The Dawning Age of the Metaversity

Online learning got a bad rap during the pandemic, but the metaverse offers an enticing way to engage students and faculty alike.
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  • Colleges nationwide are beginning to embrace the metaverse as an immersive learning environment.
  • Penn's Wharton School is offering a new certificate program exploring the metaverse's potential across industries.
  • Ten new metaversities will launch this fall, with several more on the horizon.
  • A pioneer in the metaverse space, Morehouse College has 10 metaversity courses this fall.

The next big thing in higher education is upon us. Welcome to the era of the metaversity.

This fall, students at universities nationwide will don headsets, become avatar representations of themselves, and plunge into three-dimensional worlds designed as "digital twin" replicas of their campuses. Ten new metaversities have launched, and dozens more loom on the virtual horizon.

What does all this mean for teaching and learning, student success, and the future of universities?

New Wharton Program Explores the Trillion-Dollar Metaverse

What, exactly, is the metaverse? Consider many of the internet destinations you visit and those conversations you have on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Now step inside and experience it all in three dimensions alongside people who are there with you in real-time. The virtual you, in avatar form, exists not just within one world but everywhere — across all platforms, from retail spaces to nightclubs to concert halls to outdoor venues.

If you've played "Minecraft" or "Call of Duty," you have a sense of it. And if you're one of the roughly 15 million people who've purchased Meta's Oculus Quest 2 headset, then you really understand what it's like.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, slid all its chips toward a future dominated by the metaverse.

"The next platform and medium will be even more immersive," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the company's Connect 2021 event, "an embodied internet where you're in the experience, not just looking at it."

“One estimate from the global investment bank Citi suggests the metaverse economy could be worth as much as $13 trillion by 2030, with some 5 billion users.”

This virtual economic ecosystem promises to be big business. One estimate from the global investment bank Citi suggests the metaverse economy could be worth as much as $13 trillion by 2030, with some 5 billion users.

By then, says Guido Molinari, managing partner at Prysm Group, the metaverse "is going to be all around you from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep."

His firm is helping the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School launch the Ivy League's first academic program exploring this evolving technology. The six-week "Business in the Metaverse Economy" executive-education certificate program enrolls its first cohort this fall.

Molinari told BestColleges that demand for such a program was high, which isn't surprising given the economic potential spanning numerous industries. Wharton expects hundreds of executives for each of the six cohorts they'll enroll this year.

Although Wharton's program won't take place within the metaverse per se, Molinari does see the potential this new technology holds for college students.

"For Gen Z, the metaverse is sort of already happening via Snapchat AR, and many of them have already used virtual reality for gaming …," he said. "It's just part of who they are and how they express themselves."

Ten New Metaversities Launching This Fall

Steve Grubbs recognized this potential early in the metaverse's ascendancy. Since 2019, his company, VictoryXR, has helped colleges build digital-twin replica campuses enabling students to take immersive courses at their metaversities.

Like Molinari, Grubbs believes this kind of learning will be second-nature for today's students.

"The Fortnight generation is descending upon colleges now," Grubbs told BestColleges. "What they know is a social, synchronous, group experience."

“Even on its best day, a university can't provide that level of immersion and experiential learning.”
Steve Grubbs, Funder and CEO of VictoryXR

Grubbs offers numerous examples of this type of immersive learning. Imagine, for instance, an anatomy class in which the professor reaches into the chest cavity of a cadaver and extracts the heart. She then expands the heart so students can step inside and examine the chambers and ventricles. Next, she does the same with a diseased heart so students can view the differences.

"Even on its best day," Grubbs said, "a university can't provide that level of immersion and experiential learning."

VictoryXR is helping to launch ten new metaversities this fall at colleges, including the University of Maryland Global Campus, West Virginia University, New Mexico State University, and Northern Illinois University. Each paid between $10,000 and $50,000 (most toward the higher end) for a digital replica of their campus featuring 5-7 buildings, classrooms and labs, lounges and commons, and grounds and quads.

Software licenses run $195 per seat annually. Headsets are required, of course. Some universities lend them to students for the semester.

Grubbs said he expects another 25 metaversities to launch in 2022 and perhaps as many as 100 more next year. He envisions a day when most institutions, even the Ivies and similarly elite colleges, have metaversity options for students. That day might be closer than many think.

"I can't name names," Grubbs said, "but we are in late conversations with a couple of the biggest brand names in American education."

Still, Grubbs admits "we have a long way to go" when it comes to realizing the full potential of the metaverse. On a maturation scale of one to 10, he gives it a two.

"Right now we're in that iterative stage where universities are trying to see how best to roll out these programs," he said.

Morehouse College a Metaverse 'Pioneer'

One institution ahead of that curve is Morehouse College, an HBCU that Grubbs dubbed the "global leader in the metaversity space." VictoryXR partnered with Morehouse to create the college's first metaverse class in 2019. This fall, Morehouse will offer 10 metaversity classes in fields such as chemistry, journalism, history, and English.

Muhsinah Morris, a chemistry professor and the nation's only metaversity director, calls Morehouse a "pioneer."

"We are creating content, creating opportunities and the blueprint for people to come behind us and emulate this," Morris told BestColleges.

Initial reaction to Morehouse's metaversity experiment in 2019 was positive, Morris said, especially among students. When COVID-19 hit the following year, the advantages of the metaversity over more traditional online environments such as Zoom and Blackboard became readily apparent.

“In our [metaverse] courses ... we saw attendance rates go up, we saw engagement increase, we saw achievement increase.”
Muhsinah Morris, chemistry professor at Morehouse College

"Students were checked out, honestly," Morris said. "They weren't engaged, they were frustrated, they were dropping courses or dropping out of school. And in our [metaverse] courses, we saw none of that. We saw attendance rates go up, we saw engagement increase, we saw achievement increase. Students wanted to be part of it. They wanted to learn more, not just because it was an emerging technology but because the subject matter was easy for them to digest and understand."

Morehouse was able to create its metaversity thanks to grant funding and the generosity of tech companies. Meta donated 350 headsets to the college, and Qualcomm added another 150.

And lest one assume the metaversity experience is all about academics, folks at Morehouse would have you think otherwise. Earlier this year, the college held its annual fundraising gala simultaneously in person and in the metaverse. Those who attended virtually arrived in tuxes and ball gowns, walked the red carpet, and mingled in a virtual venue designed to replicate the actual one on campus. In-person attendees even wore headsets for a time and joined their virtual counterparts in the metaverse.

"The party does not stop with classes," Morris said.

Morehouse also held last spring's commencement in the metaverse to complement the one on campus. The college recognized the 23 graduates who had attended the metaversity during their time at Morehouse.

Morris said she's happy to "bring back the joy" of learning for students, especially in light of the trauma they've faced in recent years. She also credits the metaversity experience for energizing her in new ways as well.

"It's the most fun I've had in education," she said. "It's just joyous. I'm literally revived and restored in the way that I approach teaching and learning and my own scholarship. I've never smiled so much in my life."