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Coming out of science fiction is the vision of a three-dimensional web in which we all are connected virtually, wherever and whenever we choose. In a synopsis by the futurist Thomas Frey, we find, “science fiction writer Neal Stephenson coined the term ‘metaverse’ in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional virtual space that uses the metaphor of the real world.”

In recent weeks and months, we have heard more about the trend toward a truly immersive virtual environment emerging online. Notably, Mark Zuckerberg is describing the future of Facebook as the emergence of the metaverse:

As June came to an end, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his employees about an ambitious new initiative. The future of the company would go far beyond its current project of building a set of connected social apps and some hardware to support them. Instead, he said, Facebook would strive to build a maximalist, interconnected set of experiences straight out of sci-fi -- a world known as the metaverse. The company’s divisions focused on products for communities, creators, commerce, and virtual reality would increasingly work to realize this vision, he said in a remote address to employees. “What I think is most interesting is how these themes will come together into a bigger idea,” Zuckerberg said. “Our overarching goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”

So, one must ask, will this become a real thing or will it remain only a dream of reclusive techno-geeks who lack the social skills to thrive in the “real world”?

At the University of Illinois at Springfield, I recall obtaining an “island” in Second Life some 15 years ago to experiment with building a virtual student union and classroom centers. A small number of students and colleagues would gather together virtually to chat and interact in front of an educational video screen in the union. It was a virtual exercise repeated many times, but the video, people, voiced/typed words and their avatar representations were as real as anything we see and do in person or online. We could fly from one location to another, engage in discussions, view walls of artwork and academic papers. It became a venue for class sessions. And all of it could be screen captured. According to an article on The Verge, others were doing similar work bridging the gap between humans and technology:

People were becoming digital land barons and selling virtual items in Second Life nearly two decades ago. Schools and businesses have opened satellite campuses in that world and others. Social 3D spaces like CyberTown long predate Second Life. Even before that, early virtual worlds popped up in the 1970s with text-based multiuser dungeons or MUDs. Many older worlds also inspired the kinds of utopian predictions we see around the metaverse today.

Today, I watch my 10-year-old grandson engage with Roblox and Minecraft, doing much the same types of construction and virtual engagement as I did with Second Life. His engagement, and that of many gamers and coders, predates the current pandemic. However, in an important way, the COVID pandemic seems to have served to open many people’s minds to studying, working and living in a virtual world. Yet, while the metaverse is far from complete, it is morphing and expanding every day in multiple ways, with a speed that exceeds the much-larger internet that contains it. For distance learning, it promises a persistent 24-hour venue through which synchronous, asynchronous, interactive, 3-D video can be delivered in virtual reality and even augmented reality modes to bridge the “real” world to cyberspace.

Frey notes that there are technological challenges that must be overcome to facilitate growth. “For example, there are the challenging issues of the internet infrastructure, the feasibility of having large numbers of participants interacting with each other in real-time, language barriers, and latency issues.” And, yet the rapidly expanding 5G wireless networks are quickly spreading coast to coast with extremely low latency and high bandwidth characteristics that can handle seamless virtual reality and augmented reality. According to reports by Campus Technology, “the augmented and virtual reality market will grow to more than eight times its current size over the next five years, making it the fastest-growing category among emerging devices, which include wearables and smart home devices.”

What, then, are the deeper challenges of creating a metaverse that would serve both education and, more broadly, society? Tom Wheeler of the Brookings Institution writes,

Issues such as personal privacy, marketplace competition, and misinformation only become greater challenges in the metaverse due to the interconnectedness of that phenomenon. Rather than being distracted by the shiny new bauble, policymakers need to focus on the underlying problems of the digital revolution, which won’t go away with new technological developments. Just what is this “metaverse”? Today’s online activity can be described as a 2D experience; the metaverse is a 3D experience that can utilize augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and persistent connections to create an immersive world. Rather than spending 20-30 minutes a day moving among apps, users spend hours in much more realistic activities.

Where will higher education be located in the emerging metaverse? Will colleges and universities host their own “islands” of campuses? Will virtual megamalls of storefronts offer certificates and certifications hosted by a plethora of institutions? Will your institution be represented -- welcoming virtual students from around the real word to engage in 3-D learning around the clock?

It is important that colleges and universities discuss the opportunities now. We must be prepared to help build the metaverse if we are to ensure that there is a viable place for us in the virtual world of the future. Are you leading these discussions on your campus?

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