executives, you know, that perhaps, actually, a real metaverse class is not just a virtual classroom with avatars, but, actually, you get a trial factory and really do the tasks, the development tasks. And, while you’re doing it, perhaps with a group of peers, you can also learn the content.

But, then, what’s left for face-to-face? I would say that for longer programmes, like executive MBAs, full-time MBAs, this face-to-face component brings another strong element. And, for these kinds of programmes, probably, if we are honest, what we as professors teach is at least or a maximum of 50% of the value. 50% of the value comes from the network, you know, the exchange, the informal exchange between students, social life, sports and so on. And I think we can’t replace this with the metaverse. So, for these longer programmes, I think we’ll all move to blended, but we will definitely bring people back to the campuses face-to-face, but then not waste the time in people doing face-to-face with lectures, but really with stronger interactions and also interactions which are not scripted, you know, with templates and great exercises, but really where students have the room to co-create something together at their own pace and really on their own topics.

Esteve Almirall: Yeah, that’s great. One of the things that is interesting with this phenomenon is the evolution of the role of the professor. In the beginning, we professors were managing discussions, lecturing… This was the main part of the profession. Now, with COVID, the pandemic, and a bit before, with MOOCs and so on, we’ve become content creators. These are completely different skills, because you know how to manage cameras, you know how to produce videos, you know how to produce all these kinds of things that we never did before when we were basically writing things, talking. And, now, interactions are at a completely different level. Now, with VR, virtual reality, and so on, how do you see the change in the capacity of professors to adapt to this new role?

Frank Piller: Well, I think, first of all, we really need to be on larger teams. It’s all what I do in VR. I’m not an expert on VR, but, behind me, I have, in all cases, a great team, you know, a great team in the leadership network platform. They do executive training. I have a great team on the side of avatar VR where we are 15 people working full time on these digital teaching environments. They support me and they are open to my inputs, but I really have to trust them because I never have the time or the capabilities to do this. Actually, teaching in VR was amazingly simple. And, I think… The good thing is… You still need good skills. If you’re a bad teacher in the classroom, you’re also a bad teacher in VR, you know? You can’t hide given that the avatar which is really mimicking what you normally do in the physical space and how you build it. I probably had to learn how to rearrange my slides to do this but, perhaps, I really learned from doing this in VR to also improve my teaching in the classroom, as I probably know how to be more focused there, you know, and not to overload the students with content. So, therefore, I would say this is probably the big mandate for business schools, the administrators, that they really see in the staffing that a great class, a lecture class, is really, even more today, managed not just by a professor or perhaps a teaching assistant but really by a team. You have the producer of the digital content, and this person is as important as the professor.

Esteve Almirall: One of the things that technology always changes a lot is the economics behind universities, economics in two senses: in one sense, the capacity to use these technologies, because these technologies, oftentimes, are not cheap; and, also, the skills needed for the professionals and the skills to re-skill the professors, and so on, are not cheap. In the other sense, is the capacity to reach students. Now, you are more like Google, Meta, Facebook, Amazon, and so on. You can reach hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and even millions of students with a single platform like the MOOCs, and so on. The whole economics has changed a lot. Look at MIT, all of the online courses they’re doing and stealing some of the people that they then bring to other courses and so on. So, the change in economics has changed a lot for universities. What do you think? Will small universities, small business schools survive all this tremendous amount of change that they face, in particular, the economics behind these changes?

Frank Piller: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question, and I think that, as you said, there are so many different kinds of universities, you know? I am here at Aachen. We are a dinosaur of German engineering, you know, with 50,000 students. But, basically, even with 50,000 students, we are basically a research university, and most of the professors are here to do research. We have a very great research infrastructure. And, for many years, teaching was something you did on the side, and nobody paid too much attention to it. We learned really over the last decade that teaching is important and we invested a lot in this and, also, before coronavirus, in these digital formats. But, we are a state university, and the money we get from the state, which is about a third of our budget, really depends on the number of graduates we produce. And, here, actually, our chancellor, who is in charge of the economics, realised that, if the government realises how efficient online teaching is, you know, they don’t have to fund all the universities. And, so, as a clever manager, he said, “I have to make sure that we have reasons to exist to get this funding and so the future of our Bachelor’s education is seen as entirely project-based”. So we are really actually reinventing the reasons why students should come physically in person to Aachen and we get the funding for this from the government. As we say, instead of putting you in lectures, you really have much more action-orientated learning and, from the beginning, you work on real projects with companies and with societies and so on and to somehow reinvent our existing business model.

However, I totally agree that we have huge opportunities and to also reach other audiences. And, it’s a little bit the story we had when MOOCs came up, but, to my knowledge, no MOOC put any existing university out of business. On the contrary. In my Innovation Management MOOCs on edX I have about 10,000 students every year. But these are all additional people we engage with. They would never have come to Aachen to sit in my normal master lectures. These are additional people that we now reach. And, they’re not doing it as a substitute to university, really, but most of them do it on the job as most of them would really like very specific input. However, of these 10,000 plus students, only very few actually do the exam. Many of them drop out. So, but, still, at first, they joined and got some ideas then they decided, “Perhaps it’s not for me”. So, it’s a very, very different market here. What I think is super great is that we all agree that this world needs more knowledge and skills and education. And, therefore, I’m very, very positive that this is just additional, you know? However, in terms of the economics of universities, we definitely have to make teaching and infrastructure for teaching a higher priority, at least compared to how it used to be for a research university like Aachen in the past. You know, you have to be in that game. Like I said earlier, you don’t get VR teaching for free. You have to invest in this and learn how to do it.

Esteve Almirall: Well, thank you so much. I don’t know if there is anything that I didn’t ask that I should have? Is there anything you want to add to this conversation?

Frank Piller: Well, no. I think you asked a lot of things. It was a great conversation. I’m just thinking about it. I would just add… I don’t know, actually, who is in the audience here, but my message to them, even if I end it perhaps a little differently, by saying we have to invest in it professionally. The good thing with all of this is that you can experience and practice it very, very cheaply, you know? An Oculus 2 VR headset is less than $500 and it has much larger capacity than their high-end headset from just a couple of years ago. And, I think the good thing with all of these things is that you can just try them out and very quickly have a minimum viable product. So, I would just really say, “Experiment”, as this is what I did, you know, when we did the first flipped classroom, one of the first in Germany. We just did it with one of my PhD students who was good at holding a camera and we produced it. Now we have this big professional studio, professional camera operators, you know? But we started very, very frugally. And, I think this is the great thing in this new world that’s coming. You can really use a lot of the platforms. Even just go to Spatial or one of these free, available VR rooms to try it out. This is what I now do with my PhD students. We have our seminars on Spatial as we just wanted to change from our Zoom meetings. And, this has no costs, and, you know, all of your students are happy if you give them an Oculus from your budget, as you save all your travel budget from conferences so that they can all get an Oculus. And, so, this is just what I would encourage everyone who’s listening to this podcast: Just give it a try. And, there’s really much more there. If you want to do it at a high level, like at Esade, you know, where you really have a very high demand for execution, you have to invest. You have to give it a try. You can do it really very frugally and experimentally.

Esteve Almirall: That was wonderful. Thank you very much, Frank.

Frank Piller: Thank you, sure. Thanks very much for the invitation.

Esteve Almirall: Thank you. Thank you so much. And, thank you very much to you all for listening to this podcast. The metaverse and a new phase in education are coming, and this will affect all of us. Thank you very much again.

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