The emergence of the metaverse in education has been in development for some two decades. Progress has been slow, in part because of slow adoption of the concept and in part because of technological challenges. Certainly, through virtual gaming early versions of the metaverse have been modeled and refined. We can see those in Second Life, Minecraft, Roblox and scores of other virtual platforms that have emerged since 2000. The display and networking technologies are approaching standards that enable a seamless virtual experience that can support mobile virtual and augmented reality. Complex simulations can be delivered that adapt to the learner’s needs.
For some years, digital twinning has been created to provide online comprehensive, detailed information of a “real” object or program: “A digital twin is a virtual/digital replica of physical entities such as devices, people, processes, or systems that help businesses make model-driven decisions. Digital twins are changing the way work is done in different industries with varying business applications. Knowing those applications can help businesses implement digital twins into their processes.” This is particularly useful in introducing and maintaining devices and processes.
However, when it comes to creating a robust digital human twin, entirely new questions arise. How much information should be shared, to whom and in what situations. Even by storing rich details of a person, there are significant questions of the vulnerability of access to the health and personal data. In the case of a human digital twin, not only is the twin a visual avatar, it is a representation that automatically updates with detailed information about your actions and all monitored activity.
Imagine that you as a person are represented digitally. Your digital activities, behavior, decisions, and future decisions are not only known but silently influenced by your digital shadow … Every time you access a digital device, even when you move or just sit with your smartphone, there’s data generated. And, this data is used to build your digital profile. With enough data fed constantly to the cloud and into new AI and machine learning technologies, your digital twin is being created. Yes, at this very moment, and the moment after.
—Jacek Chimel, Avenga Labs
The consequences of this kind of collective documentation and prediction of behavior are enormous. Your digital twin is constantly growing with data supplied from a myriad of sources including your web activity; phone activity; public records (voting, driving, civil courts and more); health records; and much more. When predictive analytics are applied, vendors and other observers can project your next education, career, avocation and even personal inclinations and moves.
It is not surprising that most people think the metaverse is a privacy nightmare.
NordVPN surveyed over 1,000 people in the United States to see how they feel about this place that doesn’t exist. As it turns out, 55% don’t know what the metaverse is … Just 14% had a real grasp of the metaverse and how it functions. But even without a true understanding of it, lots of people were rightfully skeptical of how their information would be protected there. Eighty-seven percent had privacy concerns, 50% thought it sounded like the perfect place for hackers to impersonate others, 47% didn’t think there’d be legal protections for users’ identities, and 45% thought just having a presence in the metaverse would force them to share even more of their private data, which could be abused.
—Chandra Steele, PC Magazine
Certainly, these privacy concerns must be addressed, and they must be addressed now, before we create an environment in which our educational presence becomes a personal vulnerability. Given the clear opportunities and advantages of such an environment, the higher ed development of the metaverse is not to be denied. However, we must be vigilant to protect privacy.
There are clear opportunities and advantages that will be provided by immersive virtual environments in higher ed. Kwang Hyung Lee, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, writes in Times Higher Education, “We aim to go beyond online education by creating a ‘metaverse’ that provides assistance for running classes and creates an immersive learning experience that runs the gamut of campus activities while using the latest digital technologies … Universities around the world are now on the same starting line. They need to innovate and pioneer new approaches and tools that can enable all sorts of campus activities online. They should carve out their own distinct metaverse that is viable for human interaction and diverse technological experiences that promote students’ creativity and collaborative minds.”
We are poised to reconsider many of the assumptions of on-campus learning models. Just as online learning changed the ways in which we engaged learners and expanded our opportunities, the metaverse may bring even farther-reaching changes. In The Conversation, Essex University professor John Preston writes, “If recorded academic lectures become the intellectual property of universities rather than individual lecturers, the metaverse academic might find their words and ideas repackaged and presented through artificial intelligence in the metaverse. These technologies could allow for the production of an infinite number of lectures delivered by a range of animated and avatar academics.”
I cannot help but to draw an analogy to the advent of online learning in the early 1990s. 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. This will bring huge changes to the way universities deliver learning: the way in which students engage in learning, the economic model for higher education and the relationship of industry and higher education.
Who on your campus is considering these changes? Who is planning for the many aspects of the implementation of the metaverse? Will your campus lead or follow, and what will be the implications of the difference between innovation leadership and trailing in this next step in the digital transformation of higher ed?