Jeremy Nelson, Director of XR Initiative

Michael Torrence
Michael Torrence, president of Motlow State Community College

In this week’s MiXR Studios podcast, we talk with Dr. Michael Torrence, the president of Motlow State Community College. He has spent his career embracing the use of technological literacy as a platform to increase student access, engagement and success. Dr. Torrence has served as the co-chairperson for TNeCampus, a Tennessee Board of Regents statewide team leader for the integration of emerging technology and mobilization in the areas of gaming, VR, AR, and MR into teaching and learning. He has trained faculty, students, executives, and community members and developed immersive curriculum focused on STEAMB (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art/Aviation, Mathematics, and Business focused on Entrepreneurship) for all grade levels and utilized these platforms teaching undergraduate and graduate students in his own classes where VR and entrepreneurship is a norm.

Dr. Torrence began his journey into XR with early work using Minecraft to create worlds to tell stories and engage students as a faculty member teaching an English course at Volunteer State Community College. There were many technical challenges to create this con tent and maintain the hardware to run Minecraft servers. In 2015, Dr. Torrence saw that VR was the next iteration of immersive storytelling, so he secured 40 VR headsets to explore 360 video and VR content using the WITHIN application. He chose this application because they were able to access free content that was being updated regularly and they didn’t have to curate and create their own content.

Dr. Torrence took a very collaborative approach to teaching these courses and involved students in setting expectations on this being a solutions oriented course. The goal was to expose students to this new technology while teaching problem solving skills in an english course. One of the courses he taught had a research project component to it where students explored entrepreneurship skills and had to develop an application that solved a problem or had impact. Out of those courses, at least two companies were created, Food of your Mood (later acquired by delivery.com) and We Deliver.

Menu of WITHIN VR application
Menu of WITHIN VR application

We discuss the many challenges and failures that came with creating these experimental courses. There were challenges with bringing entrepreneurial components to an English course ranging from time management to student interest. It was important to be clear with students about what these courses really are as many of the students are working individuals or working parents and their time is very limited. We move into his new role as president of Motlow State Community College and how he is bringing his experience and passion to set curriculum across programs and academic units.

We wrap up our discussion with Dr. Torrence’s vision of the future of how XR can build skills for students and help strengthen workforce development. We learn about the partnerships with industry, XR academies, and how they are investing in the tools and technologies at all levels to prepare the students of today and the students that will attend college in 10 years. I admire the passion and commitment that Dr. Torrence is bringing to the XR space and how they are building programs that impact people from all walks of life.

I enjoyed talking with Dr. Torrence and learning about his practical experience bringing XR to the classroom and how they have been using XR to build skills for the next generation. Please share with us what you would like to learn more about in the XR space at jernel@umich.edu.

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Transcript: MiXR Studios, Episode 16 

Jeremy Nelson (00:10):
Hello, I’m Jeremy Nelson. And today we are talking with Dr. Michael Torrence, who is the president of Motlow State Community College. We are talking about his work in teaching with XR at Motlow State and what they have been doing to bring innovative collaborations between industry government and higher education to enable the future of XR entrepreneurs. Coming up next in our mixr podcast.

Jeremy Nelson (00:45):
Hello, Michael, thank you for joining us today.

Michael Torrence (00:47):
Greetings, Jeremy it is a pleasure to be here with you today.

Jeremy Nelson (00:51):
Yeah, no, I’m excited to have you on the podcast and have our listeners, you know, hear a little bit about you and your story and your interest in XR and how we might be able to work together across institutionally.

Michael Torrence (01:05):
Oh, absolutely. The, the, the landscape has shifted obviously for all kinds of reasons, socially, economically, and the ability to provide training for our faculty, staff and communities now. And XR is a brave new world that’s going to open up lots of avenues for us to build.

Jeremy Nelson (01:27):
Yeah, for sure. I think, you know, there’s a lot of folks asking us now, Hey, can I use VR for the fall? And I’m like, well, maybe, probably not yet. We have a lot more planning to do and would love to hear more about, you know, your interest in XR, what you all have been doing, how you got started in it, you know, just love to hear your story.

Michael Torrence (01:47):
Oh, absolutely. Well, I go all the way back to the first kind of gaming systems. And I think that the origin story is a part of everyone’s story who’s engaged with XR right now, as it’s been birthed out of MR the, the coalition of AR and VR put together. And, you know, so I guess I can start back with my first Atari and ColecoVision and Sega, and that’s just where it built from. The interest was in gaming. But little did I know that pushing those buttons and the hand eye coordination and understanding up, down, up, down left, right, left, right, AB, so that can start for Contra, for example, you know, these things worked on all kinds of cognitive advantages that were necessary to be successful as a, as a learner and ultimately as a professor. And I’ve just allowed that to bleed over into when I was in the classroom teaching every day, the utilization of games as the forefront or pivot point for my students, being able to retain lots of information that they could just recall based on memorization. If it’s easy for us to remember songs, or if it’s easy for us to remember the songs that are associated with ABC and learning your numbers as well as colors, then why should it be any different with any other component of, as it related to learning English and rhetoric?

Jeremy Nelson (03:12):
Hmm. And what, so what type of courses were you teaching? What types of students were coming in and what would their reactions to this?

Michael Torrence (03:22):
Yeah, so about five years ago, I introduced VR and AR as a pivot point for teaching and learning in, in my English 1010, and English 1020 classes specifically, we would have headsets available for students as they walked in class. And I aligned an app called Within, I haven’t looked at it in a couple of years, so I’m sure that it’s still functional, but we use Within, and we’d aligned those stories that you could engage in via 360 or the VR experience. We’d align those stories with the competencies, goals, and objectives of the course. And so every week there was something different to tie in one of those new stories, with what we were writing about. So the content became not just black and white, it became visceral because that’s the immersive learning experience that a student goes through when he or she involves and immerses themselves in that VR, AR, XR space to actually, to a degree, experience what the story is providing you contextually.

Michael Torrence (04:32):
Prior to that, I was really heavily bent on utilizing Minecraft in my classes and so much to a point where I built several frames in, in Minecraft, but to my chagrin and no, when you try to do something first or not necessarily first, but when you try to do something, that’s at the next step you forget about some things and you learn some things along the way. I failed at understanding that I needed a large enough server to support all the students that I was going to have on the server. So the server kept crashing and, and ultimately figured that component out, but built a space that was a yellow brick road cause’ that was one of my favorite movies as a kid. So to get into this learning scape, students would ride on a boat and you would open up a wooden gate and they’d follow the yellow brick road to trees.

Michael Torrence (05:26):
And up under those trees in a hidden cavern would be chests, inside of those chests when you opened them up would be links to Ted Talks. Once a student clicked on the Ted Talk, they would review the Ted Talk and respond to the Ted Talk, but also respond to the experience of the scavenger hunt, like experience finding the link in the chest, et cetera. The second one was a snow-covered mountain that had the old mining tracks through it. And you would sit in a mining bucket and go through it and you’d find the same chest hidden. And the third one was more of a communal where the community was about farming and the, the, the chest would be underground under your crops. The last one was a cityscape and the cityscape was at the top of the two tallest buildings where chests that still took people to Ted Talks and the response portion of the course.

Michael Torrence (06:26):
And then once you completed the course, you had access to the entire repository of an underwater library. You know, lots of kids want to be super, superheroes, and I’m no different as a, as a kid and as an adult, I still participate in those types of things. So this idea of flying or being able to breathe under water, and, you know, I always thought it was cooler to, to breathe under water like Aquaman than it was to fly like Superman. So there would be an underwater library and students could continually add to that library with access to the course. So that’s really the, the, my first two, four rays prior to that, it was lots of board games for students who were teaching in the pre K through five grade bands and we’d build games for ELL students students who were in need of special needs population. So universal design was really important. So I guess that’s the, the reverse engineering history of how I got into this in the, in the first place.

Jeremy Nelson (07:25):
Yeah. I love it. I love that that journey that the students had to go through and that you built it and it’s specific for your course. And just bringing all those theories and designs to this space is great. So I wanted to go back a little bit to the course you taught with within, you know, how big of a course was that, what types of headsets were you using? What were some of the challenges there?

Michael Torrence (07:50):
Oh, wow. Well. Yeah, absolutely. So the course was an English 1010 course, and the students would follow me from the 1010 to the 1020. And what we utilized was Within. Within was a free application. And I thought that that was the best tool to use because students didn’t have to pay for it. And on top of that, every student had a cell phone, so students could download it. And if there were some students, cause there were some students who did not have what I would say the bandwidth to do that in a course for a three hour time period, cause it was a six to nine class. Then what we would do is I had some iPod touches available that had Within downloaded on it. Very minimal costs. These, these iPod touches were my own. So I had no issue with sharing it with the students.

Michael Torrence (08:38):
The headsets, it was a knockoff brand Jeremy, the, it wasn’t, it was cardboard, to be honest with you because you know, the, when I talked to my then vice president of academic affairs and student affairs and the president, you know- Can people really see out in front that this would be a useful modality and mode of delivery for teaching and learning? And I would say, absolutely not this that wasn’t bleeding edge at that time, that was just jumping off of a precipice and free falling and hoping that it worked out. So we, we ended up utilizing I did move from cardboards to a very cost effective plastic headset that we, that I ordered from China. And I don’t even recall the name. I just know that it was safer for the student’s phone because people drop them and this would, would offset anything being broken.

Michael Torrence (09:35):
In terms of the outcomes for the course, the same outcomes and competencies were expected for the students in the course. But what we added, we added a layer of expectations about being solutions oriented and on day one involving students in the idea that this is how this course will run. And on top of that, here’s the expectations at the end of the course in terms of a research project, because every course had the research project at the end. So we tied in our work with our local chamber of commerce, our entrepreneurship center or small business development center, and students would come up with an application theoretically. And sometimes they came, they brought it to fruition but they also were tied in with solving a problem or coming up with a solution to something that they thought impacted locally, regionally statewide or nationally. And I’m happy to say that two great companies spun out of it.

Michael Torrence (10:34):
Both of them having to be a delivery food services, as you would expect in a top in a college town. And one was called food for your mood. That was was bought up by Grubhub and the other still independently owned and operated called We Deliver. And they’ve grown exponentially across the Tennessee region as well as in Texas. So I’m happy to say that something like that was born out of an English class, if they’re close, we would tie it into shark tank. And so we just would have the chamber representatives, the small business development center representatives in biz Foundry, which is a local SBDC here in Putnam County. They would work with us to send VCs or people who had started their own companies, real entrepreneurs to give our students the constructive feedback that they needed. And it was great. It was a, is a great culminating project that was associated with writing it up aligning with the competencies of, of an English course, but also presentation style that helps students get prepared for the workforce.

Jeremy Nelson (11:39):
Yeah. I love it. I love those, all the pieces of that based in an English course, like just all the pieces of you, you brought together there and stretched, stretched the goals for the students. What were some interesting learnings or findings for you? Maybe some challenges that you didn’t anticipate?

Michael Torrence (11:58):
Well, I always go to, to the fact that nothing ever works the way you expect it to or plan it to. And I always, I don’t always exhibit that as a failure, but in the big scheme of things, if it worked it’s successful, if it didn’t work, then it fails. So there’s some failures that I experienced and it was by no design or on any part of the studio it was on my failed design and approach to delivering the course. And time management was one of them because you can’t expect every student to review and complete the constructive feedback at the same time. Even if you give 30 minutes to an hour, some people respond faster. Some people reflect a lot differently than others.

Michael Torrence (12:41):
So, so making sure that we delivered what students were expecting, and that was that they needed to make sure that they were prepared to meet the competencies of the next course, because this is about building your skills. So those were parts that that was a failure on my part, time management. Another failure on my part was the assumption that every student will be just over the moon about utilizing this emergent technology in their English class. And that we’re going to have shark tank at the end of it. Some students were not interested in that. And so I had to learn after that first iteration to, to ask the question at the beginning of the first class, this is how we’re going to deliver this course. This is what we’re going to do. If you don’t want to do this, I can help you find a course that is quote unquote traditional so that it meets your needs because that’s really important.

Michael Torrence (13:32):
We had moms and dads, you know, moms and dads coming in in the evening, Jeremy, to take this course and to not meet their needs. That’s, that’s a failure. There’ll be a failure because you don’t want to make someone do something that they will consider as extra work. Like what does this have to do with writing an English paper? So that, that was also a failure. The successes, happy students engaged students higher retention rates in the course. And then at the end of it, there were just some really great projects that came out of the end of students. Actually, either working in small groups or dyads or larger groups, no groups, no larger than four, but to see them tinker with ideas and say, does this really work? And is this a real workable solution to an issue that we see in our community? That, that, that was, I don’t know that that gives me goosebumps.

Jeremy Nelson (14:27):
Yeah, I bet. I bet. Especially as an instructor. Well, that was in your teaching days now as the president of Motlow state, how are you seeing things changing? What are you doing perhaps differently to enable more folks to bring this technology to fruition?

Michael Torrence (14:44):
Well, all good leaders know the, the best thing to do is to find people that are a lot smarter than you are and just get out of their way. So, so we, we have done a good job of finding very talented personnel who are interested in utilizing emergent technology or increasing our technological literacy across our organization. And we’ve created some of the state’s first XR academies. We have two of them in place at this moment. We also have a automation robotics training center that is one of a kind in, in Southern middle Tennessee that provides training to our, our, our partners like Nissan KSI et cetera Bridgestone North America. We also have mechatronics programs that lead to engineering and, or straight to to work with some of our larger and smaller industries that are associated in our service area.

Michael Torrence (15:43):
And then we have a great nursing program and computer science business and technology programs. So all of these programs, at some point in some way, are utilizing either VR, AR or XR and or vision systems, actual virtual or remote training as well. And I couldn’t be more excited about being associated with a group of people that see the importance of utilizing this and leveraging the technology that we have as well as seeking other ways for us to connect across our organization. As far as, even in criminal justice as well as music and areas such as art, we’re seeing faculty wanting to get engaged and involved in how can we take what’s being utilized in these other areas and enhance what we do for our students. So that’s, that’s been going on for the last 25 months. We are on the verge of partnering with XR Terra, as well as we have some relationships with Lobaki inc, dog head solutions.

Michael Torrence (16:47):
As well as looking at gaming companies and the, the, the idea of the skill set associated with understanding CIT or programming. It’s not just about building games, but as we think about the world of security, as we think about the world of marketing and media, these skill sets that students develop, they’re going to be necessary for things such as film or commercials. Think about the use of drones and the conversion of, of that media into usable commercials for insurance agencies. So we’ll see it permeating across all kinds of vectors, just the way the worldwide web did at one point.

Jeremy Nelson (17:28):
Yeah. I know I heard yesterday that there’s, there’s a position at Netflix where the whole responsibility is just to reduce latency in their network, and they pay top dollar, like seven figures for this. I mean, right. Slow Netflix streams are bad for business. Right? And so.

Michael Torrence (17:46):
That’s right.

Jeremy Nelson (17:47 ):
But I didn’t know that position existed. So there’s, yeah, there’s, there’s, you know lots of value in making sure all of these systems work and they’re connected and I’d love to hear more about that XR Academy. What, what does that look like? What’s involved in that? How do students participate?

Michael Torrence (18:02):
Yeah, sure. So the XR Academy is something that we considered for the purposes of workforce initially, but also tied it into our business and technology division for the workforce side of the house, because, you know, community colleges in Tennessee, our mission is student success and workforce development. So strengthening and emboldening, the, the workforce development side, we’re looking at, how do we utilize VR and AR to expand on our ability to connect with any business and industry anywhere, anytime and hopefully at some point on demand and we saw VR AR and 360 video development, because content is king right now in this area, because there’s not a lot of it. So being able to partner with businesses and industry, whether they be small or large for the purposes of digital twinning their areas and helping them in not latency, but increase efficiency and effectiveness in their distribution force, for example, is something that we’re looking at for the other side of the house, which is the for-credit side of the house.

Michael Torrence (19:11):
We’re looking at creating balances between what our students as second year, first year, and then our dual enrollment students potentially getting involved with learning what this functionality can do in terms of creating opportunities for them to be entrepreneurs. And we’re really, really strongly influencing and creating a space for entrepreneurship in our service area because of the importance of being in a rural area and what we see around us not dying, but going away. We’ll see what happens with COVID-19. And if that changes where people think that they should live or can live and where they think they can thrive, but for all intents and purposes, we believe that we have lots of really smart people in rural areas. And I’d like to help them understand that Motlow as a hub can serve as a space or springboard for them to build a very, very sustainable lifestyle. And they don’t have to leave that they can do it all from the comfort of their own living rooms.

Jeremy Nelson (20:13):
Sure. Well, I think that’s, COVID is proving that in a lot of spaces, you know, some of these companies that are deciding not to go back to the office for at least the rest of the year, not longer. Well, so are the students learning 3D modeling, design? I heard you say XR Tera. So that’s more like development with unity and some of these other gaming platforms, right? So what are those, what are those skills look like?

Michael Torrence (20:39):
So, so right now, this is, this will be our first foray into this coming this fall and we built a program through our gift grant that we received approximately $950,000 from the state of Tennessee. We’re engaging with helping students develop their skill sets to move towards certain certifications in programming, as well as in awareness for students who are younger than 11th graders. So as, as young as third graders, it is our, it was, it was our goal to get students on campus and into VR headsets, not for this shock and all value, but for the purposes of saying, here’s what’s possible, do you like this? Do you see yourself working in this industry? You can do it here. Cause one of the, the responses from a fifth grader that we had come in last year, the fifth grader, when I asked the students and I went to every student and say, so what do you want to be?

Michael Torrence (22:41):
What is it that you’re interested in doing? And they started talking about Tik Tok and they started talking about game design. And I just, I looked at our academic folks and I said, we don’t have any programs ready for these kids who are going to be here in 10 years. And so we can’t wait until they get here, because if we wait until they get here, they’re not going to choose us. So we need to make sure we prepare for them now as, as they are creating opportunities to think through what’s possible right here at home. So we started and had our first and we’re doing it right now. We have an online STEM summer camp that’s going since we couldn’t get together face to face, we moved it to online. So this is our first foray into it. And you will see this grow episodically with the alliances and programs and partners we create going forward, other than those that I’ve mentioned. And we’re hopeful that we look at some regional collaborations here in Southern, Southern middle Tennessee on the Southeast region for bringing in those really sharp people who are in the industry as exemplars for our students to see.

Jeremy Nelson (22:55):
That’s great. I love it. What concerns do you have about the future of XR for teaching and learning? Just from what you’ve seen or what, what might be out there?

Michael Torrence (23:05):
Well, I, I still believe that the accessibility component of it is a challenge for your lay person who would go and purchase their own materials the headsets, although the price point being 395, 295, 495 and up is in some instances, not cost prohibited for some but cost prohibited for others. So I’d love to see introductory models that a school district or a system could, could purchase for their classrooms or a, an Academy approach or some community organization for an Academy approach to, to utilize them all year long. What we are moving away from here at Motlow is the idea of creating events versus creating a systemic and longitudinal training options, not just for our employers, but for those students and those who are our students face to face online, but definitely want to reach out to the elementary, middle, and high schools. That’s how you build it from our humble opinion, that’s how you build real longitudinal growth. And you can see change in development in a community when you do that.

Jeremy Nelson (24:24):
That’s great. That’s great. I love it. Yeah. Well, I really appreciate the time you’ve spent with us today and sharing your story and all the great work you’re doing it’s, it’s very exciting. I look forward to continuing our conversations as we both progress in this space and yeah, I look forward to hearing more.

Michael Torrence (24:47):
Yeah, well, no, Jeremy, as I’ve said before, I’ll say it again. You, you have a partner in us. We’re excited to look at any options and opportunities that may be available through NSF. Or just something that sometimes I think that we also need to be aware, not everything takes money and we can just do it. So we’re also open for just making things happening happen in a collaborative method. So thank you for your time today. I really appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit.

Jeremy Nelson (25:17):
Yeah, I appreciate it. Take care.

Michael Torrence (25:20):
Have a great day.

Jeremy Nelson (25:32):
Thank you for joining us today. Our vision for the XR initiative is to enable education at scale that is hyper contextualized using XR tools and experiences. Please subscribe to our podcast and check out more about our work at https://ai.umich.edu/xr.