What Could the Metaverse Mean for Higher Education?

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Morehouse College's digital twin campusMorehouse College's digital twin campusVictoryXRMeta, the parent company of Facebook, made waves last fall when it announced the so-called metaverse. In a few years, this metaverse could be interoperable networks of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) that blend physical and digital spaces. The technology is not quite there yet, but VR and AR uses have already been entering some higher education classrooms, raising questions about both their major potential and challenges.

“The question boils down to what is the educational value of the technology—and a lot of factors go into that,” said Dr. Jeffrey Pomerantz, an associate professor of practice and online program coordinator at Simmons University. “I really do believe that VR and AR and simulations are potentially very valuable educational technology, but it’s not universal. I would encourage campus leaders to keep the focus on the educational use cases than on the technology.”

Meta Immersive Learning is supporting a “metaversities” project as part of its $150 million commitment to build up this technology. Through this initiative, Meta partnered with VictoryXR, a VR education software company, to launch 10 digital twin campuses. These digital twins are replicas of real campuses that are built in spatial 3D, hosted on a platform called Engage.

“Remote learning is growing and on-campus enrollment is declining, so if the trend is that we will have more remote learners, then we will have to find something better than Zoom, especially for classes like biology, chemistry, and even history,” said Steve Grubbs, CEO of VictoryXR. “Number two is when you think about equity in education, how do you deliver a superior higher education course? Even if the student can’t afford to travel across the country? Over time, we’re confident that this will create more affordable options for students to attend class with great professors in the metaverse.”

Among the 10 metaversities is Morehouse College, a private historically Black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta. Morehouse representatives were not available to comment in time for this story. With a digital twin campus, students could log online as an avatar and connect with each other socially or in classrooms. Some medical schools have already been using VR or AR to help train students how to operate without at first needing to use a cadaver. Dr. Jeremy BailensonDr. Jeremy Bailenson

Recently, Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, the Thomas More Storke Professor of Communication at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab there, researched what it was like to teach using virtual reality in a college class. His team published a paper in May looking at group behavior in virtual reality through a longitudinal study in the metaverse, which the paper defined as “the promise of experiences in immersive digital worlds.”

VR is an incredible medium, but one that requires a large amount of maintenance and attention, compared to a traditional tool such as Zoom,” said Bailenson. “It will remain my medium of choice for teaching about VR, but for other topics, I'd recommend treating VR as a source for field trips (i.e., walking around a sculpture) as opposed to the main infrastructure of a course.”

In a 10-week Stanford course about VR, 81 students in the study were broken up into eight groups and met eight times on a networked platform using VR headsets. Participants filled out questionnaires about their experiences after each session. The researchers found time played a key role.

Qualitative and quantitative data pointed to how the more exposure students had to VR during the study, the more comfortable they became not only with the VR technology but with each other. Bailenson added that the syllabus from this VR course is free online. The syllabus links to assignment details, grading schemes, and other resources for educators to get started.

We are about to publish a paper on the effect of context--how where you learn changes how you learn, for example indoors versus outdoors, and open spaces compared to constrained ones,” said Bailenson on what research questions his team is exploring next. “In VR one's location can drastically shift at the touch of a button, and we are testing hundreds of different classroom designs in VR.”

To Dr. John Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex, the metaverse in higher education with Facebook, or Meta, involved brings much darker possibilities. He is the author of Artificial Intelligence in the Capitalist University Academic Labour, Commodification, and Value, and he has written about how Meta’s metaverse could further intensify and exploit the work of instructors.

“I’m really dystopian about the metaverse not because I’m anti-technology,” said Preston. “But because it’s a way to open up universities to further capitalization and increase the exploitation of lecturers—and to use diverse representation in a cynical way in marketing to sell these commodities that actually mostly benefit white executives.”

Preston noted that if lectures are delivered in Meta, for example, those lectures could be the intellectual property of the university or even Meta. And if the lectures are recorded through Meta, surveillance could create conflicts around academic freedom. Class discussions could shift among professors and students if their every move or facial expression is being watched by not only the university but a giant tech company.

“The most revolutionary pedagogies happen in the real world, not online because we can have real-world, sustainability relationships over time to build trust and learn about people’s perspectives,” added Preston.

Dr. Nir Eisikovits is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Applied Ethics Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He also raised accessibility questions, particularly how the metaverse could solve problems of the digital divide, which the pandemic highlighted with Zoom instruction.

“You could also end up seeing a three-tiered system where people with more means do the brick-and-mortar education, those in the middle do VR and AR, and those with less means end up with what is called online education,” said Eisikovits. “But what I do think is interesting about this technology is that if these kinds of problems are addressed, it has the potential to revolutionize both online and brick-and-mortar education.”

Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Stanley and Debora Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology at Temple University, pointed out that educators should be involved early and often in the development of new metaverse technologies. She noted there is great potential in VR and AR’s uses to foster active learning, though more educators should be in the room when VR design decisions get made.

“The most important nuance to me with the metaverse and education is that learning is not a solo sport,” said Hirsh-Pasek. “This will require professors to be guides and knowledgeable tour-givers of the information that they impart. And it will require us to allow for the variability in student responses so that we can more fully speak to the whole classroom. What we are not asking for is for you to replace professors with an avatar. And I think that is the risk.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com.