Higher Education in the Metaverse

Although still in its infancy stage, the metaverse promises to reshape the college experience — for better or worse.
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  • The metaverse is an immersive environment with significant implications for education.
  • Gaming platforms earn billions in the metaverse, and Facebook is investing in its future.
  • The popularity of metaverse learning might hasten the "unbundling" of higher education.
  • The metaverse also has implications for academic freedom, the digital divide, and data privacy.

Picture, if you will, a door.

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension — a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into … a 21st-century version of The Twilight Zone.

Welcome to the metaverse.

What Is the Metaverse?

Some consider the metaverse the next step in the evolution of the internet. On the internet, we see and hear things — our interaction is two-dimensional. In the metaverse, we experience things in three dimensions. We are there, immersed and fully present in the space and moment. And we are not alone.

Sound far-fetched? If you've played "Minecraft" or "Call of Duty," you know it's not. Your physical being — or at least a 3-D representation of it — is immersed in that environment. In the metaverse, though, the virtual you exists not just within one world but everywhere — across all platforms, from retail spaces to nightclubs to concert halls to outdoor venues and, yes, to universities.

Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson coined the term "metaverse" in his 1992 novel "Snow Crash." Since then, the concept has been explored not only in video games but also in movies such as "Avatar" and "Ready Player One" and in the simulated world of "Second Life."

Entering the metaverse through a clumsy headset enables you to experience virtual or augmented reality as an idealized version of your corporeal self. As you move about, the interoperability of the metaverse — the seamless integration of platforms — allows your assets to follow you, just as they do in real life. That includes your non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, a form of blockchain currency you can use to purchase anything from clothing to event passes to plots of land. Total NFT spending reached $12.6 billion by the end of 2021.

Major corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft are investing heavily in the financial potential of the metaverse, as are gaming companies like Roblox and Epic Games, which earns more than $9 billion annually from the survival game "Fortnite." Microsoft introduced the mixed-reality platform Mesh, while Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, signaling the company's creative direction.

At Facebook's Connect 2021 online event, CEO Mark Zuckerberg discussed the current status and potential of the metaverse, which can be accessed through Meta's Oculus Quest headset.

"The next platform and medium will be even more immersive," Zuckerberg said, "an embodied internet where you're in the experience, not just looking at it."

The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern figured she'd experience it for herself, strapping on a VR headset for 24 hours while sequestered in a hotel room. She plays video games, works out, attends meetings through Spatial, and visits a comedy club via Microsoft's AltspaceVR, where she hangs out with "trippy little Lego-looking people" with no legs. Anand Agarawala, Spatial's CEO, assures us that "legs are coming."

"Such is life in the metaverse," Stern concludes, "where the digital world transforms the real one in ways that are fun, freaky, and sometimes frightening."

The Metaverse as a Teaching and Learning Tool

The metaverse may be the new frontier for commerce, but can it become a viable learning tool? If so, what potential does it hold for higher education? Can the virtual you someday attend Virtual U?

It certainly appears we're heading in that direction. Take college tours, for example. The pandemic turned the traditional college road trip into an online adventure complete with videos and Zoom conversations. Virtual tours are now migrating to the metaverse, offering students opportunities to immerse themselves (sans legs) in the college environment and experience a virtual form of campus life. At the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, students can even chat with a presidential avatar.

Once enrolled, students might attend a history lecture, conduct experiments in a chemistry lab, or visit a museum to examine art or archaeology. The University of Miami's XR Initiative offers immersive learning experiences in architecture, healthcare, climate change, and behavioral research, among other topics. Medical students, for example, can learn how to administer anesthesia in a simulated operating room.

Beginning next fall, 10 colleges—nine of which are public—will launch "metaversity" campuses through VictoryXR, a company that offers immersive classrooms and campuses through virtual reality. Each college will introduce a “digital twin" replica campus students can attend while on-site or learning remotely. Students will receive a Meta Quest 2 VR headset to use during their synchronous courses.

“When the history of metaverse education is written, these are the schools that will be known as the metaverse pioneers,” Steve Grubbs, VictoryXR CEO, said in a statement. “Remote learning is growing and these schools have decided to look for something better than a Zoom class.”

In addition, Roblox invested $10 million last year to develop educational video games for schools and colleges. These games will immerse students in robotics, space exploration, computer science, engineering, and biomedical science.

Immersive learning of this sort is nothing new. About 15 years ago, "Second Life" began operating as a platform for colleges that wanted to offer virtual classrooms. Although it's technically still active, most of what's left are ghost town remnants largely devoid of any noticeable activity, monuments to a once-promising educational experiment now perhaps gaining a "second life" in the emerging metaverse.

What is new is how students will pay for their college education. As we continue to evolve from the physical realm to a virtual one, cryptocurrency will likely play an increasingly important role in financial transactions. Already, some universities have begun accepting bitcoin for tuition payments.

"Although the metaverse proper isn't here yet," professors Rabindra Ratan and Dar Meshi write in The Conversation, "technological foundations like blockchain and crypto assets are steadily being developed, setting the stage for a seemingly ubiquitous virtual future that is coming."

Accelerating the Unbundling of Higher Education

Distance education has reshaped how we think about the college experience. The core product — teaching and learning — is different but possible through Zoom-type engagements, depending on the subject. But the social component is clearly lacking.

Attending college in the metaverse along with "trippy little Lego-looking" fellow students and faculty might lend a certain realism to the experience, but it's no substitute for the actual thing. As such, the migration to metaverse might accelerate the "great unbundling" of higher education. Increasingly, students may desire only that core teaching and learning product, foregoing the more traditional trappings of college life such as dorm living, campus food, library carrels, football games, and frolicking on a leafy quad.

"Ultimately, the metaverse might result in the end of some traditional forms of university education," notes University of Essex professor John Preston in The Conversation. "Rather than attending a single bricks-and-mortar institution, students might flock to the cyber-physical realm instead. In the metaverse, they could learn from virtual experiences provided by a range of global universities."

This unbundling has serious financial implications for colleges. Just consider how many billions of dollars were lost when the pandemic forced students to leave campus, taking housing and meal plan refunds with them. Imagine what the physical campus might look like in a world dominated by metaverse learning.

Potential Problems for Colleges and Individuals

That's not the only issue complicating matters for colleges. Writing in The Conversation, University of Massachusetts, Boston professor Nir Eisikovits speculates on a number of thorny problems the metaverse might pose for higher education. He notes academic freedom might be compromised by the corporate interests of metaverse hosts.

"Would platforms like Meta and Zoom be committed to unfettered free exchange," he writes, "even when the publicity can hurt their stock price?"

Additional concerns facing "metaversities" could include maintaining student focus in an online environment replete with spectacular distractions, conducting meaningful conversations absent the nuances of facial expressions and nonverbal communication, and ensuring that the digital divide doesn't widen and further marginalize those who lack access to technology.

Finally, there's the matter of data privacy and identity protection. Creating a "robust digital human twin" raises entirely new questions, writes Ray Schroeder for Inside Higher Ed. This twin carries around a wealth of personal information and is carefully tracked as it meanders throughout the metaverse. It's not surprising, he notes, that "most people think the metaverse is a privacy nightmare."

In fact, a January 2022 NordVPN survey revealed that although 55% of respondents didn't even know what the metaverse is, 87% had concerns about privacy if Facebook succeeded in creating the metaverse. Half said it sounded like a perfect place for hackers.

Still, almost three-quarters said they'd be joining the metaverse, which speaks to the inevitability of it all. We're inching inexorably toward Web 3.0, a decentralized environment in which the metaverse will define how we experience it. And colleges will line up, perhaps cautiously, to join as well.

"I cannot help but to draw an analogy to the advent of online learning in the early 1990s," Schroeder writes. "It was clear to many of us even then that higher education was going to be revolutionized by learning online. It is clear now that the next leap in the digital transformation of higher education is upon us with the advent of the metaverse."