The University in the Metaverse is here. Is higher education ready?

In the cadaver lab at Fisk University, a professor reaches into the chest cavity of a corpse to extract a human heart and give it to a student. The student felt the weight of the heart in her hand and turned it over to examine it. Then, because the lab exists in virtual reality, the students zoom in on the organ to a height of 8 feet. The class walks into the heart, where they see and touch the walls of the ventricles. This heart looked more serious than the other heart they had examined before – possibly the result of health decisions “humans” made while they were alive.

A class discussion ensued, right inside the giant aortic valve. When they collectively agree on the correct diagnosis, they feel the impact of the celebratory fist bump.

This fall, students at 10 colleges, including Morehouse College and Cal State University, will attend meta-universities — a mix of “meta-universities” and “universities” — such as those attended by Fisk students. Metaversity is an immersive virtual reality platform where remote faculty, staff and students can don VR headsets and meet in sync as if they were on a physical campus. (In some cases, a virtual campus is a digital replica of the institution they attend. In other cases, the technology is deployed in face-to-face classrooms.) In a virtual world “classroom,” students can study history while “taking Travel on the Underground Railroad “armed” with Harriet Tubman’s pistol. Or they can “sit” on the bench in the center of the courtroom and study literature. to kill a robin.

The universities that will offer courses in the Metaverse this fall are part of a growing trend in education technology that promises to expand the reach of higher education. Metaversity proponents say VR can improve student engagement, achievement and satisfaction. But some academics worry that private companies licensing the technology may prioritize their bottom line over academic freedom, using students’ data or replicating potentially biased narratives in immersive formats that become students’ preferred representations of events.

“Learning has come alive like never before,” said Steve Grubbs, CEO of VictoryXR, a private technology-providing company founded in 2016. “This allows for better retention of learned information.”

Data from Atlanta’s Morehouse College, which launched a meta-university pilot in 2021, supports this claim. But student achievement is only one of many considerations.

“The way companies like Google and Facebook are using people’s data … should at least raise some questions about whether this is going to work out,” said Nir ​​​Eisikovits, a philosophy professor and founding director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Many problems can be solved if educational best practices, business incentives and political will are aligned. Other aspects of the debate, such as whether the VR college experience is fundamentally social or anti-social, are more philosophical. Either way, students looking for flexible options may find Metadata an irresistible improvement over the remote 2D screens that sometimes cause “zoom fatigue.” The already existing VR academy seems poised for massive growth, even as early adopters seek solutions in real time to address pressing concerns about potential pitfalls.

The birth of metadata

To be sure, many leaders in the meta-university field have good motivations. Grubbs was an amiable man who served as chairman of the House Education Committee in the Iowa House of Representatives. His educational work was partly inspired by his teacher father.

“I’ve always been interested in learning how we can improve education,” Grubbs said.

When he first tried a basic VR headset in 2015, he was excited about the possibilities. “While most people start chasing games, I’m chasing schooling,” he said.

Later, he set up the company headquarters in his former elementary school building. (His office is a former teachers’ lounge.) He imagines a future where VR could benefit education.

Likewise, Morehouse administrators and faculty found themselves unhappy with remote learning options early in the pandemic, and they turned to Grubbs for help. Soon after, in February 2021, Morehouse piloted a proof-of-concept metavirtual with VR courses in world history, biology, and chemistry.

Average student grades in the VR World History course improved by 10% relative to the same class taught both via Zoom and face-to-face the previous year. The college has also collected empirical data on its other VR courses that show an overall increase in student satisfaction, engagement and achievement compared to traditional and online formats.

“My students prefer to study hard-to-master topics,” said Morehouse professor of chemistry and director of the Metaverse Program Mushina Morris. “You can’t see molecules, but in my virtual reality classroom where I teach advanced inorganic chemistry, you can. You can actually build 3D representations of molecules…learning tends to happen faster. They get to know what’s really going on faster. “

social or antisocial student experience

Students taking some college courses or entire degrees in virtual worlds are honing social skills and learning with their peers — at least according to some.

“Even if you’re a distance learner, you can again take classes with your professors and other students, break into groups, work on projects, talk, laugh and learn the best way most people learn — kinesthetically, “It’s a dramatic social experience,” Grubbs said.

According to Morris, this interaction could be important. “It’s almost like giving them an internship and giving them a theory.”

But others worry about the social isolation of Meta University students.

“This creates an entire infrastructure where people aren’t actually physically together,” Eisikovits said. “And it will be more irresistible than Zoom.”

Despite some reservations, Eisikovits admits that the current two-dimensional version of online education is a bland experience for teachers and students.

“In a way, whether we like it or not, online education is becoming a growing reality, which has the potential to escalate it with a more immersive experience,” he said.

Build Metaversity aircraft while flying

Google’s beginnings serve as a cautionary tale for those entering the meta-university field. Google’s founders sought to make information easily accessible — a noble goal. But they ultimately need money to make that happen. They eventually developed a business model in which they offered their products to consumers for free while generating revenue by collecting and selling user data. Likewise, some edtech companies, including CourseHero, have adopted a model of giving students free access to their products in exchange for personal data. Some academics worry that students do not have the data literacy or savvy to understand why this might be problematic.

“If you could monetize the time I spent on YouTube videos, or if you could monetize Google searches, imagine how you could monetize biometric responses to stimuli you see in virtual reality,” Eisikovits said . For example, VR data can include the degree to which a user’s pupils dilate when viewing a product, which could indicate a preference for that product.

“It’s richer data that can be monetized in all sorts of troubling ways, and we’ll have the potential to make that data available to companies that aren’t primarily interested in advancing knowledge,” he said.

Academic freedom could also suffer if a company providing VR to universities prioritizes its bottom line.

“We wanted to create a platform where all academic views could be heard,” Grubbs said of VictoryXR. “If I were a professor or a university, I would like to know that the leadership of the company has a strong bias against academic freedom.”

But some for-profit companies have a problematic track record when academic freedom appears to threaten their profits. Recall, for example, that Zoom canceled controversial online events organized by colleges and universities. Believing a company’s “strong prejudice” against academic freedom may not be enough to ensure that freedom.

“Market pressure is so great that trust is an insignificant factor in this relationship,” Eisikovits said. “People who trust Facebook and trust Google aren’t very happy they’re doing it.”

Another concern is that humans will ultimately be responsible for representing history, science, art and other subjects in meta-university curricula. This means that biases in the real world may transfer to the virtual world. Perhaps the same goes for history, literature, and art books in traditional courses. But those who create VR courses for schools may have higher responsibilities. Eisikovits cites the difference between learning history from books and learning history from a powerful film about historical events.

“In a way, this movie is going to be your first choice,” Eisikovits said. He noted that VR offers a more visceral experience than movies.

Furthermore, in the metaverse, people are represented by avatars, accurately or inaccurately. According to Morris, when Morehouse first launched its meta-academy, a professor did not initially join the effort because he was concerned that the avatars would not represent students and students well at historically black institutions. teacher.

“Performance matters because you create memories,” Morris said. “You are still the person behind the clone.”

He said VictoryXR had improved enough of the avatar that the hesitant professor joined the project. That said, Morris said the avatar still needs improvement.

Some of these issues may be solvable even with different academic and corporate incentives. For example, past market pressures have pushed companies to address algorithmic biases in their products. But anyone entering the metaverse space should be aware of a number of issues.

Today’s Metaversity Market and Moving Forward

Faced with declining enrollments of traditional students, colleges and universities are attracting nontraditional students, including those with work and family responsibilities that require flexible options. Many of these students may value the 3D remote option, which appears to be an improvement over previous remote options on 2D screens. Traditional students may also appreciate the immersive experience of VR, which brings learning to life.

In addition to Morehouse and Fisk, VictoryXR has launched Meta University at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, New Mexico State University, South Dakota State University, Florida A&M University, West Virginia University, University of Maryland Global Campus, Southwestern Oregon Community College, Alabama A&M University and California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“We have six [metaversities] We’ll probably announce in August or September, at least 50 are in discussion,” Grubbs said.

According to Grubbs, colleges interested in launching their own courses or programs in the Metaverse may find startup funding in the $20,000 to $100,000 range, especially given the potential to attract an entirely new student body. (The lower end of the price range provides product licensing for Universal Campus, but not Digital Twin Campus.) Teachers need training to deliver VR lessons, which takes time and effort. However, as word spread about the new technology, campuses offering this training were excited and attracted media attention.

Currently, a handful of meta-universities operate largely as pilot programs. The potential to reach more and different students, deliver compelling student outcomes and generate new revenue streams can be irresistible to universities.

According to a McKinsey report, the metaverse market opportunity across all industries could be in the trillions of dollars. Like leaders in healthcare, finance and business entering the virtual world, education leaders need to address any potential ethical gaps between principles and practices in real time.

“I do not think so [VR college] Ultimately it’s just a supplement,” Eisikovits said. “I think in-school education is going to be a supplement. “

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